In the year 965, Odin, the king of Asgard, wages war against the Frost Giants of Jotunheim and their leader Laufey, to stop them from taking over the nine realms, starting with Earth. Odin has two sons: Thor and Loki. Only one of them can take his place on the throne of Asgard. Loki asks the villain Laufey to kill his father. But his real intention is to slay Laufey as he enters Odin’s bedroom and then pretend to be a hero.
This is the plot of the 2011 American superhero film Thor. As we move from Asgard to Karnataka, in the ruling alliance of Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) there aren’t too may Thors, but Lokis around. What happens as a result is the state’s worst-kept secret. First, there is always trouble within the Congress. Then there is more trouble when it attempts to uncover who made the original trouble.
In the confusion, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) steps in, apparently with suitcases of money to seduce MLAs and kick out the government. Then troublemakers turn trouble-shooters and frustrate the BJP’s plans, looking like knights in shining armour saving damsels in distress.
And just when everything appears like a they-lived-happily-ever-after ending of Mills & Boon pulp, it suddenly turns into the climax of an Arabian Nights tale: "They lived happily until there came to them the one who destroys happiness."
The latest episode in Karnataka’s nataka is about an 80-minute audio tape which supposedly exposes BJP’s unabashed attempts to buy up MLAs of the Congress-JD(S) coalition. The saffrons ended with planet-sized eggs on faces and made clumsy attempts to wriggle out of the allegation. This time, it was the alliance which had the last laugh—the exposé got four rebels of Congress, one of JD(S) and an Independent back to the coalition, saved the government from collapsing and apparently raised the hackles of BJP president Amit Shah.
Though it’s advantage Congress-JD(S) alliance for now, the underlying factors that contribute to the continuing drama are unlikely to change.
Theatre of the absurd
Ever since the Congress-JD(S) alliance was hastily stitched together after the May 2018 elections, the government has been tottering from one existential crisis to another so fast that it looks like one long, horrible nightmare for chief minister HD Kumaraswamy.
The dramatis personae of the Karnataka thriller are:
- HD Kumaraswamy of JD(S), who is sitting on the edge of the chief minister's chair precariously, not knowing when he will fall. By exposing the incriminating audio tape, he is one-up for now, but that doesn’t guarantee his happiness for long. He has been openly venting frustration over his party’s coalition with the Congress, shedding tears in public, complaining that he had been reduced to being a "clerk" and threatening to throw it all away and go home, though nobody believes him.
- Siddaramaiah of the Congress, the former chief minister (2013-18), now the head of a coordination committee meant to ensure the coalition’s smooth functioning. He can’t, however, stomach the fact that Kumaraswamy, the son of his one-time mentor and current arch-rival, HD Deve Gowda, is the chief minister. Expelled from the JD(S), Siddaramaiah joined the Congress in 2006. Though Siddaramaiah is seen primarily as a troublemaker, he formally declared himself to be a trouble-shooter last year. See this tweet:
I have been made the leader of coordination committee to be the troubleshooter for the coalition govt. I'll not allow anyone to destabilize the govt. Our govt will complete full 5 year term. People have very good opinion and farm loan waiver is being appreciated by all.@INCKarnataka
2:56 PM - Sep 30, 2018
- Congress leader and minister DK Shivakumar, who does everything he can to stop Siddaramaiah from giving the government a tumble. One of India’s richest politicians, "DKS" is a celebrated trouble-shooter with a successful track record in keeping the party’s flock intact in five-star resorts when their loyalties become negotiable or when rivals try to nick them.
- BS Yeddyurappa, the state BJP president, who is in a hurry to have a final go at the chief minister's post. He is 76. His three earlier terms were badly truncated—the first lasted seven days (2007); the second, three years (2008-11) and the third for six days (2018). Many BJP leaders don’t share his gung-ho spirit for toppling the government and instead want to focus on the upcoming Lok Sabha election. But Yeddy is unstoppable.
It’s easy to see that the genesis of even the latest trouble lies squarely in Congress. A 22 December cabinet expansion left so many legislators disgruntled that they became easy prey for the BJP. But when the prey is sitting on the fence and winking at the predator, you begin to wonder who is up to what mischief.
The discontent was chiefly caused by the fact that Siddaramaiah’s supporters had the major advantage in the cabinet expansion. Some MLAs supporting him later went to the extent of attacking Kumaraswamy publicly, leading to the impression of a tottering government.
For the time being, the tape has shifted focus from the coalition’s internal wrangling to the BJP’s wooing of MLAs. It has voices, allegedly of Yeddyurappa and two BJP MLAs, wooing a JD(S) legislator (through his son) with money and claiming to have taken care of the Assembly Speaker and "judges".
After rubbishing the whole thing as fake, Yeddyurappa later said he had indeed met the MLA’s son, but claimed that the incriminating parts of the conversation had been made up.
Considering the legal and technical uncertainties over forensic investigations authenticating recorded voices, the inquiry that Kumaraswamy has ordered may not end in a hurry.
There have been tapes of this kind in the past, supposedly incriminating leaders of the BJP, JD(S) and Congress. Parties have being hurling tapes at each other like gangsters exchange fire.
The history of 'tapeworms' biting into Karnataka’s politics goes back 36 years. Yes, we are talking about the "Moily tapes" of 1983 that stunned the whole nation. It was an audio recording with a voice, purportedly of Congress leader Veerappa Moily, trying to entice an MLA with Rs 2 lakh to topple the Janata Party government of Ramakrishna Hegde. It was four years later that Moily was exonerated for insufficient evidence.
If the latest tapes seem like a colossal blunder by the BJP, it is. But nobody can be sure what legal turn the Yeddyurappa tapes will take.
Now that the government is safe, for the time being, it’s once again a case of arsonists claiming to be firefighters.
Wait for the next sequel.
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