Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > September 8, 2007 > Coalition Contradictions: Emerging Political Scenario in Karnataka

Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 38

Coalition Contradictions: Emerging Political Scenario in Karnataka

Sunday 9 September 2007, by Sandeep Shastri

Experience in India has shown that political agreements for a handover of power have always favoured the first incumbent. Very rarely has the transition to the second holder been smooth. More often, the power transfer has never actually happened. In a little over two months, Karnataka would provide one more example. In the run-up to the transfer of power, all indications appear to suggest an excruciatingly tantalising wait for the party to be anointed (BJP) and an agonisingly transparent heartburn in the party that has to give up the leadership position (JDS).

The right political ‘noises‘ have been made by both parties, throughout this ‘marriage of mutual convenience‘. To begin with, the BJP conceded the leadership to the ‘junior partner‘ as this was the only feasible strategy to dislodge the Congress from power and gain some legitimate space in the power-sharing arrangement. It was also willing to tolerate the ‘voices of criticism‘ from the JDS as long as the Chief Minister did not lend his voice of support to it. The JDS had a series of convulsions to deal with. To start off, the tie-up with the BJP was by a rebel group within the party. Finally the party ‘accepted‘ the alliance. This development was not without hiccups. A formal split in the party was an inevitable corollary to the JDS-BJP alliance (in the State) being given the stamp of ‘formal‘ recognition. When it came to the question of the relationship with the BJP, the JDS walked the ‘high moral ground‘ and asserted that it would not let down its coalition partner when the switch-over was to happen. It even went to the extent of asserting that the BJP was easier to ‘break bread‘ with as compared to its erstwhile coalition partner, the Congress.

All this seems to change as the ‘D‘ day in October draws near. With the countdown to the leadership change having clearly begun, the voices of discord are becoming increasingly apparent. The BJP is increasingly nervous and watching every action/statement of the JDS with caution. They realise that the JDS has little to lose by going back on its assurance. If one was a JDS supporter, it could even be argued that there is an immense political benefit to be gained by backtracking, of course with the right political camouflage!

LET us weigh the possible political scenarios that are likely to emerge in the next two months

Scenario 1: The JDS and BJP act according to the official script. Come September, the JDS hands over the Chief Ministership to the BJP. The JDS selects its nominee for the Deputy Chief Minister’s position and a reshuffle of the Council of Ministers and redistribution of portfolios is worked out. Only the politically naïve would place their money on this bet. Each stage of this scenario has mind-boggling uncertainties. Is the BJP united in its leadership choice? Will the JDS accept the leader chosen by the BJP or will they seek a stake in the process of choice? Will the JDS be able to amicably settle on a Deputy Chief Minister? Will the portfolio swapping between parties be a smooth process? Will there be major exits and entries from the Council of Ministers? Any one of the questions has the potential to derail the entire ‘power hand-over‘ process.

Scenario 2: The JDS endorses the handover of leadership of the government to the BJP on the condition that the BJP chooses the Chief Minister in consultation with the JDS. The BJP has given enough indications of the fact that the current Deputy Chief Minister is their candidate for Chief Minister. The BJP, in the first instance, is likely to reject a JDS demand for having a say in the Chief Ministerial candidate. On second thoughts, the BJP could concede this demand if only to be able to lead the government. It is important to note that within the influential Lingayat community, there is no leader in any of the major parties, who can position himself to occupy the Chief Ministership in the immediate foreseeable future save the current Deputy Chief Minister. This will be an important factor to budget into any political calculation. Further, the internal dynamics of the BJP and its frontal organisations provide sufficient indications of the support for the Deputy Chief Minister. The BJP would have to make very serious compromises if it were to accept the JDS diktat, simply in order to lead the coalition government.

Scenario 3: As we get closer to October, the opposition to handing over power grows stronger within the JDS. The JDS pleads its inability to be a part of an alliance headed by the BJP. A rebel group from within the BJP breaks away from the party (the anti-defection law notwithstanding) and supports the JDS. With the support of independents and the ‘rebel‘ BJP group the JDS is able to form a government under its leadership. This is a pattern which we see in many other States where stable coalition arrangements have not yet emerged. This is a scenario that cannot be ruled out … for several reasons. Among the BJP MLAs, there is a small group which owes loyalty to S. Bangarappa and has not quit the party merely to avoid disqualification under the anti-defection law. For practical purposes, they are not part of the BJP. Secondly, it must also be noted that in the 2004 Assembly elections, the BJP gave tickets to a large number of aspirants who were new ‘converts‘ to the BJP and did not owe allegiance to its frontal organisations. These legislators too would be willing to cross over if the situation so warrants and if the political benefits are alluring enough. Both these groups could make common cause and rock the BJP boat. The moot question, however, is: would they be able to reach the ‘magic figure‘ to engineer a respectable ‘split‘ under the provisions of the anti-defection law?

Scenario 4: The JDS refuses to be part of a coalition led by the BJP and seeks the support of the Congress. There is already talk in the corridors of power of a Congress-JDS Government under the leadership of the Congress. It appears unlikely that the Congress would bite the bullet, especially when they have Siddaramiah (former Deputy Chief Minister then representing the JDS in the Congress-led alliance government) in their ranks. Such a move would evoke strong protests within the Congress.

The alternative route is that the Congress offers outside support to a JDS Government simply to prevent the BJP from coming back to power. The Congress withdraws support to the coalition at the opportune political movement necessitating fresh elections, a scenario we are familiar with at the national level. Something similar happened in Delhi in 1979, 1991 and again in 1997. The JDS would be willing to consider this option if only to remain in power for a little more time. They too would realise the fact that the Congress could pull the rug from under their feet at a moment that is politically convenient. The JDS would like to capitalize on the fact that most legislators would like to prevent a mid-term poll.

Scenario 5: The JDS refuses to hand over the leadership of the government to the BJP. The BJP walks out of the government resulting in the Council of Ministers recommending the dissolution of the Assembly. As argued earlier, this is a choice which legislators may not favour, given the high turnover of sitting MLAs in elections. But let’s pause a moment. With the delimitation exercise nearing completion, an early poll may be the last chance for legislators to enter the electoral fray from their ‘old‘ constituencies. By 2009, the new delimitation would surely be implemented.

In the present political scenario, the Congress would be the biggest beneficiary if there were to be a mid-term poll. The JDS would be discredited at having enjoyed power during its time and refused to honour a commitment made to the alliance partner. The BJP would have an advantage of having become a ‘martyr‘ but would have no other conceivable political advantage. It would not even have the favourable political climate of 2004.

All in all, come September end, Karnataka politics would see many a twist and turn as the grand political drama unfolds in all its majesty.

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