The fallout in Karnataka

Print edition : July 31, 1999

THE announcement by J.H. Patel, the Chief Minister of the only Janata Dal-led State Government in the country, that his party would align with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) set in motion a chain of developments that have altered political equati ons in Karnataka.

After the formal split of the Janata Dal at the Central level, Patel moved swiftly and dropped eight Ministers - four of Cabinet rank and four Ministers of State - from his Council of Ministers. They included Deputy Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and H.D. D eve Gowda's son H.D. Revanna. In order to pre-empt any move by the Deve Gowda faction to make political capital out of the situation, Patel followed up his action with a recommendation to Governor Khurshid Alam Khan to dissolve the Legislative Assembly. The Governor accepted the recommendation, and the Assembly was dissolved on July 22. The decision came in for scathing criticism from Janata Dal leaders who were opposed to Patel, as well as from other political parties. It is believed that Patel spoke t o Lok Shakti president Ramakrishna Hegde and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee before recommending the dissolution.

While explaining his decision, Patel said that the recommendation had nothing to do with the split in the Janata Dal. "It is superfluous to have an Assembly before which there is no agenda. So why have one?" he asked.

However, Patel's political opponents within and outside the erstwhile Janata Dal do not buy this explanation. They believe that Patel's action was prompted by his desire to remain as the head of a caretaker government until fresh elections are held. "Thi s is unconstitutional, undemocratic and unethical" Siddaramaiah told Frontline. He said: "The Governor has taken this decision in undue haste. It is well known that there was a split in the party and that a majority in the Political Affairs Commit tee (PAC) had backed Sharad Yadav's expulsion and Deve Gowda's election as president. It follows from this that Patel's Ministry is reduced to a minority and he cannot recommend the dissolution of the Assembly. The Governor should have taken this into ac count."

The Deve Gowda-led entity and the State unit of the Congress(I) have both said that the Governor should have imposed President's rule in the State instead of dissolving the Assembly, since the question of whether Patel had majority support in the House w as in doubt. They said that although the Governor was bound by the advice of the Cabinet, he needed to ensure that the government that made such a recommendation actually enjoyed majority support. Even before the Janata Dal split, Patel enjoyed a very th in and uncertain majority in the 224-member House. When a group of Ministers led by R.V. Deshpande resigned from the House just prior to the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the Janata Dal's strength in the House came down to less than 112, the 50 per cent mark . The present split, which prompted Patel to dismiss eight senior Ministers, would naturally have reduced his support further. "It should have been clear to the Governor that Patel did not enjoy majority support," C. Narayanaswamy, general secretary of t he State unit of the erstwhile Janata Dal, told Frontline. "The Governor should have asked him to prove his majority before accepting his recommendation," he said. Even as Patel handed over the letter to the Governor, there were 30 MLAs waiting at the Raj Bhavan with a letter stating that they were withdrawing their support to Patel. Now, Patel will continue as the head of a caretaker government until the elections."

Both the factions claim majority support within the party. Soon after he sacked the Ministers, Patel appointed former Agriculture Minister C. Byre Gowda president of the State unit of the party, or rather of that entity which recognises Sharad Yadav as t he national president. Besides, he immediately declared "illegal" the Janata Dal Legislative Party meeting convened by Siddaramaiah. "Our cadres are intact, our support in the district units remains unchanged and we have the support of a large number of MLAs and ex-MLAs," Siddaramaiah told Frontline. "We are not going to challenge the decision of the Governor to recommend dissolution, but we will make it an election issue."

Patel has the support of several of the more high-profile Ministers, including Home Minister P.G.R Sindhia, Minister for Major Irrigation K.N. Nage Gowda, Minister for Panchayati Raj M.P. Prakash, Minister for Primary and Secondary Education Govinde Gowd a, Minister for Industries B.L. Shankar, and Minister for Revenue B. Somashekar. In the many and bitter factional struggles that the State Janata Dal has seen, these Ministers have identified themselves with the anti-Deve Gowda group led by Patel. Even s o, none of them is likely to be comfortable with the idea of an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is what Patel and his mentor Ramakrishna Hegde have been working towards.

Now that the Assembly has been dissolved, the crucial issue before each of the Janata Dal entities is that of credibility rather than numerical support. A Chief Minister, who only a few days ago called the BJP a "cancer" is now eager to ally his group wi th it. This will damage the electoral chances of his party and by extension, the party he allies himself with, despite the fact that he tried, in typical Patel fashion, to joke away the faux pas by saying that "Cancer is curable."

THE State unit of the BJP is not amused at this. In fact, the split in the Janata Dal and Patel's defection to the BJP-led alliance cast a pall of gloom over the State unit of the BJP rather than being received as a shot in the arm since these developmen ts have opened up the prospect of the party having to share seats with yet another entity. Besides, the BJP has built its campaign around the anti-incumbency factor; in other words, the Patel government's "non-performance" over the last five years. Leade rs of the BJP, who are still smarting under the verbal insults that Patel and his supporters have periodically hurled at them, are determined not to have any sort of alliance with Patel.

"Going with Patel is a liability to us, and we have told our party president this in clear terms," S. Suresh Kumar, spokesman for the party's State unit, told Frontline. "Our alliance with the Lok Shakti stays, but we will not go with the Janata D al. In fact, the Lok Shakti too should not allow a liability like Patel to become a part of it." Important leaders of the BJP who belong to Karnataka, such as Civil Aviation Minister Ananth Kumar, State unit president and the man being projected as its c andidate for Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa, and the party's floor leader in the Assembly K.S. Easwarappa, are vehemently opposed to an alliance which has Patel as an element. "If an alliance of this sort is imposed on us, we will go it alone in the ele ctions," said Suresh Kumar. "We are ready to sit in the Opposition. We have waited for so long, we do not mind waiting longer. We must have a credible image," he said.

However, Jeevraj Alva, president of the Lok Shakti's State unit, does not foresee any problems in the alliance with the BJP following the merger of the Lok Shakti with the Janata Dal. He said that they were willing to concede to the BJP the post of Chief Minister should the alliance came to power.

H.D. Deve Gowda with H. Siddaramaiah at a meeting in Bangalore on July 24.-T.L. PRABHAKAR

Patel's decision to align his group with the NDA was not entirely unexpected; his political gravitation in that direction had become obvious several months ago. For a long time now, Patel has made his sympathies for the BJP evident, offering frequent sta tements of friendship and support. When the A.B. Vajpayee government sought a vote of confidence early this year, Patel surprised everybody by saying that the Janata Dal should support the government. He also supported the BJP's stand that a person of fo reign origin should not be allowed to become Prime Minister. His frequent meetings with George Fernandes of the Samata Party and Hegde gave rise to intense speculation both within the party and without of his intention to switch loyalties.

On July 13, a day before the crucial Janata Dal State executive committee meeting was to be held, Patel announced that Prime Minister Vajpayee had telephoned him, requesting him to join the broad anti-Congress(I) platform the BJP was eager to erect. Pate l told mediapersons that he had accepted the suggestion and that he would meet leaders of non-Congress(I) parties. The same day, 15 Janata Dal Ministers and legislators demanded that all breakaway factions of the Janata Dal, including the Rashtriya Janat a Dal, the Biju Janata Dal, the Lok Shakti and the Samata Party, come back into the parent party under the leadership of Patel.

A terse resolution emerged from the June 14 meeting of the Janata Dal State executive, which stated that the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister were authorised to work out the possibilities of a third front, but within the framework of the Jana ta Dal's long-held position of equidistance from the Congress(I) and the BJP. The very next day, after a breakfast meeting with Hegde and Fernandes, Patel announced his plans to align his group with the NDA.

AN alliance with a Lok Shakti-Patel group, if forced upon the BJP's State unit by its central leadership, will certainly improve the chances of the Congress(I), which is poised to do well in the elections. "We are not too worried about the developments i n the Janata Dal," said S.M. Krishna, State Congress(I) president and the party's chief ministerial candidate. "I don't know whether this baggage (Patel's faction) is acceptable to the BJP as three of its dyed-in-the-wool RSS leaders from the State have opposed it. I don't think the party can compete with the Congress(I) with this deadweight on its back."

There is also a great deal of opposition within the Congress(I) to an alliance with the Deve Gowda-led entity which may be imposed by the party's central leadership. "I refuse to succumb to pressure on this," Krishna told Frontline. (The Congress( I) lost a number of middle-level leaders to the BJP in recent defections, including M. Rajashekaramurthy, a prominent leader.)

Siddaramaiah has said that his "party", or rather the Deve Gowda-led entity will continue with its policy of equidistance from the Congress(I) and the BJP. "We are fighting this battle on our own. The rumours about us joining hands with the Congress(I) i s based on speculation," he told Frontline.

The Deve Gowda- and Sharad Yadav-led entities now await the decision of the Election Commission on which will be allotted the party symbol.

Naturally, it is the Janata Dal which is the worst affected by the split. This is a party in which intense personality-based factionalism is a permanent affliction. On several occasions this has led to splits, the last of which occurred in the Karnataka unit when Ramakrishna Hegde was expelled from the party in July 1996. That episode was followed by several similar occasions, when "dissidence" (the official word for factionalism) threatened to break the party.

Patel's decision to move to the BJP-led coalition through the agency of the Lok Shakti was influenced by his personal rivalry with Deve Gowda. After Patel became Chief Minister in May 1996 (in an inner-party contest against Deve Gowda's candidate Siddara maiah, the present Deputy Chief Minister), he charted a course independent of Deve Gowda, in which he kept his links with Hegde public and, to Deve Gowda's chagrin, very cordial.

Weakened by in-fighting and a poor record in government, the Janata Dal fared poorly in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. It won only three of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, as against the 16 it won in the 1996 elections.

The split will have a major impact on the politics of Karnataka. In the short term it has changed the political equations within and among the major political parties. In the long run, the disintegration of the Janata Dal in some sense signifies the weak ening of centrist politics, which shaped in Karnataka an alternative model of planned government in the post-Emergency period. Centrist politics took root in the socialist movement in Karnataka, and one of the reasons for its disintegration lies in the r ightward shift in the ideology and politics of many of those who were part of the socialist trend - for example, Ramakrishna Hegde, and now J.H. Patel. Of course, the Janata Dal has on more than one occasion resurrected itself. In any case, Karnataka's p olitics will never be the same again.