A battle for power, a political tussle, one that is completely unscrupulous, bereft of shame and grace, rages in Karnataka.
It hurts the image of one of the three big Indian states — with a nearly 80% literacy rate. Even as 26 of the 30 parched districts of Karnataka battle drought, the state’s politicians are displaying an unquenchable thirst for power. A chief minister holidaying in the US had to rush back and has been fire-fighting. The ruling JDS-Congress combine, led by H D Kumaraswamy, is trying to save its throne while the BJP is out to dethrone it.
At the centre of the upheaval are over a dozen and a half MLAs.
Honest introspection about their conduct will indicate that terms like “Aya Ram Gaya Ram”, “ideological turncoats” and “party hoppers” are too mild to describe them. Terms like “politicians swayed by allurements”, “power-hungry”, “harbingers of political degeneration who are abusing public trust and the mandate” seem somewhat more suitable.
No one who is locked in this power struggle is smelling of roses or has even a moral fig leaf left to hide behind.
The JDS-Congress alliance was creaking since the day they came together — with the CM once famously saying he has been “swallowing the poison of coalition government” — and it has failed to win the trust of the MLAs. They were allies who had fought against each other and had foreseen a future in which they would be rivals.
The Congress has been directionless due to its President Rahul Gandhi’s resignation saga.
Its leaders don’t see a promising future for the party — which is being chased by a predatory BJP. The saffron party had won 25 of the 28 seats in Karnataka with 51.4% votes in the Lok Sabha and it doesn’t have the aptitude to wait for the remaining term of the Assembly to return to power.
It has been raining resignations of MLAs from Karnataka’s ruling combine. Rebel MLAs, flying out of “unsafe” Bengaluru in chartered aircraft, have been hosted at plush Mumbai hotels. They have been making a dash to Goa, even as the Congress hitman DK Shivakumar was headed to the nation’s commercial capital for a counter strike.
The Renaissance didn't start: Congress' DK Shivakumar escorted away from the hotel where the rebel MLAs are reportedly camping. (Photo: Twitter/ @ANI)
The BJP maintains that it is merely “waiting and watching”. The party’s denials — despite purported active abetment — are similar to someone committing a crime and trying to ensure that no fingerprints are left on the scene.
But even the smartest of political saboteurs leaves a trail.
The charter aircraft that hauled the rebel MLAs from Bengaluru to Mumbai — a BJP-ruled safe zone — belonged to a company purportedly owned by a Rajya Sabha MP associated with the BJP.
Ex-Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, who is 76 years old (one year over the 75-years benchmark, fixed by Prime Minister Modi for any BJP leader to any office) is an old man who is in a hurry to be CM. He issued a press statement a few days ago, claiming that the BJP had nothing to do with the rebellion in the coalition. However, his personal assistant and two MLAs are said to have ushered 11 rebel MLAs from Raj Bhavan to Bengaluru's HAL Airport towards a private chartered flight.
A spokesperson for Jupiter Capital had admitted that the said SOS plane did indeed belong to Jupiter Capital and that it is the discretion of the company to “rent out” an aircraft when a request is received. The swanky hotel which hosted the rebels for a comfortable, but more importantly, an insulated stay, also apparently belongs to a BJP sympathiser, according to sources. At the hotels, “guest rebel MLAs” are provided with security and facilitation rings by Mumbai BJP men.
Twice in Parliament, when the government has responded on Karnataka, it has fielded Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and not Amit Shah — who holds the Home Affairs portfolio and has interstate relations as a mandate.
BJP making haste slowly — and why
In May last year, when Karnataka voters presented a terribly hung mandate, the BJP, in a classic bull in china shop fashion, put together half-baked numbers and reached the Raj Bhawan, staking claim to form the government. The Governor — an old BJP hand — went by the single largest party doctrine and Yeddyurappa was CM. But the three-day-old government collapsed on May 19, 2018, with the Chief Minister announcing his decision to resign without facing a trust vote.
This came after, when on May 18, 2018, the Supreme Court ordered a floor test in the Karnataka Assembly at 4 PM on May 19, 2018. This drastically slashed the 15-day window given by Governor Vajubhai Vala to Yeddyurappa to prove his majority.
The leaders doth protest too much: BS Yeddyurappa and other BJP members outside the Vidhana Souda. (Photo: Twitter/ @ANI)
The BJP got the proverbial egg on its face and learnt its lesson — and that is why it apparently suspended its operation “Bring Down Kumaraswamy” ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
So, Yeddyurappa and the BJP strongmen, who traditionally shepherded the opposition MLAs by sowing seeds of mutiny, stopped making phone calls. This is because some such conversations were reportedly clandestinely recorded in May 2018 and had gone viral on social media. The saffron party let the inner contradictions of the JDS-Congress alliance play out in the electoral arena, and did not allow the alliance to go around as a victim.
The BJP’s current distancing-cum-abetment is a sign that the party doesn’t want the blood of the Kumaraswamy government on its hands.
So, behind the scenes, knives are slashing — but the smokescreen of a democratic conduct is being hawked, as indicated by Yeddyurappa, who is sitting on a dharna outside Karnataka’s Vidhan Soudha and raising slogans like “Murder of democracy by the Kumaraswamy government.” According to him, the Kumaraswamy-led government has lost the numbers game in the Assembly due to its own internal tussles. There is an audible silence on how the numbers of the government got depleted.
The dharna is a sign that the BJP is waiting and not rushing. That is not because it doesn’t want to, but solely due to the fact that at a time when over a dozen MLAs have upset the ruling combine’s numbers, the BJP’s math is also far from complete.
The BJP also waits because the ball is squarely in Karnataka Assembly Speaker, K R Ramesh’s court right now. As a Speaker, he has apparently already tried to buy time by manoeuvres like asking MLAs to depose before him and by ruling that some of the resignation letters by rebel MLAs were not filed as per rules.
