The audio clips have taken Karnataka by storm and created a furore in Parliament. Coming amidst the state’s volatile political situation, the clips—released by chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy as proof of alleged horse-trading attempts by the opposition BJP—prompted intense debate in the assembly, with speaker K.R.Ramesh Kumar expressing his anguish about the insinuations. One of the purported conversations mentioned a bribe of Rs 50 crore to the speaker. “It’s the wearer who knows where the shoe pinches,” said Ramesh Kumar as he requested the government for a fast-tracked probe into the matter.
Before Kumaraswamy’s dramatic press conference on February 8, an air of uncertainty hung over his government’s survival. The JD(S)-Congress coalition has been struggling to contain four of its legislators who have struck a rebellious stand, with concerns that a few others could also abstain or cross-vote, if such a situation arose during the ongoing budget session. But, by releasing the audio clips, he caught the BJP off-guard, sharpening focus on the Opposition’s alleged attempts to topple his government by inducing defections. Identifying the voices in the conversation, Kumaraswamy claimed it was state BJP chief B.S. Yeddiurappa offering allurements to JD(S) MLA Naganagouda Kandakur’s son Sharanagouda to convince his father to resign. Since May, when they formed a government, the Congress and JD(S) have regularly complained about the BJP’s attempts to woo their legislators. The BJP rebuffed such charges, saying the coalition’s troubles were its internal matter.
With his ‘expose’, the CM alleged that the attempts to lure ruling party legislators with bribes of crores of rupees couldn’t have taken place without the BJP central leadership’s knowledge. “The PM has to answer for this,” said Kumaraswamy in his press conference.
For the BJP, the Karnataka coalition’s constant firefighting—given the discordant voices within its ranks—has so far been convenient ground to attack the pre-poll mahagathbandhan taking shape before this summer’s Lok Sabha elections. The approach was evident at PM Narendra Modi’s February 10 election rally in Hubli. Kumaraswamy, the PM said, had become “everybody’s punching bag”. “They want to foist Karnataka’s majboor (weak) model on the country too,” he said.
Yeddiurappa initially cried that the clips were fake, but later admitted to a late-night meeting with Sharanagouda, son of Gurmitkal MLA Naganagouda, in a circuit house in Devadurga. However, he maintained that they were doctored, and filed a police complaint. Sharanagouda, also present in Kumaraswamy’s press conference, narrated how at least 11 other legislators had been approached as well. He said he had been offered funds to contest elections after his father resigned.
In a second audio clip, another person whom Kumaraswamy identified as BJP MLA Shivanagouda Nayak purportedly tells Sharanagouda that the speaker will approve the resignations and that a Rs 50 crore deal has been made. At the Karnataka assembly on February 11, these insinuations was the subject of deep debate, with members expressing indignation over the reference to the speaker. “Aspersions are cast on me,” said an emotional Ramesh Kumar. “I cannot take this (blemish).” The speaker has suggested that the Karnataka government set up a special investigation team to probe the matter and report within 15 days. “This is a question of relief for me,” said the speaker.
Ahead of Lok Sabha polls, the controversy makes it somewhat of a tightrope walk for the BJP, reckons political analyst Sandeep Shastri. “If the BJP had allowed the alliance to reflect its own contradictions, it would have been more visible to people,” he says. Now, it has to battle the impression that it was behind much of the crisis. Karnataka, after all, is crucial for the party, being the one southern state where it has a strong presence.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore