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Baptism By Lre

J.H. Patel's airbus ministry steadies after a turbulent take-off

Baptism By Lre
WHEN Chief Minister J.H. Patel announced his 45-member cabinet, he thought he had pulled off the ultimate balancing act. Every third party MLA was now a minister, and this was the biggest cabinet in Karnataka's history after Veerappa Moily's 46-member circus. But Patel couldn't have been more wrong.

Barely hours after the swearing-in on June 5, four dejected aspirants sent in their resignation letters to Speaker Ramesh Kumar. The next morning the number had swollen to 10. By evening, there were 17, including three incumbent ministers and three MLAs who were ministers under H.D. Deve Gowda. Crisis had struck the six-day-old Patel Government and the jubilation of having a Kannadiga prime minister paled. 

"I'm not protesting because I wasn't reinducted. My grouse is: the party image has suffered because of the way the jumbo cabinet was constituted," says D. Manjunath, a Dalit leader who was minister for higher education under Gowda. Former ministers A.B. Patil and Vaijyanath Patil latched on to the ruse and said that they were unhappy about the severe regional imbalances caused by the unilateral choices Patel had made. "This council is the result of four paley -gars (chieftains)," quips Manjunath, who is not among those who resigned but is still their rallying point.

Though the number of rebellion-minded MLAs who took the cue was surprising, the reaction of Manjunath and Patil was predictable. For, goaded on by pressure groups in the party, Patel had turned things around a bit drastically—dropping nine ministers from Gowda's council of 31 and inducting 23 new faces.

Trouble had started brewing the morning before Patel was sworn in. A hurried debate was held to throw up some names to be sworn in alongside him, but in vain. Next morning, Patel and deputy Siddaramaiah flew to Delhi and returned with a list of 35 names, including nominees of Gowda and Hegde. At the swearing-in that evening, the list had swelled to 43.

The revolt was obviously unplanned. The rebels had neither a common platform nor an action plan. Even their resignation letters were flawed, leading to doubts about their seriousness. Says the Speaker: "I received 10 resignation letters and four others conveyed their resignation on the phone. But none has given a letter in the prescribed form. Technically, I haven't received a single resignation letter." Instead of a one-line saying that they were quitting their assembly seats, the MLAs had written a page or two about how they had been mistreated.

Patel, on his part, waxes belligerent: "Those who want to resign can resign. I won't succumb to blackmail." He even hints at disciplinary action. All this has left the rebels stumped. The Janata Dal, after all, has just a wafer-thin majority of 116 in a House of 224 and the rebels had expected Patel to go on the defensive.

Ramakrishna Hegde, still sulking over the 'snub' he received when arch-rival Gowda was elevated, chose to distance himself from the goings-on though Gowda's men accuse him of instigating the crisis to unsettle the prime minister. Says he: "It's a storm in a teacup, it will blow over." Gowda decided on a more hands-on approach. He contacted the Speaker and asked him not to act till he (Gowda) talked to the MLAs. Gowda then assured the rebels that he would hear their case after passing the June 11 vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. Gowda, says a senior JD leader, offered Manjunath the state party chief's post, and even governorship. Though he declined both, he agreed to wait till June 11 and talk to Gowda.

Gowda's headache didn't end here. He had to assuage ministers like Roshan Baig, Leeladevi Prasad and B.A. Mohideen. The first two, ministers of state, were hoping to be promoted and Mohideen, of cabinet rank, was peeved with the small scale industries portfolio, which was manned by a minister of state under Gowda.

But that's an aside. The main plot: dissenting MLAs will be mollified with the vacant top posts in the various boards and corporations. And Manjunath and the Patils will be told that their actions would be to the party's detriment. There's also the vacant state party chief's post as C.M.Ibrahim has moved to Delhi.

With such feelers, the rebellion began to peter out over the weekend. Says a state minister: "None of the MLAs is prepared to lose his membership for the remainder of the term and risk an election after this charade. All they wanted to do was get Gowda to take Patel to task. In the process, they ended up exposing themselves."

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