The rebels are not taking the Speaker’s “come to Bengaluru and meet me personally for the resignation” bait. They know that if they reach the state capital, their safety net would be blown and the state government has deep reserves of tricks to create grounds for a forced homecoming.
By delaying a decision on the resignations, the Speaker is apparently allowing the government more time to win back the birds that flew out of the coup. Also, as long as the Speaker, who is purportedly inclined towards the ruling combine, keeps the matter with himself, the Governor — whom the Congress and JDS claim is a BJP man — would have to largely stay out of the picture.
Will he Speak? The ball is currently in Karnataka Speaker K R Ramesh’s court right now. (File Photo: India Today)
So fraught with contradictions is the JDS-Congress alliance that a segment of the JDS is charging ex-Congress CM S Siddharamaiah — who has been averse to the alliance and rise of Kumaraswamy — with being instrumental behind the resignations. Siddharamaiah, on the other hand, opened a hostile front against the MLAs, asking for their immediate disqualification for anti-party activities. This flies against the parallel attempt by DK Shivakumar — the man who had defeated the BJP’s attempts in May 2018 — to break the Congress and JDS MLAs. Shivakumar has been flying to Mumbai to pacify the rebels and bring them back home. There is no pretence even to hide the political carrot — the leaders are openly saying that the rebels will get ministerial berths if they return home and back their parties.
So far, 12 Congress MLAs and three JDS MLAs have resigned. While the 15 have sent resignations from the Assembly seat to the Speaker, two independents have quit their ministerial berths by meeting the Governor.
The Karnataka assembly session is scheduled to start from July 12, 2019.
The BJP has a solid block of 105 MLAs. Post-the 15 resignations, the strength of the Assembly is now down to 209. Now 104 is the majority mark.
The BJP can form the government — if the rebels are out of the Assembly.
The saffron party hopes to engineer few more resignations to further lower the magic number in the state Assembly.
The possible scenarios in the next couple of days are limited and involve too many ifs and buts.
The Speaker can delay accepting the resignations and seek a test of numbers. However, that cannot be done indefinitely. The rebel MLAs have already petitioned the Supreme Court against the Speaker. A test of numbers will become inevitable, especially if the SC rules against the Speaker, as resignation is a legitimate right of the MLAs. The Governor will step in as and when there is clarity on numbers.
The Congress-JDS coalition, in a desperate bid to save the government, has made all ministers resign and put up a “vacancy in the cabinet” sign for the rebels.
That is the bait that the rebels seem to be resisting. Indications are that right now, the BJP’s short and long term offers are heftier.
However, the resignation by the ministers has ended the chances of the cabinet deciding to recommend dissolution of the House, to checkmate the BJP’s attempt to form an alternative government. That has allowed the Governor little foothold — he will not allow swearing-in of a new council without a trust vote.
Non-Invitation card: The letter reportedly from the 10 rebel Karnataka Congress-JD(S) MLAs to Mumbai Commissioner of Police. (Photo: Twitter/ @ANI)
The next option for the Congress-JDS combine is to wait for the moment when the MLAs come to Bengaluru, in case there is a floor test and the SC hasn’t adjudicated on their resignation plea. The Congress had beaten the BJP in the race to the throne in May 2018 by simply getting the numbers right via making better offers. Even one or two counter defections can upset the BJP’s plans.
The BJP may be in a hyper-drive — but the Congress and JDS are not sitting idle.
Sources say the independent MLA Nagesh, Congressman and seven-term MLA Ramalinga Reddy who wants control of the Bengaluru Development Ministry (a portfolio currently held by Deputy Chief Minister and Congressman Dr G Parameshwara), and two other MLAs are weak links. Sources added that DK Shivakumar is trying to persuade them.
The BJP also doesn’t have elbow room for many moves — it can form a government if Kumaraswamy falls or can force a midterm Assembly poll. The saffron party is moving slowly because of a few reasons. It has hurt the JDS and Congress, but is not sure if the rebels are with it completely, or is there more to come; during the floor test in May 2018, they hadn’t. Then the floor test will be held under the supervision of the Speaker who is not their man.
The Governor will order a floor test if Kumarswamy’s numbers get weakened further. If the BJP wants to form a government now, within the tenure of this Assembly, it has to manufacture a sizable lead over the opponent to insulate itself from a possible U-turn by the rebels.
Tough Road Ahead For BJP
Karnataka is BJP's gateway to the south — it is desperate to rule there to launch its Mission South.
It has won 25 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats but the Assembly is proving to be a tougher nut to crack. It can force a midterm poll and hope memories of the 14-month-old messy alliance will make voters give the saffron party a majority.
However, that is a distant tomorrow.
How much more poison? The JDS-Congress combine, led by H D Kumaraswamy, is hanging on by a thread. (Photo: Twitter/ @ANI)
If it forms the government now, the BJP would have to reward the defectors with ministerial berths. But Karnataka, with 224 assembly seats, can only have a 37-odd big council of ministers. Yeddyurappa, at one time, had a 32-member strong council. If the 13 rebels — once re-elected plus loyalty-hopping independents — are to be made ministers, at least a dozen of the BJP’s ministerial aspirants may have to sit out and prove that the party matters more than the gravy that a ministerial seat brings.
In Karnataka’s current political climate, that kind of loyalty is rare and commands a high premium
One quick look at Karnataka’s ongoing political turmoil is enough to indicate that this Assembly now is doomed with instability written all over it.
The midterm is a strong probability. Voters in India have NOTA. But I don’t know whether voters in Karnataka, especially at a time like this, have been thinking about a power they don’t have — the right to recall someone they chose but who didn’t deliver as the person was too busy pursuing his own greed.