THE coincidence is rather curious. In 1988, when the then Karnataka governor, P. Venkatasubbaiah, dismissed S.R. Bommais dissidenceridden Janata Party government, Bommai was watching the Amitabh Bachchan classic, Zanjeer, on video. Last week, as the curtains came down on a Bachchan classic of a different kindthe Miss World pageantthe ruling Janata Dal in the state was once again forced to reckon with dissent that is threatening to destabilise the J.H. Patel Government.
More than 20 Dal MLAs, out of a total of 115 in the 224-member assembly, shot off a letter to Patel demanding that a Janata Dal Legislature Party (JDLP) meeting be convened at the earliest. Drafted under the leadership of Vaijanath Patil, a legislator from north Karnataka who was part of the Deve Gowda ministry, the MLAs demanded that Patel prove his majority in the JDLP. The letter was conveniently timed a few days before one of Prime Minister Deve Gowdas monthly visits to Bangalore, forcing him to take notice of the dissidents displeasure.
The cause for the MLAs heartburn: Patels "irresponsible style of functioning" that had led to "lackadaisical administration", affecting the image of the party. The threat assumed significance with Patil claiming the support of Janata Dal MLAs in his letter. In a bid to assuage the feelings of the dissident MLAs, Gowda, in his inimitable fire-fighting style, named a panel of six senior cabinet ministers to meet with the dissidents and sort matters out. The move has, however, failed to make any headway, with the dissidents not keen on meeting the panel members and several panel members themselves being out of Bangalore.
This is the second threat to Patel in the six months he has been chief minister. During the first fortnight of his chief ministership, 17 MLAs had kicked up some dust over the 45-member council of ministers he had constituted. That crisisprovoked by D. Manjunath, who had been a minister in Gowdas council but was dropped by Pateldied down after Gowda convinced the dissidents of the need for cohesion at a time when he had to prove his majority in Lok Sabha. With Manjunath rallying around with the dissidents this time too, senior Dal leaders feel that the latest crisis would need more than a call for unity from the prime minister to be defused.
Some dissidents have, in fact, been meeting Gowda in Delhi to air their displeasure while Patel is also in the capital for various official meetings. Not content with the constitution of the panel of ministers, the dissidents in Delhi have shot off a second round of letters to Gowda, party chief Laloo Prasad Yadav and working president Sharad Yadav, reiterating their demand for a JDLP meeting.
"We dont know what the panel hopes to achieve," Patil told Outlook. "Our demand is very clear. The demand for Patel proving his strength in the legislature party is synonymous with the demand for his removal." Patil says that the 23 MLAs quoted earlier was a figure just for the record and that the numbers have swelled over whelmingly against Patel. "There are ministers who support our demand but cannot come out openly for obvious reasons There are several other MLAs who are willing to vote against Patel through a secret ballot" he adds.
Patil lists a whole host of complaints against the chief minister: "He makes all kinds of silly statements in support of a private event like the Miss World, ridicules party leaders in public during his tours around the state and thinks he can get away by being witty. " The dissidents are also upset with Patels well-known hobnobbing with liquor barons and accuse him of being party to some irregular property deals in the state that involve liquor barons.
For his part, Chief Minister Patel has maintained an enigmatic silence, only reacting to the extent of terming the threat to his position as "a family problem that needs to be sorted out within the family". But with the family members hell bent on forcing confrontation, the disaffection within the family threatens to spill out into the streets Says Patil: "If Patel fails to convene the JDLP meeting, well pressurise the high command. If they too refuse to accede, there will be a total confrontation." Such being the adamant posturing, the coming weeks are bound to see an escalation of dissident passions and attempts to soothe frayed tempers. Which means Gowda has his task cut out: to conjure a rapprochement to mollify Vaijanath Patil and company while ensuring that Karnataka is not forced to accept third chief minister in eight months.