The cracks that Karnataka’s Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition tried to paper over for the past year are widening fast and dramatically, pushing the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led government to the brink. Days after 14 legislators sent in their resignation letters, the future of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition is no clearer at the time of going to press, but a full-blown crisis is certainly at hand. Things will likely to come to a head this week—the Karnataka assembly convenes on July 12 and Speaker K.R. Ramesh Kumar will meet some of the legislators to decide on their resignations.
In Karnataka, there is a weary sense of deja vu—a decade ago, when state elections last threw up a hung assembly, it was a BJP government which had struggled with rebel MLAs who were shunted to resorts far away from Bangalore. It’s a repeat of those scenes now—many Congress and JD(S) MLAs are holding out from a Mumbai hotel where they have been holed up since the crisis began. There are no signs of a thaw yet.
The Congress offered to recast the cabinet to accommodate some of the rebels and asked all its ministers to step down; it threatened to invoke the anti-defection law against some MLAs; and it dispatched senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad to Bangalore and Karnataka Congress leader D.K. Shivakumar to Mumbai to salvage the situation. Shivakumar, a troubleshooter for the party, couldn’t get into the hotel as the rebels not only refused to meet him but also called for police protection.
Scene Kya Hai?
- A Floor Test
Karnataka’s assembly convenes Friday. It will take up the finance bill this July session, which will practically be a floor test for the JD(S)-Congress government. But things could change before that; like the governor can ask the CM to take a vote of confidence.
- CM Resigns?
If the Congress-JD(S) coalition isn’t able to woo back its legislators, CM Kumaraswamy might resign without facing a floor test—a situation similar to what BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa faced in May 2018 when he resigned as CM.
- The Maths
BJP emerges single-largest party in 2018 assembly polls but falls short of a simple majority—a party needs 113 MLAs in the 224-member House. BJP’s tally is 105, currently. The Congress-JD(S) coalition has 117, plus a BSP MLA. Resignations can reduce the majority mark to 106, giving BJP its best shot. Two Independent MLAs back BJP.
The BJP is demanding Kumaraswamy’s resignation, arguing that he has lost the majority. “If the Speaker accepts the resignations without delay, there won’t be any question of holding an assembly session,” BJP state president B.S. Yeddyurappa told reporters on July 10. “They have no moral right to continue. Their strength has reduced to 103 MLAs, but the BJP has 107-108. That is why I have requested the governor to ask the Speaker to take necessary action immediately.”
Kumaraswamy in Bangalore.
The Congress, however, is blaming the BJP for the ongoing imbroglio, accusing it of horse-trading in a bid to topple the government. “The BJP didn’t get a mandate in the state elections. But they have been relentlessly trying to destabilise the Karnataka government,” claimed Congress leader Siddaramaiah. The BJP’s top leaders have countered the allegation saying the coalition was crumbling on its own. The Karnataka crisis echoed in Parliament too as Congress MPs staged protests.
Here is a quick recap of the flurry of events: Anand Singh, Congress legislator from Bellary, set the ball rolling on July 1 by sending his resignation to the Speaker. Chief minister Kumaraswamy was in the US on a private trip and due to return by the end of the week. Things started unravelling on July 6 when a motley group of legislators—nine from Congress and three from JD(S)— trooped into the secretariat to put in their papers, taking everybody by surprise. Immediately, some of them went to Raj Bhavan to apprise the governor of the developments. Kumaraswamy was back by the evening of July 7, but by then, most of the rebel MLAs were in Mumbai. On July 9, Congress legislator R. Roshan Baig, who had been suspended last month after he blamed Congress Karnataka-in-charge K.C. Venugopal and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president Dinesh Gundu Rao for the party’s poor show in the Lok Sabha elections, added his resignation to the list, taking the number of MLAs who quit to 14.
So far, the Speaker has ruled that only five of the resignations were in order and has given these legislators appointments for hearings on July 12 and 15. The others, he said, could send fresh letters in the correct format. “I have to make a conscious decision. Every step I take will become history, so I can’t commit a mistake,” he told reporters. The coalition government’s fate clearly hinges on these proceedings.
