Engineering defections in Karnataka

Price of deceit

Print edition : March 15, 2019

B.S. Yeddyurappa, also Leader of the Opposition, during the debate on the audio tape issue in the Assembly in Bengaluru on February 11. Photo: Shailendra Bhojak/AP

Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy with Sharanagouda Kandkur at his home office in Bengaluru during the release of the audio tape. Photo: The Hindu ARCHIVES

Former Chief Minister and BJP State leader B.S. Yeddyurappa’s eagerness to topple the H.D. Kumaraswamy government in Karnataka by engineering defections backfires on him.

IN Karnataka, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the strongest presence south of the Vindhyas, the shenanigans and follies of its tallest leader in the State are becoming hard to ignore. Former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa may be the only BJP politician in Karnataka with a mass following, but in his impatience to get another shot at becoming the Chief Minister he has done what he and his party did not want to do: oxygenate the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) ruling coalition. His machinations have not only recharged the Congress-JD(S) alliance, which for almost nine months since it formed the government in May 2018 never looked like surviving its full term, but also brought to a standstill the BJP’s hopes of trying to engineer defections.

Yeddyurappa’s alleged attempts to lure JD(S) legislators came as a blessing in disguise for the beleaguered Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy, who set a record of sorts by visiting 40 temples and several religious mutts in his first 80 days in office, and who continues to perform “yajnas” (ritual worships performed to propitiate the gods or seek a blessing). Sharanagouda Kandkur, a JD(S) worker and son of Naganagouda Kandkur, the JD(S)’ Member of the Legislative Assembly from Gurmitkal in Yadgir district, provided an audio recording as evidence that during a meeting with him at the Yadgir circuit house, Yeddyurappa had tried to tempt him with money and a ministerial berth to switch loyalties. He even reportedly asked Sharanagouda to make his father resign his seat and promised to have him (Sharanagouda) elected from the seat on the saffron party ticket. Yeddyurappa’s alleged misadventure was reportedly recorded with the knowledge of Kumaraswamy as Sharanagouda had informed him that he had got a call to meet Yeddyurappa.

After initially denying that he had met Sharanagouda, on February 10 Yeddyurappa acknowledged the meeting and, importantly, agreed that the voice in the audio clip was his. But he claimed that the audio had been edited and doctored.

The State Assembly elections in May 2018 threw up a mixed bag. The BJP emerged as the largest party with 104 seats but was short of a majority in the 224-member House. Yeddyurappa managed to “convince” the Governor that he could form a stable government. His government lasted all of three days as Yeddyurappa resigned before facing the floor test mandated by the Supreme Court. For Yeddyurappa, who was forced to step down in 2011 as Chief Minister in the wake of corruption charges, the 2018 elections could arguably have been his last chance at political redemption.

The Congress, which was a victim of the BJP’s sinister moves in Goa and Meghalaya, where the saffron party came to power without securing a majority in the Assembly elections, became wiser in Karnataka. Party president Rahul Gandhi lost no time in forming an alliance with the JD(S) to form a coalition government and even offered the post of Chief Minister to the minor coalition partner, which had won 37 seats compared with the Congress’ 78. The Congress’ move may have shades of Machiavellian methods, but the internal contradictions in the marriage of convenience have never been far from the surface.

With the offer of unconditional support to Kumaraswamy, the Congress has had to grudgingly play second fiddle to the JD(S), and also battle a rebellion thanks to ambitious legislators and rival power centres, and numerous bids by the BJP to woo its disgruntled legislators. Ever since he was forced to resign, Yeddyurappa has been trying to engineer defections from rival camps. According to his colleagues, the BJP had come precariously close to toppling the coalition on more occasions than one. Some legislators had even been paid to resign their seats, with the promise that the BJP would help them get elected from the same constituency on the saffron ticket. Talks of Rs.30 crore being offered to Congress legislators to jump ship were reportedly the rule rather than the exception. The Congress, too, tried to lure MLAs. A BJP MLA told Frontline that a senior Congress functionary close to former party president Sonia Gandhi had made him a lucrative offer of cash and a promise of nomination in the Lok Sabha election.

In January, Congress leaders, worried stiff about possible defections by ambitious legislators of their party, took the MLAs away to the safety of a resort on the outskirts of Bengaluru. A few “friendly” businessmen were “asked” to bring in bouncers, who made sure that the MLAs stayed put. Each bouncer was paid Rs.5,000 a day. Each businessman had a batch of around 20 MLAs under his watch.

Seven Congress MLAs—Dr K. Sudhakar (Chikkaballapur), B.C. Patil (Hirekeruru), J.N. Ganesh (Kampli), Ramesh Jharkiholi (Gokak), Mahesh Kumathalli (Athani), B. Nagendra (Ballari Rural) and Umesh Jadhav (Chincholi)—and one JD (S) MLA stayed away from the Assembly proceedings in February, and this made BJP legislators seek an adjournment of the House saying that the coalition did not have a majority.

Yeddyurappa’s faux pas has not only caused him and the BJP a huge embarrassment but could invite serious criminal charges. Speaking to this correspondent, a BJP legislator, who did not wish to be named, alleged that Yeddyurappa had his plans “well laid out” and discussed them with party MLAs. The plan was to defeat the Finance Bill on the floor of the Assembly when it was presented by Kumaraswamy, force a no-confidence motion and bring down the government. His plan hinged on one crucial aspect: defections from the Congress and the JD(S). But, according to the MLA, Yeddyurappa’s operations were neither covert nor had the stealth that was essential for them to succeed.

He said: “Yeddyurappa has been trapped by his own follies, his overdependence on counsel from his sons, especially B.Y. Vijayendra, and the fact that there is one-upmanship and internal squabbles in the party. We are not a united house. There are too many leaders, including Jagadish Shettar, R. Ashoka, K.S. Eshwarappa and even Arvind Limbavalli, who all nurse ambitions to become Chief Minister. The BJP leadership could not care less at this point. Karnataka is too small to be concerned about when compared to the challenges that the party is facing in the Hindi heartland. And the BJP leadership is confident that whatever they do the party will win 12 to 17 seats [out of the 28 seats in the State] in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.”

According to other BJP MLAs, the lack of cohesiveness in the party on how to claim power had forced Yeddyurappa to personally engage in wooing political rivals. A senior MLA said: “Yeddyurappa hasn’t heard of the dictum that the king never dirties his hand. Why was he personally negotiating with rival MLAs at midnight?”

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