Coup in Karnataka

Print edition : February 10, 2006

Karanataka goes through a political upheaval as the Janata Dal (Secular) faction led by party supremo H.D. Deve Gowda's son H.D. Kumaraswamy withdraws support to the coalition government and partners with the Bharatiya Janata Party to form an alternative government.

RAVI SHARMA in Bangalore

Chief Minister Dharam Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda at a function at Shravanabelagola on January 22.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

IN a dramatic move, H.D. Kumaraswamy, working president of the Janata Dal (Secular) and son of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, broke ranks with his father and political mentor on January 18, and along with 39 Members of the Legislative Assembly, pulled out of the 19-month-old Congress-JD(S) coalition government. He went on to align himself with the main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), giving the new alliance a majority in the 224-member House. The Governor asked the Congress Chief Minister, Dharam Singh, to prove his strength on the floor of the House on or before January 27.

Although the suddenness of the developments was viewed as political suicide, the events that unfolded could not have been planned better.

According to Kumaraswamy, plans to engineer the fall of the coalition government were afoot for nearly two months. The preparations for the coup were so low-key that even the BJP remained tight-lipped about the goings on. When Dharam Singh realised the plot being hatched behind his back, it was already too late. Moreover, the complacent Chief Minister, informed sources say, chose to pass on the intelligence reports to the party high command, probably under the assumption that "Deve Gowda would rein in his son".

On the day of the coup, an aircraft was chartered from a private airline company and the crew was asked to get ready for a late-night flight to an unknown destination. The cargo of course was to be the JD(S) MLAs. Kumaraswamy wanted to remove the legislators owing allegiance to him out of Karnataka, to perhaps Dabolim in Goa, in order to prevent the Congress from luring them away. The flight though was cancelled for logistic reasons and the legislators, over the next couple of days, were first housed at a resort on the outskirts of Bangalore and moved to a five-star hotel in Bangalore before being flown out to a resort in Canacona, Goa. The BJP flew its 70 MLAs by a private aircraft to Chennai, and on January 22, took them to Kodaikanal, a hill resort in Tamil Nadu.

The announcement of the withdrawal of support was well-planned and well-rehearsed. Informed sources close to Kumaraswamy told Frontline that the rebel leader had on two earlier occasions threatened a similar move but retracted in the nick of time without precipitating a crisis. But on January 18, Kumaraswamy decided that it was time to go the whole hog: take a `busload' of JD(S) MLAs to the Raj Bhavan to prove his majority, and give a letter to Governor T.N. Chaturvedi withdrawing support to the Congress-led government.

Meanwhile, the BJP preferred to wait, and in a display of rank opportunism, grabbed the chance to rule the State when it came, relegating ideological differences to the background. With the promise of portfolios such as Finance, Excise, Revenue, Industry, Higher Education, Energy and Public Works, no big reward anyway for the waiting game the party has played, the BJP MLAs even elected Kumaraswamy as the legislature party's "combined leader" and allowed him to address them. Ironically, Kumaraswamy has dismissed any talk of ideology.

Opening up discussions with the BJP, which went on for almost two months, Kumaraswamy was able to hammer out a power-sharing formula. According to it, for the first 20 months, the Chief Minister's post, 15 Cabinet berths and 25 posts of Chairmen of Boards and Corporations would be held by the JD(S); during this period the BJP would get the post of Deputy Chief Minister, 17 Cabinet slots and 35 posts of Chairmen in Boards and Corporations. During the next 20 month-period the two parties would reverse roles. As per the understanding, the JD(S) would inherit portfolios that were under the control of the Congress in the Dharam Singh government, while the BJP would take over the Ministries held by the JD(S). Informed sources told Frontline that the lone exception would be the case of H.D. Revanna, Minister for Public Works and Energy, and the second son of Deve Gowda. He would be allowed to retain the portfolio, if he decided to break away from his father.

In the wake of claims and counter-claims about the emerging political situation, Deve Gowda, as the national president of the JD(S), wrote to Chaturvedi asking that the letter handed over by the Kumaraswamy faction not be taken cognisance of. Says N. Thippanna, JD(S) State president who signed the letter proclaiming Kumaraswamy as the Leader of the JD(S) Legislature Party: "When we removed Siddaramaiah as the Legislature Party Leader, he questioned the move, but it was not upheld by the Speaker. The majority of legislators had then signed the letter electing M.P. Prakash as the new JD(S) leader. In the same way, Kumaraswamy will be elected Leader of the Legislature Party since he commands the support of the legislators."

He said: "The Congress high command had decided to go for mid-term polls - but no MLA was prepared for it. Had we not taken this decision, our party would have split into two or three factions. After seeing the results of the taluk and zilla panchayat polls we realised that no party would get an absolute majority if a mid-term poll was conducted. And if we say we don't want a communal party then we have to go once again with the Congress. And what is the fun of breaking an alliance, having mid-term polls and then going back to the same Congress? The MLAs have decided to have this experiment once and see how it works. Many of our MLAs are closer to the BJP than the Congress, since, if you remember, parties such as the Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United) were launched to oppose the Congress."

