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SMOOTH, according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, means untroubled by difficulties and adverse conditions. For more than a week, 'smooth' was the word repeatedly used by nearly half-a-dozen senior Karnataka ministers to describe the expected transition in the state as former chief minister H.D. Deve Gowda waited in the wings to take over as prime minister. But if the events that led to the swearing-in of 65-year-old Jayadevappa Halappa Patel as the new chief minister are anything to go by, 'smooth' was redefined to mean just the opposite.
"The transition will be a smooth affair and will be over in half-an-hour. As deputy chief minister, I am the natural choice to succeed Deve Gowda." That was the first salvo fired by Patel and it triggered off the race—with himself in lane one—for the coveted chair on the third floor of Vidhana Soudha. But Patel had to go through 10 hours of negotiations, dissension and anxiety before he was able to breast the tape at the end of the day. Finance Minister Siddaramaiah was disqualified by consensus and forced to accept the number two position of deputy chief minister.
The trouble began when the list of contenders started growing after Patel's announcement of being the natural choice and a sulking Ramakrishna Hegde, considered by some as Patel's mentor, covertly endorsed his candidature by joining the 'smooth' brigade. Siddaramaiah, a relatively young backward class leader belonging to the Kuruba (shepherd) community, threw his hat into the ring by lobbying support from MLAs belonging to the backward classes for Karnataka's first chief minister from the backward classes and give a boost to Janata Dal's social justice plank. Home Minister P.G.R. Sindhia, a Maratha backward and also a Gowda lieutenant, Agriculture Minister C. Byre Gowda, another Vokkaliga, and Industries Minister R.V. Deshpande added to the confusion by staking claim for the top job.
"Staking claim despite the realisation that one stands no chance is a political trick. It is done with the hope of getting an important portfolio when the ministry is formed and maybe 10 years later be considered more seriously due to their history of staking claim," a senior minister in the cabinet said tongue-in-cheek about the attempts of his colleagues. As if to prove him right, the contest narrowed down to Patel and Siddaramaiah as the JD legislature party was convened and the arithmetic of caste combinations took over.
As chief minister, Gowda had antagonised the Ling-ayats—who have 38 JD MLAs, the largest number in the assembly—by denying them important portfolios and not appointing them as heads of government boards and corporations in the state. With his elevation to the country's highest political office after a creditable performance in the Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka, Gowda saw this as the ideal opportunity to buy peace by allowing for Patel's 'natural succession'. But Siddaramaiah, boosted by the arrival of Sharad Yadav as central observer on deputation by party president Laloo Prasad Yadav, was hellbent on queering the pitch. The JDLP meeting was adjourned after a five-member committee consisting of Gowda, Hegde, Bommai, state JD president C.M. Ibrahim and Yadav failed to arrive at a decision.
"While the committee insisted on a consensus decision, Siddaramaiah, confident of gaining the approval of the majority of legislators, wanted to force the issue through voting. About 70 per cent of the legislators were expected to vote for him," a Gowda confidant told Outlook. With voting expected to bring out the division in the party, Gowda refused to accede to Siddaramaiah's demand and the committee browbeat the finance minister to wait his turn.
A Lohiaite known for his witty oratorical skill, Patel is, however, seen to have lost the motivation for administration and is considered to be very laidback. He is said to have confessed in private that he would not be able to work as hard as his predecessor who put in 18-hour days. Which according to political observers, means a change in the functioning style of the administrative machinery, though no drastic deviations in policies are expected.