As the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government totters on the brink — on Wednesday, two more MLAs resigned— leaders of the two parties have begun to reflect on the path that led to the current crisis, one that began with a rebel’s resignation and culminated with a series of what they term “man-made disasters”.
About six months before the current crisis, a similar one played out as MLAs from the two partners tried to defect to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While four MLAs emerged as rebels, only one eventually resigned from the Congress as others were believed to be afraid of the legal consequences. The Congress MLA from Chincholi, Umesh Jadhav, quit, went on to join the BJP and defeat Congress heavyweight, Mallikarjun Kharge, in the Gulbarga seat in the Lok Sabha polls.
With the other rebels backing down, the coalition was confident it had stymied the BJP and its own dissidents. What it did not realise was that Jadhav’s resignation and Lok Sabha victory cleared doubts in MLAs’ minds about the limits of the speaker’s and coalition’s powers, senior leaders from both the Congress and BJP told HT. “There was definitely some fear of legal reprisal among the rebels in January, especially, after we moved a petition with the speaker under the anti-defection law against Ramesh Jarkiholi, Mahesh Kumathahalli, B Nagendra and Jadhav,” a Congress leader said.
The fact that Jadhav’s resignation was accepted and the manner of his victory over Kharge convinced the rebels that the coalition would be powerless if resignations were submitted. “There certainly was a fear before Jadhav’s victory, and that victory, as well as the near sweep of the BJP in the parliamentary polls, did change things,” a senior BJP leader admitted. Wiser from its experiences in the January round, the BJP learnt that it had to limit the number of people allowed to stay in touch with dissidents. “This round of resignations came as a surprise to some of our own leaders because we were instructed to keep [only] a select few in the loop,” another BJP leader said.
The BJP entrusted communications to MLAs, Arvind Limbavali and CN Ashwath Narayan, who sent daily updates to the former chief minister and BJP state president, BS Yeddyurappa. “We realised that the earlier rounds failed because too much information was being leaked,” the second BJP leader, an MLA added.
Ashwath Narayan, a Vokkaliga leader and the MLA from Malleshwaram, is an education baron with deep pockets and Limbavalli is a Dalit leader who is a front runner for the Karnataka BJP president’s post.
The BJP was helped by its performance in the Lok Sabha elections, where it swept 25 of 28 seats. “After the first round, we decided that we would let the coalition bicker and do our job for us, rather than get our hands dirty unnecessarily,” the second leader said, referring to an audio tape that purportedly recorded Yeddyurappa enticing an MLA’s son to get his father to defect.
Along the way, a series of blunders from the coalition helped fan the rebellion. One of the rebel leaders, who submitted his resignation, told HT that the last nail in the coffin was the coalition’s decision to induct the two independent MLAs in the Cabinet on June 14. “It was almost as if they dared us to take them on. Instead of placating anger within their ranks they indicated to us that they would much rather deal with others,” the leader said on condition of anonymity.
The seniormost among the rebels, Ramalinga Reddy of the Congress and AH Vishwanath of the JD(S), openly expressed their displeasure against their parties. Reddy, a seven term MLA, was upset that he was overlooked for a ministerial berth.
Vishwanath resigned as the JD(S) state president last month but not before he said he was “open to becoming a minister”. The coalition, though, chose to fill the three vacancies for ministerial posts with two independents, leaving just one unfilled — perhaps as a bargaining tool.
The Congress also got complacent after inducting independent R Shankar. Known as Pendulum Shankar in state political circles for yo-yoing between the BJP and the coalition to get the best deal, he was never seen as a reliable partner. However, as the lone MLA, he agreed to merge his Karnataka Pragnyavantha Janatha Legislature Party with the Congress. He even submitted a letter to former CM Siddaramaiah to this effect. However, the party failed to follow up on this officially and complete the necessary paperwork. It did not submit a letter to the legislature stating that the KPJP had merged with the Congress. A senior official at the secretariat explained it had received no such letter so far.
So unaware was the Congress of this lapse that it included Shankar’s name in the list of Congress MLAs who skipped the legislature party meeting. It even included his name in the anti-defection petition it moved with the speaker. When contacted, CLP secretary PR Ramesh insisted that Shankar was a Congress MLA. When asked if the party has officially communicated this to the secretariat, he said: “We have to enquire what happened in that matter.” The second BJP leader said that his party was aware of this. “We knew that Shankar was still an independent. Every MLA has a bevy of lawyers who they consult, so everybody knows exactly what their position is, unlike the Congress party,” he said, rubbing it in.
A Congress minister said the current crisis was “just the result of a series of “man-made disasters, beginning with the decision to form a coalition without consulting local leaders”. The minister said that at the state level, “all the dissidents ire is reserved towards just two people — Siddaramaiah and G Parameshwara (the Congress leader who is the deputy CM of the state)”.
“The older leaders are angry with Siddaramaiah and the newer ones with Parameshwara,” the minister added. Siddaramaiah because he was seen by old-time Congressmen as an arrogant interloper who was dictating terms in the party they built over decades — he defected from the JD(S) in 2006. The younger lot with “zero traffic” Parmeshwara (referring to the Deputy CM’s penchant on insisting all traffic be cleared for his convoy to zip through notoriously gridlocked Bengaluru) for interfering in the affairs of running Bengaluru without consulting party MLA’s .
Similarly, all anger in the JD(S) is directed towards CM HD Kumaraswamy and his brother HD Revanna, the minister said.