Rumblings in Karnataka

Print edition : August 26, 2005

The dismissal of Deputy Chief Minister Siddaramaiah unsettles the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition equilibrium and could be the precursor to political realignments in the State.

PARVATHI MENON in Bangalore

Siddaramaiah with supporters in Bangalore.-K. GOPINATHAN

FACTIONALISM, splits and mergers are political tendencies that appear to be inherent to the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka. In just a little over a year after the party joined the Congress-led coalition government in the State, a leadership struggle has resulted in the expulsion of Siddaramaiah, a popular backward classes leader and Deputy Chief Minister, from the post of Janata Dal Legislature Party (JDLP) leader. At a meeting of the JDLP on August 4 - which Siddaramaiah dismissed as "illegal" - an overwhelming majority of JD(S) legislators expressed lack of confidence in Siddaramaiah and elected Revenue Minister M.P. Prakash as the leader. Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh was forced to drop Siddaramaiah, who held the Finance and Excise portfolios.

The developments have unsettled the coalition equilibrium, although they are unlikely to destabilise the government, at least for the present. Two associates of Siddaramaiah, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister H.C. Mahadevappa and Textiles Minister Satish Jarkiholi, were also dropped from the Cabinet.

Siddaramaiah has refused to resign from the party. "I have contributed to building this party, why should I resign?" he told Frontline. "For the last 30 years I have worked in the Janata Party, the Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (Secular). I have been general secretary and president of the party. Deve Gowda did not build the party alone. There are my friends in the party, leaders and workers, whom I must consult before doing anything. Everybody is hurt by the decision to drop me from the leadership of the party and from the government."

The charges against Siddaramaiah have not been clearly spelt out by the party leadership, but for the accusation that he attended a recent convention of backward classes in Hubli, which is seen as an act of "indiscipline". Once a close confidant of JD(S) president H.D. Deve Gowda, Siddaramaiah fell out with the Deve Gowda-led faction in the party soon after being appointed Deputy Chief Minister in the coalition Ministry that came to power after the elections in May 2004. He has been in the cross-hairs of the Deve Gowda group, according to his supporters, because he stood in the way of the political ambitions of Deve Gowda's sons, H.D. Kumaraswamy in particular. "There was an alternative power centre working against Siddaramaiah in the party," Mahadevappa said. "His stature and mass following contrasted with the lack of performance by Deve Gowda's sons, and this was why he had to be removed."

For Siddaramaiah the reasons for his removal are clear. He said: "I think that for the present JD(S) leadership, my independent growth in the party was a threat. "The party has always been committed to social justice. How then could my attending a rally of backward classes be construed as indiscipline? I have always espoused these causes. They have acted as the complainants, prosecutors and judges. I see an evil design in all this."

The reasons for the crisis are obviously more complex than this. While Siddaramaiah's decision to attend the AHIND (Alpasankyataru, Hindulidavaru, Dalitaru) convention of backward classes, minorities and Dalits, held in Hubli on July 15 precipitated the final break with the party, "his removal was the cumulative effect of several developments over the last year", a senior JD(S) leader told Frontline on condition of anonymity. "There was a cold war between him and Deve Gowda, as Siddaramaiah felt that he could have been made Chief Minister in the coalition if Deve Gowda had tried hard enough. In reality that was not possible, as the Congress made their participation conditional on the Chief Minister's position going to them. Deve Gowda did not want to see the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power, nor did he want elections again."

Though the Hubli convention was advertised as a non-political exercise with representation across the political divide, in a political sense the convention was a Congress affair with a number of prominent Congress leaders such as R.L. Jalappa and Tejaswini Ramesh (who defeated Deve Gowda in the last elections in Kanakapura) speaking on the occasion. While Siddaramaiah did not criticise Deve Gowda personally, other speakers had less to say on the issue of social justice than on the political ambitions of Deve Gowda and his family.

"We think that Siddaramaiah has been misled by some mischievous elements in the Congress ill-disposed to Shri Deve Gowdaji," M.P. Prakash, the newly elected leader of the JDLP told Frontline. "Problems were brewing over the last month. We learnt that Siddaramaiah was in contact with Ahmad Patel in Delhi. He has been in touch with D.K. Shivakumar and his group who are against the government of Shri Dharam Singh. Most of those who spoke at the convention were from the majority communities, and instead of talking against injustice they concentrated on personally attacking the family of Gowda. We requested Siddaramaiah to at least postpone the convention, but that too he did not heed."

