Travesty of democracy

The collapse of the Congress-JD(S) coalition government in Karnataka and the BJP’s back-door entry into power mark an egregious betrayal of the popular mandate of 2018, while the beleaguered State faces an uncertain future.

Published : Jul 31, 2019 07:00 IST

B.S. Yediyurappa , who was sworn in as Chief Minister of Karnataka for the fourth time on July 26, with Governor Vajubhai Vala.

B.S. Yediyurappa , who was sworn in as Chief Minister of Karnataka for the fourth time on July 26, with Governor Vajubhai Vala.

It is quite unprecedented for apolitical party to assiduously work at toppling a government, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did in Karnataka, and then dither about staking its claim to form the government. After three days of confabulations with the party’s national leadership, B.S. Yediyurappa was sworn in as Chief Minister of Karnataka for the fourth time on July 26. It is noteworthy that Yediyurappa has never completed a full term in office and on two occasions he was Chief Minister for just a few days.

The Lingayat stalwart responsible for building the BJP in the State will be hoping for a longer stint this time around; he has even changed the spelling of his name from Yeddyurappa to Yediyurappa on the advice of astrologers in the hope that this change will bring him luck.

No Minister took the oath of office with him; the BJP will be taking a trust vote on July 28 after which the party intends to announce the list of Ministers. With only 105 members on its side in the Legislative Assembly, it is clear that the BJP still does not have the numbers to comfortably form the government on its own. (Any party or coalition normally needs 113 MLAs for a simple majority in the 224-member House.)

With three rebel MLAs belonging to the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) disqualified for now, the Assembly’s strength has come down to 221. Add the lone independent member who had pledged his support to the BJP and the party’s strength reaches 106. This means that it is hostage to the brazen political opportunism of the 14 rebel legislators which has been freely on display. Two other MLAs are being treated in hospitals in Mumbai and Bengaluru respectively. There is also an MLA from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) who is with the Congress-JD(S) coalition, bringing the combine’s number to 100.

The BJP will be hoping to appoint a more pliant Speaker as soon as possible, as the current Speaker, K.R. Ramesh Kumar, could still disqualify the MLAs who have resigned.

Last year’s experience, when Yediyurappa was Chief Minister for only three days, must still be fresh in the minds of the BJP leadership. As it looks for ways to ensure a stable government, the party is aware that it has to not only deal with the whimsical rebel legislators but also appease various claimants to power within its own ranks.

Even as this story was being written, it had become clear that a tussle had begun for the Deputy Chief Minister’s post. There is also the question of how many rebel MLAs can be made Ministers: for every such candidate, a BJP leader will have to sacrifice his chance of becoming Minister.

All this shows that even if the party manages to sail past its first hurdle, of proving its majority on July 28, instability will continue in Karnataka politics for some time, which may also lead to midterm elections. Such a situation may favour the BJP—which is riding high on its success in the recent Lok Sabha election when it won 25 of the 28 seats on its own—as it will be in control of the State administration and machinery.

‘Attack on democracy’

The party’s success in toppling the coalition government has been described by JD(S) and Congress leaders in the State as well as opposition party leaders at the Centre as an “attack on democracy”. Karnataka is particularly significant for the party as it has often said that the State is its “gateway to the south”. The success is also salient because the BJP managed to dent the Karnataka model of coalition politics which brought traditional rivals together to halt the expanding footprint of Hindutva across the country. This model, which was heralded as a viable alternative “secular” political stratagem, now lies in tatters (“Triumph of chicanery”, Frontline , August 2).

This success will also give a fillip to the BJP’s efforts as it goes about its stated aim of a “Congress- mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India). Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the Congress has a brittle majority, are on the BJP’s radar and the party is constantly attempting to lure ruling party MLAs in those States. Goa has already seen the BJP succeed in luring 10 Congress MLAs to its side, leading to an existential crisis for the grand old party in the State.

While the Trinamool Congress enjoys a comfortable majority in West Bengal, efforts at defections to the BJP have been on for some time now.

In Maharashtra, which goes to the polls later this year, several MLAs have defected from the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to the BJP and its ally, the Shiv Sena.

In Karnataka, the BJP’s efforts at luring opposition MLAs began soon after the election results were declared on May 15, 2018. They culminated 14 months later in a much-delayed motion of confidence moved by Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy on July 19, which was defeated by six votes.

The BJP’s 105 members voted against the motion, while the ruling combine could muster the support of only 99 MLAs. Through these 14 months, there was a lot of discussion and reportage on the instability of the coalition government and the BJP’s attempts at poaching fence sitters, exposing the ideological bankruptcy of elected representatives from all parties.

Writing in an English daily recently, the senior journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju observed: “History is truly dead because none of these leaders aspire to glow on its pages. They do not care for their legacies.” Referring to the opportunistic legislators, he said: “They are perhaps so insecure that they have surrendered rectitude to the mediocrity of the will.” They, he remarked, live in the “deceptive pleasures” of the immediate that only sheer opportunism can deliver.

