The 2008 Assembly election inKarnataka was a watershed moment in the history of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it was the first time that the saffron party was able to form the government on its own in a southern State. The BJP won 110 seats and emerged as the single largest party but was short of the half-way mark of 112 seats in the 224-member Assembly. At the time, the BJP, under the leadership of B.S. Yediyurappa, buoyed by the munificence of the Reddy brothers of Ballari, who had acquired money from illegal mining, lured six independent MLAs to its side in a move that was pejoratively referred to as “Operation Kamala”, or “Operation Lotus”. Five of these legislators were subsequently “rewarded” with ministerial positions.
Since then the term Operation Lotus has gained notoriety and often used by the media to describe the BJP’s use of allurements and shrewd use of democratic institutions to come to power bypassing the anti-defection law and engineering defections of legislators. While Yediyurappa managed to become the Chief Minister in 2008, he was forced to quit after three years at the helm as he was named in the Lokayukta report on illegal mining in Karnataka. The long-time BJP leader broke with the party in 2012 in view of the forced resignation. (He returned to the party fold two years later.) He demonstrated that his gambit of luring away non-BJP MLAs to bolster his numbers had succeeded.
The 2018 Assembly election threw up a fractured verdict. The BJP had emerged as the single largest party with 105 MLAs, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) had won 78 and 37 seats respectively. The Congress and the JD(S) formed a coalition government, which was wobbly right from the start as State Congress leaders were resentful of the chief ministership going to H.D. Kumaraswamy, the leader of the junior partner in the coalition. Congress legislators, especially from north Karnataka, were irked that most of the budgetary funds were allocated to constituencies in southern Karnataka where the JD(S) had its base. Meanwhile, Yediyurappa was strategising a repeat of his 2008 gambit. But this time the BJP needed at least eight MLAs to cross the halfway mark.
Through the 14 months (May 2018-July 2019) that the Congress-JD(S) coalition was in power, there were numerous allegations that the BJP was attempting to entice the coalition MLAs through offers of money and ministerial positions if it returned to power. Alleged audio recordings of conversations between Yediyurappa and coalition MLAs were played out on media channels where the former could be heard promising plum Cabinet positions to potential defectors. The BJP’s consistent efforts paid off when 17 coalition MLAs resigned in July 2019 and fled to Mumbai, necessitating a trust vote. In the extended debate that took place in the Assembly in the days preceding the trust vote, which took place on July 23, 2019, a JD(S) MLA stated that he was offered Rs.30 crore to switch loyalties. Another JD(S) member alleged that A.H. Vishwanath, one of the MLAs who had resigned, had been assured by BJP politicians that his loans totalling Rs.28 crore would be cleared.
Wholesale trade of MLAs
Speaking during the trust vote, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress accused the BJP of indulging in “wholesale trade” of MLAs. He stated, “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 backdoor and try to gain power.” In the depleted Assembly with 17 members disqualified, the BJP sailed through the trust vote and assumed power.
A political aide to a senior politician in Karnataka explained to Frontline, on the condition of anonymity, how such payments could have been made. “Everything happens in black money. The recipient has trusted associates to whom the payment is made. There are also hawala channels that are used to transfer money. Another way is that of defraying expenses, so when elections take place the entire expenditure of the candidate is borne by the party leaving the candidate free from any obligations. Real estate investments and shell companies are another common way in which payoffs are made,” he stated.
Also read: Defection dilemma in Karnataka
While the 17 legislators who resigned cited “lack of development in their constituencies” as the reason for their peremptory move and denied that they had been lured by the BJP to switch parties, the fact that all of them joined the BJP after the trust vote revealed their opportunistic intentions. A few months after this episode, a video emerged in which Yediyurappa was seen saying that the “national president [Amit Shah at the time] was aware” of the move to woo the MLAs. Yediyurappa kept his promise of giving ministerial posts to 12 of the 17 legislators.
Assault on democracy
“How can the offer of ministerial positions not be considered a bribe?” asked B.L. Shankar, vice president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee. He told Frontline: “The main issue is that the BJP is using loopholes in the anti-defection law and responsible institutions are not efficiently deterring them from going ahead with this assault on democracy. Defections have been going on for a long time in Indian politics, but the BJP has mastered this game. In 2019, in Karnataka, they used huge money and the promise of ministerial positions to lure MLAs. Had the Supreme Court ruled that the 17 MLAs would remain disqualified until the end of the government’s term, it would have served as a deterrent for defections."
Shankar’s reference to the Supreme Court decision is significant as the court had given a convoluted order with regard to the disqualification of 17 MLAs by the Assembly Speaker K.R. Ramesh Kumar. While the court upheld the disqualification of the MLAs, it allowed them to contest the byelection. This decision allowed the disqualified MLAs to get away without culpability.
Valerian Rodrigues, retired professor of political science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, cited two factors for the defections in Karnataka. “The ambition of the defectors and the BJP’s strategy of expanding its social constituency by luring MLAs from castes such as Vokkaligas and Kurubas who are not considered its traditional supporters.”
Vikram Gopal, a journalist who reported on the 2019 events and produced a five-part podcast on the issue said: “The 2019 defections in Karnataka had many triggers such as footloose MLAs who had no ideological loyalty to their parties and an unstable Congress-JD(S) coalition but it was Yediyurappa’s desperation to become Chief Minister at any cost that brought about the defections.
This episode was significant because the BJP’s central leadership used this template of engineering large-scale defections in Madhya Pradesh subsequently, where it succeeded, and in Maharashtra, where it failed.”