According to Prakash, Siddaramaiah has been isolated within the party, as 52 out of 62 Members of the Legislative Assembly (including independents supporting the JD-S), and seven out of eight Members of the Legislative Council voted against him.

New Deputy Chief Minister M.P. Prakash with JD(S) president H.D. Deve Gowda at a press conference in Bangalore.-

The political fallout of the convention was immediate. Deve Gowda lost no time in meeting Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and getting her assurance that the Congress had no formal hand in organising the backward classes convention. Almost simultaneously, he mobilised support within the party for Siddaramaiah's removal as JDLP leader, which in turn led to the latter's removal as Deputy Chief Minister.

For the BJP, the single largest party in the State Assembly, instability in the coalition arrangement is the answer to its prayers, and the current crisis sharpened an ongoing power struggle in the State unit of the party between H.N. Ananth Kumar, a national level General Secretary of the party and B.S. Yediyurappa, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. The swift rise in the party echelons of Ananth Kumar, who is seen as an L.K. Advani protege and a hard-liner ideologically, has been a source of resentment for the older leadership represented by Yediyurappa. The JD(S) leadership crisis was an occasion for these differences to spill into the open, with Yediyurappa threatening to breakaway with a group of MLAs to form an alternate government with the JD(S). It required the intervention of senior leaders of the BJP such as Venkaiah Naidu, A.B. Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and others to avert a split in the party by resolving the differences between the leaders.

"Everything is resolved now," Jagadish Shettar, president of the State unit of the party, told Frontline. "The basic question was over the post of Chief Minister, should the BJP come to power either in a coalition, or on its own after the next elections. Now we have decided that if that happens, our Chief Minister will be Yediyurappa." Asked how an alliance with the JD(S) could be justified ideologically, Shettar said the BJP and the JD(S) were "natural allies" against the Congress. That Yediyurappa's dream of becoming Chief Minister in a BJP-JD(S) coalition is only a pipedream after all became clear when Deve Gowda firmly rejected any possible tie-up of his party with the BJP.That Siddaramaiah was an efficient and incorruptible Finance Minister is widely acknowledged. For the JD(S), dominated as it is by Vokkaliga and Lingayat representatives, Siddaramaiah, who is from the Kuruba community, was the link to their constituency of backward classes. The fact that the JD(S) got the larger share of the backward class vote in the last elections is attributed almost solely to his leadership. Whether to offset his alienation from the dominant faction within his party or for other reasons, it appears that in the past few months Siddaramaiah has returned to this constituency, championing its causes and projecting himself as a product of the backward class movement, but doing so as an individual leader in his own right and not as a leader of the JD(S).

The Congress is divided on the developments in the JD(S). One section, represented by Dharam Singh and his supporters, would like to view the current crisis as an internal affair of the party. This is a line of thinking supported by the Congress leadership at the Centre that would not want the coalition arrangement disturbed at any cost. Siddaramaiah is, however, being actively wooed by the anti-Dharam Singh faction in the Congress, led by D.K. Shivakumar and others who have been kept out of the ministry by Deve Gowda.

To the accusation that the JD(S) has neglected the issue of social justice, the JD(S) has responded with facts. "It is sad that speakers at the AHIND convention have said that nothing has been done for backward classes," Prakash said. "It was Devaraj Urs who first addressed the issue of social justice administratively. He introduced the Karnataka Land Reforms Act and the Karnataka's Debtor's Relief Act. He implemented the Havanur Backward Classes Commission Report. Ramakrishna Hegde introduced reservations in panchayats for backward classes and for women. In Deve Gowda's tenure as Chief Minister, an amendment to the Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act gave 27 per cent reservation to backward classes. This was the first such effort in the country."

There has been widespread opposition to Siddaramaiah's removal, spearheaded by AHIND across the State. While political realignments are still in a state of flux one clear outcome of the crisis is the emergence of AHIND as a new platform of backward class representation in the State.

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