Last year, when the results to the Karnataka Legislative Assembly were announced on May 15, there was high drama as no party got a clear majority. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with 104 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), emerged as the single largest party, while the incumbent Indian National Congress, with 78 MLAs, came second. With 37 victorious candidates, the Janata Dal (Secular), performed well below the party’s own expectations. The nation’s eyes were now focussed on Karnataka as both the BJP and a coalition of the Congress and the JD(S) made a bid for power in the 224-member Assembly.
In a widely criticised move, Governor Vajubhai Vala first invited B.S. Yeddyurappa, a septuagenarian BJP leader, to form the government. He became Chief Minister for six days but resigned ahead of the floor test to prove his majority in the House, realising that he could not muster the required numbers. During the time of his brief chief ministership, there were serious allegations that the BJP was trying to lure MLAs of the coalition to its side. Purported phone conversations where Congress MLAs were offered crores of rupees surfaced.
On May 23, H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) became the Chief Minister with the support of the Congress even though his party had fewer than half the number of MLAs the Congress had. The uneasy coalition continues to date.
Recently, there was a revival of the unsavoury political drama the State witnessed in May last year, with the BJP making a desperate attempt to renew “Operation Kamala”, a pejorative term used for the BJP’s efforts at luring opposition MLAs. The coalition government has had issues with regard to portfolio allocations since Kumaraswamy came to power, and the Congress had kept a few ministerial berths from its quota vacant to be filled subsequently. The much-delayed expansion and Cabinet reshuffle happened in the last week of December 2018 during which, apart from the appointment of new Ministers, Ramesh Jarkiholi, a powerful Congress leader from the district of Belagavi, was divested of his ministerial portfolio.
A disgruntled Jarkiholi rebelled against the State leadership of the party and, along with three other Congress MLAs, opened a channel of communication with the State BJP leadership. Jarkiholi and his four brothers (two of whom, Satish Jarkiholi and Balachandra Jarkiholi, are also MLAs) control politics in the large north-west district of Belagavi. Sniffing an opportunity, the BJP tried to lure a few MLAs such as Anand Singh, who had shown vacillating tendencies in the past. This led to accusations and counter-accusations of poaching from both the BJP and the Congress–JD(S) coalition.
Karnataka’s great contribution to contemporary politics in India has been its “resort politics” where MLAs are ferried away to fancy resorts to keep them from being poached. This time, too, the BJP bundled up all its MLAs to a posh hotel in Gurugram. The Congress could have given a strong message at this point that it had confidence in its legislators and was not abandoning the people of Karnataka, but it panicked and took its legislators to a resort on the outskirts of the city after a Congress Legislature Party meeting on January 18.
A Congress MLA who spoke to Frontline on condition of anonymity said: “It was disappointing to see that we were treated like cattle and bundled off in buses to Eagleton Resort. I was offered Rs.30 crore in 2008 to switch over to the BJP and the offer is higher now. Is the BJP getting less money from Delhi? Their coffers are flooded. There are attempts at poaching, but does this mean we should be treated like cattle and herded off to resorts abruptly?”
Anand Singh, the Congress MLA from Vijayanagara, was allegedly beaten up by a fellow Congress MLA, J.N. Ganesh, after a fracas during their stay at the resort, a fallout of the political machinations being played out, sullying the way in which the Congress party handled the event. Photographs of the injured MLA, who was hospitalised, made it to the front pages of many newspapers in Karnataka. It was only the death of the revered Lingayat seer Shivakumara Swami on January 21 that brought a temporary halt to this current bout of political instability in Karnataka.
What does all this mean as political parties gear up for the Lok Sabha election, which is just a few months away? The BJP made frequent attempts to lure the ruling coalition’s MLAs, but even otherwise it has not been smooth sailing for the coalition partners. While the Congress and the JD(S) have stated that they will contest the Lok Sabha election together as allies in Karnataka, it is clear that everything is not well. Since he became Chief Minister, Kumaraswamy has had at least five reported outbursts where he expressed his difficulty in leading the coalition government. The most recent of these reports emerged on January 10 when Kumaraswamy, at an internal meeting of JD(S) legislators, stated that he was working like a “clerk” and not a Chief Minister as there was “heavy interference” from the Congress.