Ever since the 2004 Assembly elections threw up a fractured mandate there has been an uneasy truce and jockeying for power by the big three (the Congress with 64 seats, the JD(S) with 58 and the BJP with 79). With the avowed aim of keeping communal forces out of government, the JD(S) and the Congress had, after a series of confabulations, including one between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Deve Gowda, cobbled up a coalition to form the government. The Congress agreed to Deve Gowda's `suggestion' that Dharam Singh be made the Chief Minister and a JD(S) legislator (Siddaramaiah) Deputy Chief Minister. The JD(S) leadership obviously preferred someone who was pliable at the helm, and Dharam Singh hardly disappointed.

But given the fact that both the Congress and the JD(S) see themselves as the rightful protectors of the backward classes, minorities and Dalits as well as the dominant Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities, clashes were bound to occur, with each party trying to protect its turf. While the Congress accused Deve Gowda of trying to run the government by proxy and being the de facto Chief Minister ("we propose, but Deve Gowda disposes" was the constant gripe), the JD(S) had a litany of complaints; it even accused the Congress of trying to increase its legislative strength by engineering splits in the party.

A case in point is that of Siddaramaiah, who after being lured away by the Congress (some of his rallies were even allegedly funded by the Congress) was expelled from the JD(S) in August last for attending an `Ahinda' (federation of backward classes, Dalits and minorities) rally where he shared the dais with those inimical to the JD(S). Siddaramaiah, who has the support of eight legislators, has revived the once-defunct All India Progressive Janata Dal (AIPJD). Says K.N. Rajanna, Tumkur MLA: "Dharam Singh is a good-hearted but inefficient, weak Chief Minister who was not able to discipline anybody in his party even though they were making humiliating statements against Deve Gowda. He did not want to displease anybody."

B. Satyanarayana, Minister of State for Rural Water Supply, said: "Many Congress Ministers did not even acknowledge us. It was 19 months of suffocation. Files from our ministerial departments did not move at all."

According to Basavaraj Horatti, Minister for Science and Technology and Small Savings, Dharam Singh only supported the Congress Minister. "The common minimum programme was never discussed", he said. But more than that Dharam Singh is accused of not making appointments to the lucrative boards and corporations.

Trouble for the coalition also came from Congressmen who had either been defeated in the 2004 elections, or been for various reasons, including pressure from Deve Gowda, denied ministerial posts. Deve Gowda has been especially bitter about leaders from former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna's camp who he has time and again accused of fomenting trouble. Informed sources say that Krishna, who is at present the Governor of Maharashtra, is keen on returning to active politics in his home State. There is no doubt that the Congress viewed the tie-up with the JD(S) as a politically expedient decision (it had no other alternative), which could be undone the minute the party was strong enough to go on its own. Many senior Congress Ministers were also increasingly unhappy over a prolonged continuation of the coalition, preferring to sit in the Opposition.

According to a senior Minister, the coalition was churning out "what was arguably the worst administration the State has ever had" and had become a liability for the Congress, with only the prospect of a mid-term poll preventing it from walking out. But last December's taluk and zilla panchayat elections and the Congress' good showing, winning 15 out of the 27 zilla panchayats, changed all that. Emboldened, the Congress began toying with the idea of dropping the JD(S) and going for a mid-term poll, after probably a spell of President's Rule. There was also talk of a Congress loyalist occupying the Raj Bhavan. All this made the JD(S) feel uneasy. Further, on January 5, the Congress high command asked the local units to choose their own coalition partners in hung zilla panchayats. It was obvious that this would result in the Congress allying with Siddaramaiah, whose presence in the local body elections had harmed the prospects of the JD(S). Following this, Deve Gowda announced that he would take a decision on the coalition at the party's National Executive meeting on February 8. But Kumaraswamy decided to jump the gun.

Deve Gowda, who has been openly against an alliance with the BJP, tried to persuade Kumaraswamy to return to the coalition, saying that his political future would be in jeopardy if he allied with a non-secular party. Informed sources close to Deve Gowda told Frontline that he was also sceptical about Kumaraswamy's ability to govern along with the BJP for 40 months, given among other things, the contradictions within that party between people such as Leader of the Opposition B.S. Yediyurappa, who since 2004 has favoured a BJP-JD(S) tie-up, and BJP general secretary Ananth Kumar, who favours fresh elections. Having the Congress in the Opposition is also not going to be easy: H.K. Patil, who is one the longest-serving leaders of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, and Mallikarjun Kharge, as Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, could cause trouble. The Congress, which has a majority in the Legislative Council, could defeat every Bill passed by the Assembly.

But Kumaraswamy surely has one thing going for him: in Karnataka's caste-ridden politics his Vokkaliga tag can bring him some relief since 24 MLAs in the JD(S) and a slightly smaller number in the BJP belong to this community. This group can effectively protect him from other powerful lobbies.

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