Karnataka's political drama

Triumph of chicanery in Karnataka

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Congress and JD(S) MLAs who submitted their resignation letters to the Karnataka Speaker leave the Raj Bhavan after meeting the Governor on July 6. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Photo: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

Leader of the Opposition B.S. Yeddyurappa in the Assembly on July 12. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Byrathi Basavaraj, MLD, rushing to the Speaker’s chamber on July 11 to submit his resignation before the 6 p.m. deadline set by the Supreme Court. Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

Congress rebel MLA M.T.B. Nagraj (right) meeting former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, in Bengaluru on July 13. Photo: The Hindu

The Karnataka model of coalition politics as an antidote to Hindutva politics appears hopelessly compromised as the government totters on the brink of collapse, while the BJP waits in the wings to strike at the opportune moment to gain power in the State by hook or by crook.

The much-touted Karnataka model of coalition politics, which supposedly heralded an alternative to the rising tide of Hindutva politics, appears to be on its last legs. The desertion of 16 legislators from the ruling Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine, which came to power after a fractured mandate last year, has brought the H.D. Kumaraswamy government to the brink of collapse. The naked display of the lust for power by legislators across the political spectrum, whose only aspira tional interest in politics appears to be a ministerial berth, has brought the State administration to a standstill.

However, Chief Minister Kumaraswamy sprang a surprise on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on July 12 by announcing that he would seek a vote of confidence, possibly within two weeks. The BJP, which made a desperate lunge for power just a year ago, is waiting to strike again.

Even as Karnataka lurches through a debilitating drought, legislators from all the three political parties, including the BJP, the single largest party in the Assembly, remain protectively ensconced in luxury resorts and hotels following Kumaraswamy’s surprise announcement that he would seek a vote of confidence.

The BJP has been patiently engineering desertions since March, when it lured Umesh Jadhav, the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Chincholi, from the Congress and rewarded him with the party ticket for the Kalaburagi Lok Sabha seat, where he defeated Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge. The bait was sweetened further when the BJP nominated his son for the Chincholi Assembly seat.

Current crisis

The current crisis was sparked off by the resignations of Vijayanagar MLA Anand Singh and Gokak MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi, both of whom never concealed their dissent within the Congress. It became a full-blown crisis on July 6 when 10 legislators, including members of both the Congress and the JD(S), submitted their resignations to Speaker K.R. Ramesh Kumar, who later said the resignations were not in “proper order”.

High drama followed, with the MLAs leaving for Mumbai soon after submitting their resignations. The fact that Kumaraswamy was away in the United States on a private visit seemed to provide an ideal opportunity for the machinations against the government. The Congress flew its chief troubleshooter, D.K. Shivakumar, to persuade the rebels to reconsider, but he failed to gain entry to the hotel where they were staying.

In the days that followed, the number of resignations swelled to 16, including two independent MLAs who were both Ministers. The Kumaraswamy government, which effectively had a combined support of 115 legislators—78 from the Congress and 37 from the JD(S)—also enjoyed the support of the two independents. Besides, it continues to have the support of the lone Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) member.

Despite being the single largest party by some distance with 105 legislators, the BJP has been in the opposition in the 225-member Assembly, which includes one nominated member from the Anglo-Indian community who has no vote and a seat that is currently vacant.

Meanwhile, the drama shifted to the Supreme Court where the rebels pleaded that an order be issued to the Speaker to rule on the validity of the resignations. However, this has been clouded by the fact that disqualification notices have been issued to at least some of the legislators by their party leadership. The question whether the Speaker would first consider the issue of disqualification or the validity of their resignations could well decide the future of the Kumaraswamy government.

In terms of immediate survival, disqualification of the MLAs matters little to the coalition. The Congress or the JD(S) can only draw satisfaction from having punished the rebels because they would be unable to become MLAs for six years following disqualification, but that offers little succour to a tottering coalition.

The exit of 16 legislators—13 from the Congress and three from the JD(S)—from the Assembly will bring the combine’s strength down to 99 in an Assembly with a current effective strength of 223. The combine will be in a minority if the resignations are upheld.

In such a situation, the BJP, with 105 members in a House with an effective strength of 207 members, would be sitting pretty but just about. It can also count on the support of the two independents.

It appears that the ground realities of politics as an enterprise could have an impact on how the legislators—on all sides of the political spectrum—behave in the immediate future. As of now, Kumaraswamy has bought two weeks’ time to woo the legislators back to the coalition.

According to Practice and Procedure of Parliament by M.N. Kaul and S.L. Shakdher, which is conventionally followed in the State Assembly, the Speaker can allow a confidence motion in two weeks. Kumaraswamy, by pre-empting the BJP’s no-confidence motion, is expected to offer ministerial berths to the disgruntled MLAs. All the 32 Ministers, except the Chief Minister, have submitted their resignations to their party presidents in order to create vacancies for hopefuls if they wished to return.

It is obvious that the chief legislators resigned because they were not made Ministers. However, under Article 72 of the Constitution, which limits the size of a Ministry to 15 per cent of the elected members of the legislature (91st Amendment), a House of 225 can only have 33 Ministers.

Senior Congress leaders such as former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, former Ministers H.K. Patil and Ramalinga Reddy and JD(S) leaders such as former Ministers Basavaraj Horatti and Adagur Vishwanath were kept out of the Ministry in the hope that they would understand the constraints of coalition politics. Ramalinga Reddy and Vishwanath are among those who have resigned.