It’s no secret that the BJP has been smarting since it emerged as the single-largest party in the 2018 Karnataka assembly elections but still fell short of a simple majority. The BJP’s tally is currently 105. The simple majority mark in Karnataka’s 224-member assembly is 113. The Congress-JD(S) coalition has 117 legislators (including a lone BSP MLA). The resignations, if accepted, can reduce the majority mark to 106, giving the BJP its best shot at forming the government. Two Independent MLAs have been swaying to and fro—they initially supported the Kumaraswamy government, then switched sides, but again swung back to be sworn in as ministers as recently as June. Now, they are backing the BJP.
Karnataka Vidhana Soudha.
But the fragility of Karnataka’s coalition set-up wasn’t lost on anyone, more so after the BJP’s formidable sweep in the Lok Sabha elections in the state. Their parties reduced to one apiece out of 28 Lok Sabha seats, Congress and JD(S) leaders pointed fingers at each other for the poll debacle. Kumaraswamy, himself facing flak for being inaccessible, revived his ‘village-stay’ programmes in a bid to change tack and seemingly start afresh.
But even while several coalition leaders were privately critical of their parties, only a handful of MLAs—such as Gokak legislator Ramesh Jarkiholi who has been rebellious for most of the past year—appeared to hold out any serious threat to the coalition government.
However, the situation changed drastically over the past few days. Suddenly, some unlikely names had turned rebel—chiefly Ramalinga Reddy, a former home minister and a seven-time Congress legislator from Bangalore; and A.H. Vishwanath, who till recently was the JD(S) state president. While Reddy felt sidelined because he was overlooked for a ministerial berth despite his seniority, Vishwanath’s U-turn struck many as abrupt—a former Congressman, he had fallen out with Siddaramaiah and joined the JD(S) in 2017. Just last week, he was with party supremo H.D. Deve Gowda to hand over charge and invest the party’s new office bearers. But on July 6, he was leading Congress rebels out of Raj Bhavan. Curiously, amongst them was a group of MLAs from Bangalore who were self-professed followers of his bete noire Siddaramaiah.
Dissident MLAs after a meeting with the governor.
The pacy turn of events puts Siddaramaiah in a spot: MLAs S.T. Somashekhar, B.A. Basavaraj and Munirathna, who were seen as his loyalists, are amongst those who resigned. “From Day 1, there was a lot of griping and grumbling by several Congressmen, including a couple of top leaders,” says senior Congress leader B.K. Chandrashekar. “Making such unbecoming pronouncements rather than displaying patience and propriety, as repeatedly advised by the high command, provoked a public opinion hostile to the Congress.” Even after the Lok Sabha defeat, there has been no effort within the Karnataka unit towards honest introspection and accountability, he declares. “Instead, a handful of state leaders dissolved the KPCC committee of around 300 office bearers, quite a few of whom were secretaries with 10-15 years of service in the party.”
The Congress and JD(S) rebels, however, claimed they didn’t intend to leave the party and that they were only resigning as legislators, blaming the coalition government’s neglect of issues they had been raising. “Some of them have grievances, some are talking about ministry expansion,” K.C. Venugopal told reporters on July 8. “Congress ministers have resigned from their positions. They entrusted the party to take necessary decisions regarding reshuffling and settling of issues in the present scenario.” The JD(S) too, as reports suggested, made similar moves to woo back its three legislators. The offers, however, seemed to have come a tad too late, observers pointed out.
By mid-week, the scenario had taken a turn for the worse: on July 10, the secretariat in Bangalore was abuzz with the prospect of more Congress MLAs turning up to tender resignations. The question is: will the rebels give in? The Kumaraswamy government needs to pass its finance bill, which, observers say, will be the key event now to test the government’s strength. Events are unfolding at such a frenetic pace that by the time this report reaches our readers, new scenarios may have emerged. The only thing certain is that Karnataka’s shaky politics is heading for a tremendous showdown.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore