Cover story

Deceit and defeat

Print edition : June 08, 2018

The Karnataka Assembly in session for B.S. Yeddyurappa to take the floor test on May 19. Photo: PTI

JD (S) chief ministerial candidate H.D. Kumaraswamy, along with Karnataka Pradesh Congress president G. Parameshwara, and newly elected MLAs, talking to press outside Raj Bhavan in Bengaluru on May 16. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah with Congress MLA's during the oath-taking ceremony on May 19. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa addressing the Karnataka Assembly before resigning from the post without taking the floor test, in Bengaluru on May 19. Photo: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP

Congress and JD (S) MLAs protest outside Vidhana Soudha against the swearing-in of Yeddyurappa on May 17. Photo: Abhishek N. Chinnappa/REUTERS

The high drama in Karnataka that ended with the shameful exit of B.S. Yeddyurappa after remaining as Chief Minister for 56 hours gives the BJP a bitter political lesson and secular parties an opportunity to unite against their common foe.

War, said Carl von Clausewitz, is politics by other means. In Karnataka, the State that went to the polls on May 12 to elect lawmakers to its 224-member Assembly, politics could very well be described as war by other means. The election results declared on May 15 delivered a fractured mandate. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 104 seats, the Indian National Congress 78 and the Janata Dal (Secular) 37. One each went to the JD(S)’ electoral ally, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Karnataka Pragnyavantha Janatha Party and an independent. Elections were not held for two seats.

The hung verdict triggered a high-stakes political battle with the two national parties and the regional power, the JD(S), in the star cast. The drama began with Governor Vajubhai Vala inviting the BJP, the single largest party, to form the government late in the night on May 16 and prove its majority within 15 days. The Congress and the JD(S), with a combined strength of 117 MLAs, quickly forged a post-poll alliance, and moved the Supreme Court to prevent the BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappa from taking the oath of office as Chief Minister. Yeddyurappa was sworn in as Karnataka’s 29th Chief Minister on May 17 as the court refused to stay the ceremony, maintaining that government formation would be subject to its final order.

The drama then shifted to the juridical premises. The Supreme Court heard the Congress-JD(S) petition in the wee hours of May 18 and ordered that Yeddyurappa prove his majority on the floor of the Assembly within 24 hours, that is, by 4 p.m. on May 19. The Congress and JD(S) camps immediately began herding their legislators to safe places to prevent poaching by the BJP. The drama came to an end on May 19 when Yeddyurappa arrived at the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of government in Bengaluru, and after a short speech decided to resign without taking the mandatory floor test. The saffron party did not face the embarrassment of a floor test as it did not have the required numbers (111 members in a House of 221; one member was elected from two seats). Although the end was an anti-climax, with Yeddyurappa going out with a whimper, the BJP’s blitzkrieg and bluster over having the numbers to help him pass the floor test thoroughly exposed its hollow and presumptuous claim. Following Yeddyurappa’s resignation, the Governor invited H.D. Kumaraswamy, the Leader of the JD(S) Legislature Party, who had announced that his party had the support of the Congress, to form the government.

The failure of BJP managers to come up with the required number of legislators in order to help Yeddyurappa take the floor test left many BJP legislators red-faced, angry and even surprised. Speaking to Frontline, one legislator confided that he was shocked by the turn of events. According to him, the message from the BJP managers, a team which included Union Ministers Prakash Javadekar and J.P. Nadda and party national general secretary and Karnataka in-charge P. Muralidhar Rao, had assured them that “everything that was needed to help Yeddyurappa was done”.

The legislator said: “When we were herded into Shangri-La Hotel in Bengaluru the night before the trust vote, we were told by the managers that there was nothing to be worried about and not just 12 or 13 MLAs but many more were going to switch sides during the trust vote. They sounded extremely confident and boasted that they had to stop MLAs from the Congress and the JD(S) from switching over to our side. They made it sound like there was an exodus and the BJP did not have the wherewithal to accommodate everyone who wanted to come. The next morning, at the BJP Legislature Party meeting on the 18th floor of the hotel, the same thing was repeated. Muralidhar Rao saide: ‘Just hold tight, don’t go here and there…. be together, flash a victory sign with both your hands. You don’t know what we have done. Just be there… you will see good times very soon….everything is done’. Yeddyurappa was also present and we believed what was said. We all left for the Vidhana Soudha and were sworn in. When the bell rang at 1.30 for lunch, our managers were beaming and still looked confident. But when I went back into the House and sat down I could see that a couple of senior leaders looked glum. When I asked why, they replied that things hadn’t worked out. Meaning we didn’t have the numbers to take the trust vote.”

