A coalition of rivals

Print edition : June 18, 2004

A CHIEF MINISTER from the Congress and a Deputy Chief Minister from its coalition partner, the Janata Dal (Secular), were sworn in on May 28 in Bangalore, bringing to a close two weeks of hard political bargaining between the two parties. Dharam Singh, a senior though relatively low-profile Congress leader, is the new Chief Minister, and Siddharamaiah of the JD(S), the Deputy Chief Minister. This is Siddharamaiah's second stint in the post. (He had held the position under the Chief Ministership of J.H. Patel).

Dharam Singh and Siddharamaiah at a joint press conference after being sworn in as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister in Bangalore on May 28.-AFP

The leadership issue on which the prospects of a coalition government appeared to flounder was finally sorted out in New Delhi in a final round of negotiations between Congress president Sonia Gandhi, JD(S) president and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Ideological opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly, with 79 out of 224 seats, is the only binding force between the Congress (65 seats) and the JD(S) (58 seats). It was not easy for the JD(S) to come to terms with the prospect of having to do business with its principal rival against which it fought a bitter electoral battle. It, therefore, felt fully justified in expecting to become the leading partner of the coalition, with the post of Chief Minister being given to a person from its party. That the Congress had lost its mandate was made clear by the election verdict, as the JD(S) and the BJP together won 137 seats. The final outcome of the negotiations in New Delhi, in which the JD(S) was strong-armed by the Congress high command into accepting a "compromise" formula has disappointed JD(S) party workers and leaders alike.

Apart from the post of Deputy Chief Minister, the JD(S) has been promised almost all the key portfolios like Home, Finance, Revenue and Excise, and Rural Development. The post of Speaker is to go to the JD(S) while the Congress will take the post of Deputy Speaker.

During the negotiations over power-sharing, the JD(S) argued for the "Jammu and Kashmir coalition model" in which the smaller party gets the Chief ministership for the first half of the five-year term of the Assembly. The Congress, on the other hand, argued for the Maharashtra model, where the alliance partner that won the larger number of seats would get the Chief Minister's post. The Jammu and Kashmir model was rejected by the Congress high command, which held that Jammu and Kashmir was a special case where the Congress was willing to make the compromise, as the installation of a secular government there was an overriding priority. The situation in Karnataka could not be compared to that of Jammu and Kashmir.

The party threatened to sit in Oopposition rather than join the government if the post of Chief Minister did not go to the Congress. It was willing, however, to accede to the request of Deve Gowda to nominate someone other than former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna as the new Chief Minister. Deve Gowda argued that the JD(S) had, after all, fought the elections against the Krishna-led Congress and that the MLAs of his party would refuse to work under him.

In the Congress there were several other able contenders for the position of Chief Minister, among them former Home Minister M. Mallikarjuna Kharge, and H.K. Patil, former Minister for Medium and Large Irrigation. The fact that Dharam Singh does not belong to any of the major caste groups worked in his favour.

With the Congress digging its feet in on the leadership issue, the JD(S) had few options before it. Intransigence on its part would have played straight into the hands of the BJP and its ally, the Janata Dal (United). The JD(S) Legislature Party had elected Siddharamaiah as its leader soon after the elections and projected him as their candidate for Chief Minister. The party, however, knew that a prolonged show of disunity would lower the image of the coalition even before it took office.

The imposition of President's Rule in the State was another eventuality that it wished to avoid. As part of the final agreement, Siddharamaiah was offered a Cabinet berth at the Centre, which he initially appeared inclined to accept. However, he declined the offer at the last moment stating that he wanted to stay in State-level politics.

The misgivings between the coalition partners are unlikely to disappear in a hurry. The election platform of the JD(S) was built on a pro-farmer, anti-economic reform agenda, a rejection of the policies that the Congress implemented during the five years of its tenure. Whether the Congress as a coalition partner is prepared to reverse some of these policies depends on the lessons it has learnt from its electoral debacle.

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