Internal contradictions

Sandeep Shastri, a veteran observer of Karnataka’s politics, with a more pragmatic assessment on the collapse of the coalition government, wrote in another newspaper: “The coalition government in Karnataka has finally collapsed thanks to its internal contradictions exploited to the hilt by the BJP. There is no shadow of doubt that the BJP did ‘fish in troubled waters’ but it is important to first concede that waters were ‘troubled, messy and dangerous’ thanks to the inability of the coalition partners to get their act together and maintain their internal unity.”

Thus, there are two symbiotic reasons that emerge from this observation for the coalition government’s collapse: first, the internal contradictions within the coalition and second, the BJP taking advantage of these contradictions to successfully lure the coalition’s MLAs.

The uncertainty over the past year stemmed from the fractured mandate that the Karnataka electorate gave in 2018. None of the three major parties got a clear majority to form the government on their own.

The BJP emerged as the single largest party with 105 seats; the Congress won 78; and the JD(S) got 37.

The Governor’s invitation to Yediyurappa to form the government was criticised at the time as the Congress and the JD(S) had set their differences aside to form a post-poll alliance that surpassed the halfway mark of 112.

When Yediyurappa was sworn in as Chief Minister on May 17, allegations started surfacing that the BJP was trying to lure Congress and JD(S) MLAs by offering ludicrously large sums of money as well as attractive positions in the BJP government.

“Operation Kamala”

Audio recordings allegedly of senior BJP leaders in Karnataka trying to lure the coalition’s MLAs were played across media channels even as the BJP denied any involvement. Right from the time the results were declared, the BJP had put “Operation Kamala” into motion. Media outlets and Congress and JD(S) MLAs have been using this derisive term invoking the BJP’s election symbol since 2008, when the BJP lured several MLAs when it formed its first government in the State.

In 2008, the BJP reportedly relied on the lavish funds brought in by the Reddy brothers, allegedly involved in illegal iron ore mining in Bellary (now Ballari) district, to take its strength in the Assembly from 110 to 115.

Three Congress and four JD(S) legislators resigned from the Assembly and joined the BJP; five of them subsequently won and provided the BJP with a slight majority. The Reddy brothers had an uneasy relationship with Yediyurappa but had a disproportionate influence because of their money power and were hence able to lure MLAs to the party.

Ten years down the line, in May 2018, the BJP tried to repeat the 2008 tactics but its efforts failed and Yediyurappa resigned on May 19 without facing a trust vote. “Operation Kamala” was stymied in 2018 because of Congress leader D.K. Shivakumar, who is often described as the party’s “troubleshooter” (see interview). He made a dramatic entry into the Assembly with the vacillating MLAs, who had been missing. With the numbers secured, Kumaraswamy was sworn in as Chief Minister on May 23.

Wobbly coalition

However, right from the start the coalition government was in trouble. Yediyurappa termed the coalition an “unholy alliance” and it was certainly a wobbly partnership as both the parties’ voter bases overlap in south Karnataka. This became amply clear as the Ministers were being announced.

Senior Congress MLAs such as Ramalinga Reddy, M.B. Patil and Roshan Baig, who had been part of several Cabinets in the past, felt slighted at being ignored and made this known to the world. When Kumaraswamy announced his first Budget, resentment among Congress legislators deepened as he was accused of favouring districts in the Old Mysore region where the JD(S) support base was consolidated.

Even though the Congress’ Central leadership had communicated clearly that the support to the JD(S) was “unconditional” and that all matters would be resolved through a coordination committee, the relationship between the two parties was uneasy.

The head of the coordination committee was former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, whose supporters—both Ministers and MLAs—voiced their displeasure at Kumaraswamy’s leadership.

Siddaramaiah moved from the first row of the treasury benches to the last row in the House, but continued to play an important role; it was alleged at the time that these loud murmurs of his proteges were being encouraged by Siddaramaiah himself.

Prone to emotional outbursts, Kumaraswamy stated several times that his work as Chief Minister was being impeded by the Congress. All this did not augur well for the government.

The Congress was also rife with internal factionalism; D.K. Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga with a base in the rural hinterland of Bengaluru, attempted to extend his influence by interfering in party affairs in Belagavi, the northernmost district of the State widely regarded as the “fiefdom” of the powerful Jarkiholi brothers.

It is no wonder that Ramesh Jarkiholi was one of the first MLAs to rebel; he resigned on July 1 itself. As a result of this instability, governance was affected. The coalition government’s main promise to its rural voter base—the waiver of agricultural loans—remained only partially fulfilled.

Throughout all this, the BJP kept up its efforts to lure MLAs belonging to the Congress and the JD(S). Reports that legislators like Ramesh Jarkiholi were “missing”, only to be seen hobnobbing with BJP politicians last year, showed that the BJP was tirelessly working to take advantage of this internal dissension within the coalition.

