Uneasy sits the crown

Print edition : February 24, 2006

Ignoring ideological differences, Karnataka's once bitter political enemies decide to close ranks and share the spoils. But it will be a challenge to make this marriage of convenience work.

RAVI SHARMA in Bangalore

H.D. Kumaraswamy and B.S. Yediyurappa on February 3, after being sworn in as the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

H.D. KUMARASWAMY, sworn in on February 3 as Karnataka's Chief Minister, has travelled quite a distance in a short time. He engineered the fall of the N. Dharam Singh government, politically marginalised his father former Prime Minister H.D. Gowda, and secured the loyalty of more than 40 of his party legislators. Yet, it might be too soon for self-congratulations.

Tougher challenges await Kumaraswamy, none bigger than providing, in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a coalition government that must last 40 months.

To start with, the new coalition government, born as it was at the altar of opportunism amid confusion and uncertainty, carries within it too many self-contradictions. The only binding factor that brought the two partners together was a strong reluctance to face mid-term elections and, of course, the craving for power. However, the Janata Dal (Secular) carries a commitment to secularism in its very name. Ever since the party was formed in 1999, it had shunned any association with the saffron brigade.

This commitment was turned on its head in full public glare on January 18, when a bus-load of `rebel' JD(S) Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) led by Kumaraswamy met Governor T.N. Chaturvedi with a declaration signed by the party's State president N. Tippanna and 39 legislators. It said that the MLAs had withdrawn support to the Congress-led government of Dharam Singh.

The MLAs also declared that they had formed an alliance with the BJP and were staking the claim to form a coalition government. The move prompted Chaturvedi to ask Chief Minister Dharam Singh to prove, by January 27, that his government enjoyed a majority in the Assembly. The Governor's conduct during the recent crisis, legal experts agree, followed the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.

For the BJP, it was an opportunity that it could not afford to miss. It would gain for the party, for the first time in any of the southern States, a toehold on the power stakes. Ignoring ideological differences, Karnataka's once bitter political enemies have decided to close ranks, sharing the spoils (ministerial berths and posts of chairpersons on the various boards and corporations) and splitting equally the remainder of the Assembly's tenure.

Dharam Singh at a press conference on January 28, where he declared his resignation as Chief Minister.-GAUTAM SINGH

Kumaraswamy's decision to lead a band of `rebels' raised a number of legal questions and uncertainties, pertaining mainly to whether it contravened the anti-defection laws. Three rival MLAs even petitioned the Karnataka High Court, praying that Kumaraswamy and 35 other JD(S) MLAs be restrained from participating in the Assembly proceedings or holding ministerial berths. They pleaded that these MLAs should be disqualified under Article 191(2) of the Constitution, read with the Tenth Schedule.

However, a Division Bench ruled that it would not be "just and proper" for it to pass any interim order as the issue was before the Speaker of the Assembly, and that his decision would be final. Publicly at least, the new dispensation will not have the blessings of H.D. Deve Gowda, who has expressed displeasure at Kumaraswamy's decision to align with the BJP. However, one wonders whether it is possible for him to withhold his best wishes for his son, whose political ambitions he has always carefully nurtured.

On February 3, the day his son was sworn in, he took the 6-15 a.m. flight out to Delhi. But this correspondent was present when Kumaraswamy came calling at his father's house at 5-30 a.m. to "seek his blessings". The father and son were together for half an hour, during which Deve Gowda, who even the night before was quite belligerent when some MLAs came to see him, seemed to have softened considerably.

In the days leading to the swearing-in, Deve Gowda strummed every emotional chord he could in an attempt to convince Kumaraswamy and the `rebel' MLAs to give up their new friend, the BJP, and either return to a coalition with the Congress or face mid-term polls. He kept telling his Congress friends that in the end the MLAs would shun the BJP and the Congress-led coalition would survive. But the MLAs ruled out a patch-up with the Congress, which they felt had a step-motherly attitude towards JD(S) Ministers and legislators.