“For now, the government will not collapse even though there will be perpetual instability,” said Prof. Muzaffar Assadi, a political scientist and Vice Chancellor of Raichur University. “The efforts at horse-trading by the BJP and the political hara-kiri will continue, but the overall political situation will not change,” he said. The general sentiment of leading political analysts and politicians in the State is that the government will remain stable at least until the parliamentary elections.
Prof. Sandeep Shastri, Vice Chancellor of Jain University, analysed the situation thus: “Whenever Karnataka has had no single party securing a majority [as in 2004, 2008 and 2018], it has paved the way for political instability. On all three occasions, the political instability was seen in two different ways. Firstly, in the frequent switching of loyalties by independent MLAs, and secondly in the resignation of MLAs who wished to leave the parent party and move to another. This caused frequent floor crossing and instability of governments. When a single party secures a comfortable majority, it is noticed that while there is dissidence and discomfort in a segment of the ruling party MLAs on the distribution of ‘political spoils’, they have little room for manoeuvrability. This time around, two developments need to be budgeted into the discussion. Firstly, there are only two independents and one BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] MLA. Their capacity to bargain is thus severely restricted. Secondly, for the BJP to destabilise the coalition government, the number of MLAs they need to ensure the resignation of is too high and will involve immense costs [both fiscal and in terms of other tangible benefits]. This explains the failure of Operation Lotus [Kamala] 2019.”
A senior journalist who covers State politics said: “There are two important people who want this coalition to continue: one is H.D. Kumaraswamy and the other is D.K. Shivakumar [Congress MLA and Minister of Water Resources in the State government]. The day one of them decides that the coalition has outlived its political usefulness, this government will fall, but this is not going to happen before the parliamentary elections.”
Shivakumar is a powerful Vokkaliga leader from southern Karnataka who has chief ministerial ambitions. He has continued to remain loyal to the Congress even though the BJP has made serious efforts to lure him. He acquired national clout after he was seen as the man who deftly handled the political crisis in May and ensured that Congress MLAs remained loyal to the party.
His interference in the political affairs of Belagavi through his proxy, Laxmi Hebbalkar, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee women’s wing president and MLA, is said to have triggered Jarkiholi’s resentment against the Congress leadership even before his removal as Minister.
The BJP’s recurrent efforts to destabilise the government have kept it on tenterhooks. “There are two reasons why the BJP is hell-bent on bringing this government down. First, we have to consider Yeddyurappa’s age. He is 75 years old now and will not be able to become the Chief Minister again in the normal course as he’ll be almost 80 years old by the time the next election takes place. Secondly, the central leadership of the BJP knows that if the coalition government topples, it is easy to ‘manage’ the Lok Sabha election in the State and they will make it national publicity material on how the Congress cannot be trusted as an ally,” said Chandan Gowda, professor of sociology, Azim Premji University.
While Kumaraswamy has shown signs of fatigue in leading the coalition, one thing that has worked in his favour is that the JD(S) has presented itself as a united front under his leadership. It is the Congress with multiple power centres (such as former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, Shivakumar and Deputy Chief Minister G. Parameshwara) that looks chaotic and it is only its MLAs who are in communication with the BJP leadership.
It is clear that political instability will continue in Karnataka for the next few months even though it is certain that the government will not collapse until the Lok Sabha election as both the Congress and the JD(S) need each other for mutual survival. The BJP will continue its efforts at luring MLAs from the ruling coalition, and the tension within the ruling coalition between the Congress and the JD(S) will continue.
Meanwhile, governance has taken a beating. Said a senior bureaucrat: “National planning involving long-term works is taking a huge hit in Karnataka because there is no stable government. We have never seen MLAs to be so restless and making constant demands for works [meaning funds for them] in their constituencies which means that they can use their discretionary power in the way in which funds are allocated.”
So while the government is certain to survive, in the long run it needs to get its act together so that the people of Karnataka do not suffer.