Its efforts, catalysed by the disgruntlement of the coalition’s MLAs, paid rich dividends when several legislators submitted their resignations in early July this year and fled to Mumbai purportedly to stay out of the reach of the coalition’s leaders.

Motion of confidence

With his government losing majority, Kumaraswamy called for a motion of confidence on July 18. The debate lasted four days. The delayed trust vote that took place in Karnataka has already set some sort of a precedent in Indian political history for a coalition government postponing the inevitable and stubbornly resisting efforts at toppling.

BJP members mostly remained silent. Members of the coalition government spoke at length for four days before the trust vote was finally held at 7.20 p.m on July 23. At the end of the trust vote, it was clear that the coalition government did not have the support of the majority of the House.

Evidently, the BJP’s comprehensive Lok Sabha victory earlier this year had boosted its confidence and the Congress’ disarray in Delhi also had an impact on Karnataka. The desperate efforts by the Congress and the JD(S) at recalling their MLAs, first by reaching out and then by issuing a whip, had failed.

Coalition MLAs used the trust vote to lambast the BJP for “Operation Kamala” and made serious allegations of horse-trading against it. Some of these allegations surfaced on July 19. Srinivas Gowda, the JD(S) MLA from Kolar, alleged that three BJP leaders had offered him Rs.5 crore to switch loyalties late last year. “They are still trying to lure me. If I join them, they will give me Rs.30 crore. Is this why people have voted for us? I can also reveal how much each rebel MLA has been paid,” Gowda said.

S.R. Mahesh of the JD(S) recounted a conversation he allegedly had with rebel MLA A.H. Vishwanath, the former State president of the JD(S). Vishwanath had supposedly told Mahesh that he had borrowed Rs.28 crore to contest the 2018 Assembly election and had resigned as MLA after the BJP promised to clear his loans.

On the last day of the motion of confidence, Siddaramaiah delivered a long speech and accused the BJP of resorting to “wholesale trade” of MLAs. He added that “admitted facts need not be proved”. He referred to the special chartered flights that ferried the MLAs, the coordinated movement of all the MLAs, their stay in a 7-star hotel in Mumbai, the protection offered to them by “300 policemen” and “50 bouncers” who were safeguarding them in a BJP-ruled State, the presence of BJP leaders with the MLAs even though the coalition’s leaders could not meet their own MLAs, apart from the allegations that “20, 30 crores of rupees” had been paid to them.

“Even a layman can infer from the circumstantial evidence that the BJP is behind these defections. When you don’t have the mandate you come through the back door and try to gain power. Do you think voters will forgive you?” Siddaramaiah said.

The BJP was able to demonstrate its majority in the depleted house of 203 during the trust vote. It is unclear what role the rebel MLAs will play; at the time of writing, they were yet to return to Bengaluru.

Three MLAs have already been disqualified by the Speaker under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. According to the Speaker’s interpretation, disqualified members can seek re-election only in the next (16th) Karnataka Assembly.

However, B.V. Acharya, an authority on constitutional law, questioned the interpretation of the Speaker after he had disqualified the three members. In an interview, he said that the disqualified members can seek to be re-elected in a byelection under Article 164(1B) of the Constitution.

On the other hand, if the remaining MLAs’ resignations are eventually accepted, they can contest again in byelections from a different party or as independents as both the Congress and the JD(S) have emphatically said that they will not let these rebels back into their party fold.

Presumably they will contest on the BJP ticket, but a few of these rebels won the 2018 election by narrow margins against BJP candidates. So, giving them the ticket might invite the wrath of BJP loyalists and local leaders.

For example, Pratap Gowda Patil, the MLA from Maski and one of the rebels, won on the Congress ticket by 213 votes.

In 2008, he won on the BJP ticket but in 2013, he chose to join the Congress, surprising everyone by not joining his mentor Yediyurappa’s short-lived Karnataka Janata Paksha party. In 2018, Patil won on the Congress ticket but was parleying with the BJP soon after his victory. Now, it seems his decision to resign has paid off as he is likely to be rewarded for abandoning the coalition government.

Another veteran politician, A.H. Vishwanath of the JD(S), joined that party after serious differences with Siddaramaiah.

Of the BJP politicians, it is said that R. Ashok, a Vokkaliga from Bengaluru, who was spotted in Mumbai along with the MLAs, and Arvind Limbavalli were the chief strategists in luring the rebel MLAs. The fact that both are from Bengaluru and that many of the rebels are from south Karnataka shows that the BJP is also keen on moving away from its image of being a Lingayat-heavy north and central Karnataka party.

If the BJP succeeds in making serious inroads into southern Karnataka, the JD(S) will face a major crisis and may be looking at being marginalised in the State. The entire episode, still ongoing, is an egregious betrayal of the popular mandate of 2018.

The BJP’s back-door entry in Karnataka, which it hopes will be its political bridgehead in the south, is a travesty of democratic conduct. As political conduct plumbs new depths, the State faces an uncertain future.

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