The MLAs were not prepared for mid-term elections either: the costs to fight the elections ("Rs.3 crores on every constituency") were huge, they felt. Besides, they had served only 20 months of their tenure.

Informed sources told Frontline that Kumaraswamy could not afford to go back on the course he had chosen; he would be risking the support of many of the MLAs, who might then join the Congress or Siddaramaiah's All India Progressive Janata Dal.

This correspondent told Deve Gowda that the `rebel' MLAs still considered him their "supreme leader and father figure", though they were not prepared for mid-term elections. An angry Deve Gowda said that if they saw him as the supreme leader they should leave it to him to decide what was best for the party and its MLAs. "I will win the elections for them; those who have no faith in me can go where they want," he said.

The two meetings that he had with the `rebel' MLAs only highlighted his growing frustration at not being able to dissuade them from aligning with the BJP, and his increasing political isolation. Despite this, the role that he plays in the coming months can be crucial for the new dispensation.

In a bid to save the Congress-JD(S) coalition, the Congress high command dispatched party general secretary in charge of Karnataka A.K. Antony and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Bangalore. On offer for the JD(S) were sops, including the Chief Minister's Office. But not even talks between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Deve Gowda could salvage the relationship.

Deve Gowda did not deem it prudent to expel Kumaraswamy or any of the `rebel' MLAs. Nor did he, as the party's national president, authorise or personally send a letter (as he had done to the Governor on January 18) to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly declaring that M.P. Prakash and not Kumaraswamy was the leader of the JD(S) Legislature Party. Such a letter might have checkmated Kumaraswamy. In its absence, it was a mere formality for Speaker Krishna to declare in the House on January 27 that as per the letter he had received from the State JD(S) president, Kumaraswamy was the leader of the JD(S) Legislature Party. The one-line declaration rendered all speculation and arguments about who represented the `real' JD(S) superfluous and questions and discussions on disqualifying the Kumaraswamy faction irrelevant.

Krishna's recognition of Kumaraswamy as the leader of the JD(S) Legislature Party triggered protests from Congress MLAs who trooped into the well of the House, shouted slogans and, according to the Speaker's report to the Governor, uttered unparliamentary remarks against the Chair, and after rushing to the podium even attempted to remove the mike.

The protests and Dharam Singh's reluctance to move a `motion of confidence', despite requests to do so by the Speaker, forced the latter to adjourn the House thrice, the last time sine die. Deve Gowda had reportedly asked the Congress to give him time till three in the afternoon to wean away the JD(S) MLAs from the BJP. The Congress party stretched parliamentary gamesmanship to the limit, avoiding moving the motion of confidence. Hours were spent on obituary references, usually dismissed in a few minutes, and objections were raised about the presence of two officers from the Governor's Secretariat in the officials' gallery.

The day ended with the Congress, the BJP and the JD(S) rushing to the Governor's House with complaints. The next day, Dharam Singh announced at a press conference that he was resigning as Chief Minister.

As the JD(S)-BJP coalition takes over, there are also questions over whether the politically inexperienced Kumaraswamy, and the equally untested B.S. Yediyurappa, the BJP leader who is now Deputy Chief Minister, will be able to keep their power-hungry flocks together while handing out public offices, be it ministerial berths, board/corporation chairmanships or parliamentary secretarial jobs.

After all, it was the Congress' reluctance to appoint chairpersons to the various boards and corporations and the unreasonable delay in the expansion of the Cabinet that caused the JD(S) legislators to rebel against the Dharam Singh government. Not so long ago, a debate over whether the party should share power or seek a fresh mandate almost caused a split in the BJP. The faction led by Yediyurappa finally prevailed on the top brass.

It is this fear of a possible revolt by dissatisfied aspirants that made the JD(S), and to a lesser extent the BJP, decide to swear in only Kumaraswamy and Yediyurappa initially, preferring to wait till the coalition proves its majority before installing a Ministry.

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