Another legislator said: “The speculation is whether our overconfident managers and top leadership mismanaged or poorly planned the ‘poaching’ of rival legislators or whether it was internal sabotage or again whether we were fed the lie only to prevent us from going over to the other side. Whatever it is, it is game over for Yeddyurappa. [Narendra] Modi might have galvanised our campaign but it was Yeddyurappa who held the party together and worked hard.”

The legislator was probably unaware of the dirty tricks that the party was allegedly up to, as it tried to get Congress and JD(S) legislators to abstain from voting, cross-vote or just switch over to the BJP, offering huge monetary inducements (Kumaraswamy alleged that a BJP emissary had offered his MLAs as much as Rs.100 crore to switch loyalties), ministerial appointments and the dropping of cases of criminal or economic offences against them. The Congress released a series of audio recordings, wherein BJP leaders (including Yeddyurappa, his son B.Y. Vijayendra, Molakalmuru MLA B. Sriramulu, mining baron G. Janardhan Reddy, and P. Muralidhar Rao) are purportedly heard talking to Congress MLAs, apparently trying to lure them to the BJP camp ahead of the trust vote.

In one audio recording, allegedly between Janardhan Reddy and a Congress MLA, the former is heard assuring the MLA of a “one-on-one meeting with BJP national president Amit Shah and the promise of a ministerial berth”. In yet another recording, police officer-turned-movie actor-turned-politician and two-time Congress legislator from Hirekerur, B.C. Patil, is allegedly in conversation with Yeddyurappa, Sriramulu and Muralidhar Rao. In one, the voice, which the Congress claims is that of Yeddyurappa, is heard asking Patil to get off the bus that he is travelling in and come to the BJP. When Patil asks the person, whom he addresses as “anna”, what his position would be, the voice replies: “You will be a Minister, that’s all.” The person is heard telling the MLA to call Sriramulu and tell him about his decision. In another audiotape, the conversation is purportedly between Patil, Sriramulu and Muralidhar Rao. The person said to be Sriramulu is heard promising each MLA “15”, ministerial berths, and assuring them that there will not be any elections as there will not be any disqualification, since their man will be the Speaker. A voice, alleged to be Muralidhar Rao’s, reiterates that there will not be any elections.

In yet another audiotape, the conversation is between Vijayendra, B.J. Puttaswamy and the wife of a Congress legislator. The wife complains that the MLA has been kept incommunicado by Congress managers tasked with the job of keeping the flock together. She says her husband is unable to make phone calls. A voice, which the Congress alleges is that of Puttaswamy, is heard offering “15” without a Ministry, and “5” if the Congress legislator wants a Cabinet berth as well.” Vijayendra is later heard assuring the woman that the mining case against her son will be looked into and “it won't be a problem since their government will be there”. Although the BJP has dismissed the tapes as fake, Siddaramaiah is of the view that there is ample evidence of BJP leaders “offering bribes to Congress MLAs”. He said the Congress was seeking legal opinion on this matter.

Having experienced the threat of poaching in 2008 when the BJP, under a strategy codenamed “Operation Lotus”, offered large sums of money and political power to three Congress and four JD(S) legislators to resign their memberships and contest under the BJP symbol, both the Congress and the JD(S) moved their flocks in buses to a golf resort on the outskirts of Bengaluru and a hotel in Bengaluru respectively.

The backroom boys of the Congress—K.C. Venugopal, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ashok Gehlot—not only prevented horse trading, but also played a pivotal role in cobbling up an alliance with the JD(S). Congress president Rahul Gandhi may have called the JD(S) the “B team” of the BJP and mocked that the ‘S’ in the JD(S) stands for Sangh, but the Congress was ready to do business with it if need be. So too, the BJP. The JD(S), notwithstanding the grandstanding of party supremo H.D. Deve Gowda and his son and State party general secretary Kumaraswamy, was ready to do business with both. As Kumaraswamy has repeatedly stated, ideology be damned, it is only power that counts. After being in the political wilderness for a decade, the JD(S) needed a dose of power, not only to enthuse its supporters but also for its survival. On results day, as wins and trends kept flashing on television screens, the Congress realised the writing was on the wall. It could not form the government on its own. The BJP’s wins and trends were still healthy enough to cheer the saffron crowds. Even as the BJP sat on its hands, optimistic of securing a majority, the Congress moved with alacrity.

Backchannels were activated, and in the wink of an eye, the Congress offered unconditional support to the JD(S), even offering the centre piece of all political discussions, the Chief Minister’s post, to the JD(S). The JD(S), which realistically never expected more than 35-40 seats, gleefully accepted the offer. With a visit to the Raj Bhavan to stake its claim, the Congress–JD(S) alliance was literally on the roll. The BJP, which by then had crossed the 100 mark, emerged as the single largest party, but most crucially without a majority. It had been beaten at its own game. The Congress spared no moment to cite the case of Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya where it had emerged as the single largest party but was pipped to the post by BJP-led coalitions in the first two States, and a National People’s Party-led alliance of which the BJP is a part in Meghalaya.

