HD Kumaraswamy goes on offensive, but the reprieve for Karnataka's JD(S)-Congress govt may only be temporary

  • Ever since the coalition government was formed nine months ago, not a week passed without a crisis or a threat to its existence.

  • Kumaraswamy ripped Prime Minister Narendra Modi apart for “preaching the whole country about protecting the system.

  • In all, seven MLAs were absent at Friday’s Congress Legislature Party meeting.

The coalition of Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka came down on its enemies like a tonne of bricks on Friday — Congress, on four rebel MLAs; and the JD(S), on BJP for trying to topple the government.

They came down so heavily that the government itself may crash in the momentum, or may even survive at least for the time being. This only means that nobody knows yet the cast, genre, show timings and conclusion of the next edition of Karnataka’s nataka. It’s an edge-of-the-seat serial thriller with no spoilers to ruin the fun.

Ever since the coalition government was formed nine months ago, not a week passed without a crisis or a threat to its existence.

But finally driven to the wall, Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy of JD(S) flaunted to the media two audio clips that purportedly caught state BJP president BS Yeddyurappa offering Rs 25 crore (Rs 10 crore is also mentioned elsewhere in the conversation) to an MLA of his party for switching sides. This and the threat of Congress to disqualify four of its rebel MLAs, who ignored the party’s whip for the third time in three weeks on Friday, together achieved for the coalition two things:

One — possible stability for the government, however short-lived it might be; two — shifting the focus from the internal problems of the coalition, which are at the root of its problems, to BJP’s so-called “Operation Lotus” to destabilise the government. Besides, Kumaraswamy’s tapes and the disqualification threat to rebels have the potential for turning into police and court cases.

 HD Kumaraswamy goes on offensive, but the reprieve for Karnatakas JD(S)-Congress govt may only be temporary

File image of Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy. AP

The next deadline the BJP is setting now for the government to fall is a good one week away, when the coalition needs majority support to pass the state Budget that was presented in the Assembly on Friday. Failure to pass it would mean the government’s collapse. The BJP is hoping that when Finance Bill comes up for voting, enough number of the coalition’s MLAs will either resign from their seats or absent themselves from the Assembly, a prospect that seems highly unlikely as things stand now.

It was three hours before he presented the Budget that Kumaraswamy played part of what was largely an unclear audio tape that had a conversation between two people who, the chief minister claimed, were Yeddyurappa and one Sharangouda, the son of JD(S) MLA Nagangouda Kandkur. A voice, which Kumaraswamy claimed to be that of Yeddyurappa, could be heard telling the purported son of JD(S) MLA about the money and ministerial berth his father could get if he switched sides.  In another audio clip, a voice that Kumaraswamy claimed was that of BJP MLA Shivangouda Naik talks about having "taken care" of the Assembly speaker with Rs 50 crore and fixing judges in case the anti-defection law was used against defectors.

While making these claims, Kumaraswamy ripped Prime Minister Narendra Modi apart for “preaching to the whole country about protecting the system and then letting his friends destroy the same system”. Yeddyurappa was quick to rubbish the tape as “fake” and offered to quit politics if it was proved to be authentic.

Truant MLAs

In all, seven MLAs were absent at Friday’s Congress Legislature Party meeting. One of them, JN Ganesh, has been absconding to evade arrest after assaulting a fellow Congress legislator at a resort last month. Two others — Roshan Baig and BC Patil — are unhappy with the party but had good reasons to be absent at the meeting. That leaves four others who have proved to be tough nuts to crack for Congress: Ramesh Jarkiholi, Umesh Jadhav, Mahesh Kumatalli and B Nagendra. These four have defied the party whips to attend the 18 January Legislature Party meeting, the legislature session that began on Wednesday and the meeting on Friday.

The party rejected the reasons they gave for their absence and is now threatening to write to the Speaker to get them disqualified. The post of the chairman of a statutory corporation given earlier to Jadhav has also been withdrawn. Yeddyurappa claimed that about a dozen or more MLAs didn’t turn up at the Congress party meeting and said in a menacing voice: “Wait for a few days, and see what happens.”

Calculated risk

On the face of it, losing four MLAs could take Congress perilously closer to danger in the Assembly with a total strength of 225 members (including the Speaker and a nominated member), and the simple majority mark stands at 113. BJP has a strength of 106, including two Independents. Congress and JD(S) together have the support of 119, including the rebels and a lone BSP MLA. So even without the four rebels, the coalition will retain a slender majority.

Acting tough on turncoats, Congress hopes, will make fence-sitters think twice before crossing the floor unless their number is large enough. While holding the stick of discipline in one hand against some dissidents, Congress is also dangling carrots at others. Late on Thursday night, two potential defectors were made chairmen of statutory boards and a third one was given the job of a parliamentary secretary to a minister.

The mess in Karnataka also has a lot do with the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. The BJP won 17 of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and wants to retain that winning edge or even improve that tally by snatching the government from the coalition. The party’s central leadership has given a tacit approval for Yeddyurappa to carry out his “Operation Lotus”. And for Yeddyurappa, who will be 76 this month, this is also the last chance to be chief minister. If the operation hasn’t met with success so far, it’s because he hasn’t been able to muster up enough rebels in the coalition.

BJP’s clumsy designs

And that’s the reason why BJP is reluctant to move its own motion of no-confidence against the Kumaraswamy government, and instead wants to wait for it to fall by itself, though it offers more than a helping hand to rebels.

Yeddyurappa has been hoping against hope that a dozen or so MLAs of the coalition — especially of Congress — would do the needful by resigning from the Assembly (to avoid the anti-defection law). And those whom BJP has been weaning away were refusing to go to the extent of resigning in smaller numbers. It’s understandable that MLAs are reluctant to quit the Assembly and face by-elections less than a year after their election in May 2018, unless they are sure about the government’s fall and about what they will get in a new regime.

Though crestfallen after Friday’s developments, Yeddyurappa knows he has lost another battle, but not the war. Getting rid of the Kumaraswamy government has by now turned into a permanent 24/7 part of his programme in Karnataka. At the same time, the differences within JD(S) and Congress — and between the two parties — are not just about to be resolved: placating one set of dissidents always goes with the risk of creating a new set of them. The result of all this will be that the curtain won’t come down on Karnataka’s nataka for a long while more.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Feb 09, 2019 12:13:02 IST