Ramesh Jarkiholi and several other disgruntled MLAs have said that their parties had “not treated them with respect”, which, according to Basavaraj Horatti, is code for not being made a Minister. “You can’t make everyone a Minister. That is impossible. If they hate this government so much, the Chief Minister ought to rather resign and seek a fresh mandate,” he told Frontline.

Governance at a standstill

As the government lurched from one crisis to another, governance came to a standstill. Political observers said the mass resignations amounted to a betrayal of the people’s trust. The writer Prof. R.K. Hudgi said: “Why did the people’s representatives have to resign? What injustice was done by the State government to their constituencies?”

He also said that only a “lust for power” could explain their action. However hard they may deny it, they are all planning to jump to the BJP in the hope of becoming Ministers in the new government, he added.

“This is a gross violation of the voters’ trust. The voters should punish them by not supporting them if they were to contest byelections as BJP nominees,” he said.

Dilip Kamat, a social activist and founder of a workers’ collective called Grakoos, said: “This government has become famous for all the wrong reasons. It has not fulfilled most of its promises made in the last Budget. It has failed to start relief works even when most parts of the State are suffering from a debilitating drought. Rather than focussing on saving the farmers in their constituencies or developing their region, the MLAs have chosen to run away to Mumbai for power and money.”

Although the BJP will be the key beneficiary of the collapse of the combine, it has not sought to form a government. BJP State president and former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa has so far only called for the resignation of the Kumaraswamy government. Perhaps he is chastened by the experience after the 2018 Assembly election, when he headed a two-day government before the Congress-JD(S) combine asserted its majority in the Assembly.

Siddaramaiah said that the BJP was orchestrating the crisis as a means of moving towards a “Congress-mukt Bharat”. However, the BJP alone cannot be blamed for the mess the coalition is in and has been in since it came to power last year. The BJP leader and former Minister Govind Karjol attributed the resignations to the coalition’s internal contradictions. “Why should we poison someone if just drinking milk is killing him?” he said.

Tensions have been mounting within the coalition ever since it began its innings. And they had nothing to do with ideological differences or quarrels over policies and had everything to do with the distribution of power.

BJP’s calculation

The BJP’s central leadership is adopting a more cautious approach this time around in a bid to maximise gains over a longer time frame, and Yeddyurappa may not have much of a say in this scheme of things.

If the BJP does form a government, even for a short term, it may well provide the last chance at power for the 76-year-old Yeddyurappa, arguably the tallest Lingayat leader in the State. Although the community accounts for only about 15 per cent of the population, it enjoys political clout disproportionate to its strength in the State. A significant section of the community comprises landowners, moneylenders and agriculture commission agents. They also own several private educational institutions and control numerous cooperative societies, particularly in north Karnataka. Their social and economic power enables them to wield political influence over voters from other communities lower in the social hierarchy.

Basavaraj Dhannur, an office-bearer of the agitation committee to recognise “Lingayatism” as a separate religion, said: “Most of the Lingayats in the State support the BJP as they accept Yeddyurappa as their leader and hope that he will be made the Chief Minister one day. If that does not happen, the BJP is likely to lose its support in the community.”

But it would be a mistake to treat Yeddyurappa merely as a Lingayat leader. The BJP owes him much for his work in enhancing the party’s appeal among sections of Other Backward Classes and Dalits.

The Lok Sabha election was a stunning reminder that the JD(S) cannot afford to take for granted its clout in the Vokkaliga community in its stronghold in the Old Mysore region.

Both the BJP and the ruling combine appear to be considering the dominant sentiment among MLAs: of avoiding an immediate election since no one seems to be keen on fighting another expensive electoral contest just a year after the last one.

It would not be surprising if some of the resignations are “reconsidered” after a bout of hectic bargaining. Even those who do not become Ministers may seek to be compensated in other ways by the government. In such a situation, the BJP’s immediate objective may well be to bring down the government. But instead of taking a jab at power immediately, the party may prefer fresh elections after a period of President’s Rule.

The party would expect the momentum that swept it to power in the Lok Sabha election to remain intact in such an election, if and when it happens. For the ruling combine that has proved its utter incompatibility since it came to power, that ought to be a frightening prospect.

It is obvious that the BJP is hoping that the public disgust with the machinations within the ruling coalition may offer it a chance, one in which its own misdeeds of the past—most notably the mega mining scandal during Yeddyurappa’s stewardship—may be forgotten.

Karnataka matters a great deal to the BJP because it offers the party its best route to the South where it is still only a marginal player. Its ill-disguised aspiration to a complete dominance of the Indian polity makes Karnataka critical. Despite all the failings of the ruling coalition in the State, the fact that Karnataka was able to thwart the BJP onslaught offers hope and respite from the unbridled assault that Hindutva threatens to unleash.

The BJP now has three possible options. It may bring down the Kumaraswamy government at the earliest and make an immediate attempt to gain power; it may bring down the government but allow the dissolution of the Assembly, paving the way for President’s Rule; or it may aid and abet the contradictions within the coalition to sharpen them further and lead to its collapse.

Whatever the BJP does, it is clear that the naked use of money and resources will play a key role, something that has been demonstrated in the past. It is also likely to use key institutions such as the Governor’s office, apart from the vast state machinery available to it, to the hilt in its pursuit of power, which is an even more frightening prospect.

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