Karnataka govt formation: Congress-JD(S) butting heads over portfolio distribution shows all isn't well in alliance

Former Congress chief minister Siddaramiah is at the moment probably wearing a wide smirk of self satisfaction. He could not prevent the Congress high command from rushing into an arrangement with the JD(S) as chief minister. He could not prevent state Congress chief G Parameshwara from becoming the deputy chief minister. He is in no way involved in the negotiations over portfolios. But he will play a part in the ministers' selection. After all, even if it is as dissident in chief, he can claim credit for the overall Congress vote percentage being higher than the BJP and double that of the JD(S).

The delay in ministry formation is not only a tussle over portfolios. It is also the ever-present Congress malaise: too many factions and too many claimants for too few posts. And Congress does have a long history of sidelining popular state leaders.

 Karnataka govt formation: Congress-JD(S) butting heads over portfolio distribution shows all isnt well in alliance

JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy and Congress MLA DK Shivakumar. PTI

It is not clear who exactly Ghulam Nabi Azad in Delhi is listening to from Bangalore on this. Apparently, it is not DK Shivakumar, former energy minister, the richest MLA in the state with declared assets of over Rs 200 crore, and the man who claims full credit for keeping the Congress' flock together till the coallition government could pass the floor test. Shivakumar was hoping to be immediately rewarded with an invitation to the governor's podium when as the deputy chief minister of the state. Now he is positioning himself as the preeminent Vokkaliga leader in Congress and will be wanting a suitable reward — perhaps a plush portfolio or the presidentship of the state Congress — for the services rendered. His denials of any differences with the party leadership in the state and Delhi have not convinced anyone.

Meanwhile, the finance portfolio is the biggest bone of contention between the two alliance partners. JD(S) needs the ministry to keep its core constituency of farmers happy and to implement the various freebies it had promised, while Congress wants it to fill its empty coffers before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Ministries like irrigation and industry, which have the potential to help Congress raise money, are some of the other contentious portfolios.

But the bigger problem for Congress will be in selecting 22-23 ministers, even after it is able to sort out the differences over portfolio distribution with JD(S). The party urgently needs to placate the Lingayat-Veerashaiva group, which has about 20 MLAs, and to whom BJP's BS Yediyurappa had appealed to 'listen to their conscience' on trust vote day. They will want rewards for their loyalty. Meanwhile, Siddaramiah will want adequate representation for his AHINDA combine, the deputy chief minister being a Dalit notwithstanding. The few seats that the Congress won in coastal Karnataka was entirely due to the Muslim vote, so that is yet another group that will need taking care of. Then there are the defectors from JD(S), whose inclusion is bound to rub the chief minister the wrong way. So far, there is no indication that the Congress will ask for a second deputy chief minister. But that is not to say they never will.

Kumaraswamy's blithe announcement that all this will be sorted out by 30 May, therefore, must be taken with a pinch generous helping of salt. There will be no satisfying everybody in both groups. As chief minister, Kumaraswamy will mostly be able to pacify his disgruntled elements with other sops. But that will be difficult for Congress. State Congress members' loyalty to the high command is a weak bond compared to their commitment to themselves. There is no hint that the Congress is giving any thought to how it can use this ministry formation and its next one year in power to counter the BJP in the 2019 general elections.

Moreover, a look at the recent statements made by Kumaraswamy and HD Deve Gowda gives us a sense of regret looming large on the father and son duo. Chief minister H D Kumaraswamy has said that he is at the "mercy of the Congress" and not the 6.2 crore people of Karnataka, though he did say that there is no crisis in portfolio distribution. His father HD Deve Gowda said that they were willing to support a Congress chief minister but it was the Congress which insisted that Kumaraswamy take up the job. At that time, the promise was of unconditional support. Realisation no doubt is dawning on the JD(S) that the Congress support is anything but unconditional.

Meanwhile, there is as yet no indication of brinkmanship by the chief minister. He wants to remain chief minister badly, notwithstanding his claims about listening to his conscience. How long will he tolerate the Congress pinpricks remains to be seen. Though he is unlikely to act unilaterally for now, nothing really prevents him from allotting the finance portfolio to himself and setting the wheels to implement his promises in motion. Presenting the Congress with a fait accompli in ministry formation may be his best option. What can the Congress do to retaliate? Even they must realise that bringing Kumaraswamy down will ensure their defeat in 2019 and beyond.

The author is former Editor-in-Charge, The Week

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Updated Date: May 29, 2018 18:18:18 IST