If the fractured mandate perpetuated political uncertainty and drama, Governor Vala’s decision to ignore the claim of the Congress–JD(S) alliance and invite the BJP Legislature Party leader, who had simply stated that his was the single largest party and offered no demonstrable proof of having a majority in the House, almost gave the State on a platter to the BJP. The Governor may have been constitutionally right insofar as using his discretion, but by giving Yeddyurappa 15 days to prove his majority he was throwing both common sense and propriety out of the window and opening the doors for the BJP to engineer defections.

If one word could describe the results of the Karnataka Assembly elections, it would have to be uncertainty. For, despite the vociferousness of the election battle, the sheer vitriol in the charges that were levelled, the bitterness, the bluster of tall achievements and empty promises, the campaign itself was issueless. There was hardly any perceptible anti-incumbency, and the outcome, until the very end, was not clear. Although the Congress improved its vote share from 36.59 per cent in 2013, when it won 122 seats, to 38.01 per cent, it won only 78 seats. The BJP improved its vote share to 36.06 per cent from 19.89 per cent in 2013 and its seats tally to 104 compared with 40 in 2013, but did not get a majority. The JD(S)’ vote share dipped to 18.61 per cent from 20.2 per cent in 2013 (its lowest in 20 years). The BSP opened its account in Karnataka by winning one seat. A record 72.36 per cent of eligible voters turned out to exercise their franchise after unarguably the nastiest of election campaigns in Karnataka.

What explains the defeat of the Congress?

Early in his regime, the Siddaramaiah government embarked on a comprehensive “house-to-house social and educational survey”, an ambitious exercise that recorded socio-economic data. This survey was popularly called the “caste census” as it recorded, for the first time, the castes and sub-castes of the respondents. Predictably, this made the two dominant political castes of the State, Lingayat and Vokkaliga, extremely uncomfortable, as it is common knowledge that the two communities have a disproportionate share among elected representatives in the State. Siddaramaiah alienated the two dominant castes as he assiduously worked on his Ahinda (minorities, backward classes and Dalits) consolidation. The social engineering effort seems to have failed in the election. Political analysts have commented that the constituents of Ahinda did not vote for Siddaramaiah. Apart from Kurubas, the caste group to which he belongs, other members of the Other Backward Classes did not vote for him.

Similarly, a section of the Dalit community did not vote for him. The Dalit community in Karnataka is divided into two dominant caste groups–the right hand (Holeyas) and the left hand (Madigas). A commission was set up under the chairmanship of Justice A.J. Sadashiva in 2005 to study the vexed question of internal reservation within the Dalit quota. Madigas, who are relatively backward, have been demanding the implementation of the commission report, which was submitted in 2012 and advocated reservation within reservation. Siddaramaiah did not implement the commission’s recommendations and thus alienated Madigas.

Most of the senior Dalit leaders in the Congress, such as M. Mallikarjuna Kharge, G. Parameshwara, and H.C. Mahadevappa, belong to the Holeya caste. Even though the government passed the Karnataka Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan Act, 2013, which ensures that funds are reserved in proportion to their populations for the two communities, it was hardly enough to assuage the entire population of Dalits in the State. Interestingly, it was only the Muslim community that stood by Siddaramaiah in this election.

Siddaramaiah’s welfare (bhagya) schemes were successful and reached the intended beneficiaries all over the State. His flagship Anna Bhagya scheme ensured that the people below the poverty line category got free rice, thus eradicating hunger in the State. But the elections proved without doubt that welfare schemes by themselves are insufficient to win elections. Many voters consider these as life-long entitlements.

The BJP has hit the ceiling as far as its vote share is concerned. With a large section of Lingayats and Brahmins, some Backward Classes and Scheduled Tribes and urban Hindus having voted for the party, it is tough for the BJP to further increase its vote share through astute caste management. It can only fall back on its aggressive Hindutva, a line that has paid it rich dividends in religiously polarised coastal Karnataka, to increase its vote share across the State. The BJP got more than 50 per cent of the votes in coastal Karnataka and swept the three districts of Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada and Udupi, winning 16 of the 19 seats on offer. But the BJP’s utter contempt for constitutional and established norms (Governor Vala’s partisan behaviour in inviting Yeddyurappa is one example) and its effort to go to any length to capture power might actually be a good thing for secular forces. According to political pundits, this might frighten and galvanise the secular opposition to consolidate and come together for the common good. According to Congress leader M. Veerappa Moily and Deve Gowda, the Congress-JD(S) coalition might just be the beginning of this consolidation.

For the JD(S) these elections were crucial for its survival. The party won most of the seats (29 of the 37) in its bastion of southern Karnataka. But more than the number of seats, the fractured mandate has given it a bonus, the chief ministership and the spoils of government.

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