HD Kumaraswamy's Cabinet: JD(S), Congress end tussle over portfolios, but Opposition should learn from Karnataka, Kairana

It seemed like a lovely coincidence, almost too good to believe, when two things happened almost at once on Thursday.

One: In Kairana Lok Sabha by-election in Uttar Pradesh, a combined Opposition wrested the seat from BJP which had won it in a big way in 2014.

Two: In Karnataka, coalition partners, Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress, ended their weeklong tussle over sharing portfolios.

A crackerjacker election, accompanied by a killer deal? As for the first, it’s a case of appearances being deceptive. And the second is an example of deceptions appearing to be very sweet.

It looked like the mother of all deals ever struck since democracy was invented, and it was reached only when Congress meekly surrendered the finance portfolio to JD(S) after giving away the chief minister’s post to HD Kumaraswamy of that party a week ago.

What makes finance a sexy portfolio

Here is what they will never admit: Kumaraswamy wanted finance because he wanted to be free to waive farmers’ loans at a financially disastrous expense of Rs 1.2 lakh crore, by clipping the populist schemes of the outgoing Congress government as he pleased. Congress wanted finance because it didn’t want Kumaraswamy to do exactly that and look like a superman for farmers when the time comes for voting in 2019.

Besides, finance ministry’s cupboards can have skeletons of past governments. Each party wants to have access to these, because knowledge itself can be powerful by way of being a deal-maker.

At some point, Kumaraswamy said there was “no point” in being a chief minister unless the finance portfolio went with it. He went a step ahead by even making mild threats to quit.

During this wrangle, both indulged in hypocrisy and doublespeak of the worst kind. Congress cited the 2004 and 2006 precedents. In 2004, when Dharam Singh was the Congress chief minister, finance went to deputy chief minister Siddaramaiah of the coalition partner JD(S). Two years later, when Kumaraswamy was the JD(S) chief minister, he gave finance to deputy chief minister BS Yeddyurappa of his new coalition partner BJP of the time.

 HD Kumaraswamys Cabinet: JD(S), Congress end tussle over portfolios, but Opposition should learn from Karnataka, Kairana

File image of Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy. AP

Both, in 2004 and now, the “Maharashtra model” was cited as if it was a tenet etched in stone. Back then, JD(S) had said Congress must hand over finance to junior alliance partner as Congress did to NCP in Maharashtra. Congress at that time insisted that the Maharashtra pattern was restricted only to the posts of Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister and not to other portfolios. This time the two parties argued for the opposite quoting the same Maharashtra model!

But at last, the two parties called a truce of sorts on Thursday. And as a sideshow in the Rajarajeshwari Nagar assembly by-election in Bengaluru, the Congress, which had a “friendly fight” with JD(S), retained the seat.

Lessons from Kairana and Karnataka

Kairana and Karnataka together, with the Bengaluru by-election thrown in, hold some very grave lessons for Opposition. If the Modi-hatao band refuse to learn these lessons, their ambition will end up not simply as a case of counting chickens when eggs are hatching, but counting them when there are no eggs for starters.

When a dozen Opposition leaders smiled and hugged for a group photo, of the happily-ever-after kind you see at the end of some Indian movies, in Bengaluru on the day when Kumaraswamy was sworn in, some called Karnataka a laboratory for Opposition unity. And others called Kairana by-election a pilot project of this unity.

The pilot project is a roaring success. And in the laboratory of Karnataka, the test tube is cracked — sorry. It isn’t time — at least not as yet — for the Opposition to abandon the experiment and walk away but there are things to ponder over.

Preceded by Gorakhpur and Phulpur victories in March, Kairana proves that a combined Opposition, on paper, can possibly give more than goose bumps and headaches to the formidable duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. But these are by-elections held in ones and twos. Achieving Opposition unity on a larger scale in general elections is a different game.

The difference between winning Kairana and winning the 2019 general elections is something like the difference between an assassin taking pot shots with sniper fire and an army invading enemy territory with tanks.

Give-and-take? Only take!

There are many who are willing to bet that if JD(S) and Congress fought the 12 May Karnataka assembly election together, they would have swept the polls. Perhaps. But there is nobody willing to even guess whether the parties could have formed a pre-poll alliance. Both Congress and JD(S) were so confident of brilliant performances on their own till a few days before polling that any talks over seat-sharing before that would have been almost a nonstarter. That could be the case for many parties in many states in 2019, if they fail to have a give-and-take approach from sharing seats to ministerial berths.

There is nothing in the Karnataka alliance that looks even suspiciously like a give-and-take.

There is only giving by Congress, and taking by JD(S). Kumaraswamy knows he can get away with any demand. His stakes in this arrangement are personal, though he is in no hurry to lose his chief minister’s job. But he knows Congress has a higher, national stake in trouncing BJP in 2019 and forging opposition unity and won’t let the alliance collapse easily at least till then.

There is little doubt that Kumaraswamy’s father and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda played a key role in resolving the fracas over portfolios. On his part, Kumaraswamy has said he is at the mercy of Congress and he keeps referring to “high command” and Rahul Gandhi.

Kumaraswamy wants us to believe that he is a puppet in Rahul Gandhi’s hands. But it’s Rahul Gandhi who lies like the puppet, with strings pulled by Kumaraswamy and his father. Opposition unity? Try Kairana. Leave Karnataka alone for now.

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Updated Date: Jun 01, 2018 07:51:18 IST