21 MAY 2018
The fruits of defeat
On Karnataka government formation
In the face of a series of losses to the BJP, the Congress seems to have learnt its lessons
After the fractured verdict in Karnataka and the hastily concluded post-poll marriage of convenience between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), the Bharatiya Janata Party had the option of taking the high moral ground as the single largest party that was thwarted by the opportunistic politics of its rivals. Instead, the BJP chose to mud-wrestle its way to power by pulling strings at the Raj Bhavan and trying to entice newly elected members of other parties. The end-result was predictable: the party had dirt all over and nothing to show for it. B.S. Yeddyurappa resigned rather than face a vote of confidence that he was sure to lose, but not before the BJP’s brazen attempts to buy votes and support were exposed. The BJP took a serious dent to its image at the national level, and was left without both power and the moral authority to attack the political opportunism of the Congress and the JD(S). Although parallels have been drawn to the BJP’sOperation Lotus that engineered defections in 2008, the situation was different then. The BJP was only three short of a majority in a House with six Independents, many of whom were eager to offer their support. And, unlike now, no combination of parties that excluded the BJP could have commanded a majority.
The deal-clincher for the Congress now was its readiness to hand over the post of Chief Minister to the JD(S), a course of action it did not contemplate in 2004 when it formed a post-poll coalition with the JD(S). The Congress-JD(S) government did not last the full term then, and the JD(S) formed a short-lived government with the BJP’s help. In the face of the BJP juggernaut in the post-2014 phase, the Congress seems to have adopted a new pragmatism that recognises the importance of smaller players. Some of this was seen in Gujarat, where the Congress accommodated different caste and identity groups in stitching together a broad social coalition against the BJP. In Karnataka, it went one step further in the post-poll situation, allowing the JD(S) the leadership of the government despite winning more seats. Regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress have been suggesting that the Congress vacate political space for parties best equipped to fight the BJP. A more pragmatic, more humble Congress is what they want at the head of an Opposition alliance ahead of 2019. But, for the same reason that the Congress found it easier to stitch together a post-poll understanding than a pre-poll alliance with the JD(S), seat-sharing will be difficult where there are three-way contests. The BJP’s misadventure in Karnataka may have brought the Congress and the JD(S) closer, but this is no blueprint for 2019. Pre-poll alliances are not made without the pain of defeat and the hard knocks of reality.
Rise of Sadr
On Iraq’s government formation
If Iran doesn’t play spoilsport, Iraq could get a more inclusive government soon
Iraq’s parliamentary election results marked a remarkable comeback for Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist Shia cleric who for years had been sidelined both by the Iraqi establishment and its Iranian backers and was seen as an enemy by the Americans. The May 12 parliamentary vote was crucial for all the main blocs in Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who led the Victory Alliance, bet on the gains the Iraqi army made under his leadership in the war against the Islamic State to win political points. For the Al-Fatih bloc, a coalition of parties and leaders that have close ties with Iran, capturing power was important at a time when Iran is facing new regional challenges, and they ran a largely pro-Shia campaign. Mr. Sadr, on the other side, shed his early sectarian image, focussed his campaign on social justice and government failure, attacked Iran’s deepening influence in Iraq from a nationalist perspective and stitched up alliances with liberals and communists to expand his base. This strategy paid off, with Mr. Sadr’s Sairoon bloc emerging as the largest coalition in the 329-member Iraqi parliament, with 54 seats. Mr. Abadi’s alliance came third with 42 seats while the pro-Iranian bloc secured 47. Mr. Sadr’s surprise success suggests that the cross-sectarian narrative he put forward in a divided Iraq, that is yet to recover from the wounds of the U.S. occupation and the war against the IS, is gaining popularity. While it is certainly a good sign for the future of Iraq, it may not be easy for Mr. Sadr to turn his electoral performance into a lasting political victory.
Since no bloc has absolute majority, a new government will have to be formed through political negotiation. Mr. Sadr himself cannot become Prime Minister as he did not contest the election. But it is not clear whether his bloc could get the prime ministerial berth at all. Iran would be wary of Mr. Sadr’s rise, as he is critical of its interventions in Iraq. Mr. Sadr had visited Saudi Arabia last year in what was widely seen as an effort to strike a balance between the two regional powerhouses. He has demanded that the Iran-trained popular mobilisation militias, which were in the forefront of the fight against the IS, be merged with the Iraqi national army. Besides, his nationalist narrative runs counter to the cross-border Shia brotherhood that Tehran is trying to promote in order to gain regional influence. However, despite the bad blood between them, both sides could also find some common ground in rebuilding post-war Iraq. It is not in Iran’s interest to see Iraq become dysfunctional again, triggering further chaos and breeding more violent militant groups. Iraq is a complex multi-sect society that needs cross-sectarian politics in order to be stable. Mr. Sadr’s broad-based politics offers hope in this. Mr. Abadi has already offered support for a peaceful transition of power. If Iran doesn’t play spoilsport, Iraq could get a government soon.