Karnataka: An Internal Power Struggle That Spiralled Into Crisis
By the second week of January, Karnataka’s coalition government’s worst fears had manifested, after three influential Congress MLAs were found in a Mumbai hotel with BJP leaders. From there, the situation escalated quickly. It became clear that the BJP was trying to poach MLAs through these three leaders.
In the next two days, panic-stricken Congress leaders were on damage control mode to stop defections. For the BJP, this was their big push before the Lok Sabha elections. Breaking the JD(S)- Congress alliance was crucial for the BJP to retain their lead in Lok Sabha, and for BJP state president BS Yeddyurappa, it was his last chance to be chief minister. The poaching process was soon dubbed as ‘Operation Lotus’ by the media.
The situation was brought under control after the Congress’ troubleshooting machinery worked overtime. But Congress leaders admit that the entire fiasco was the result of party’s internal politics going out of hands. If it wasn’t for preventive steps like the recent cabinet expansion, the party would have been in deep trouble.
Internal Politics That Went out of Hands
The 2018 Assembly elections had reshuffled power dynamics in Karnataka politics. Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who had failed to secure a win for the party, found himself side-lined in the new government. But Siddaramaiah had a strong set of followers within the party, including Jarkiholi brothers Ramesh and Satish – who were influential leaders in the North Karnataka region.
It is alleged that Siddaramaiah had role to play in the past rebellion in the party. During the previous rebellion in the party, when the Jarkiholi brothers took on senior leader DK Shivakumar, and threatened to quit, it was Siddaramaiah who brokered peace.
The recent crisis, involving Ramesh Jarkiholi meeting BJP leaders, is said to be an extension of the earlier rebellion. While his younger brother, Satish, aligned himself with party, Ramesh, who was removed as a cabinet minister went to the enemy camp.
According sources, hours before the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meeting on Friday, 18 January, where all MLAs were asked to be present, Siddaramaiah had flown to Belagavi, the home turf of Ramesh Jarkiholi. Siddaramaiah managed to speak with Ramesh through his family members, but the call was a brief one – Ramesh hung up on Siddaramaiah.
Subsequently, Ramesh didn’t turn up for the CLP meeting. However, the BJP couldn’t get enough MLAs to change side and government remained stable.
How Cabinet Expansion Changed BJP’s Fortunes
But how did the BJP’s coup fail? the answer lies in the recent in cabinet expansion. Prior to cabinet expansion, on 22 December 2018, there were four groups of rebels in the Congress party – three MLAs from Belagavi led by Ramesh Jarkiholi, four MLAs from Ballari, three MLAs led by MTB Nagaraj from Hoskote and three MLAs led by Chikkabalapur MLA K Sudhakar.
The total number of disgruntled MLAs before the cabinet expansion was 16, which was enough for the BJP to bring down the government. However, the leaders of the last two camps were given a cabinet post and a chairmanship of the corporation, respectively. It was four leaders from the other two groups, who were alleged in the touch with the BJP.
Since the crisis, the Congress has offered the disgruntled MLAs cabinet seats and other posts. According to sources, some party leaders have been asked to give up their cabinet berths to accommodate the dissidents.
Is Operation Lotus Over?
The CLP meeting on Friday was the Congress’ show of strength. Although four MLAs, including Ramesh Jarkiholi, were missing from the meeting, the Congress was in a strong position. In order to bring down the 117-member coalition government, the BJP needed 14 MLAs to crossvote or resign from their MLA posts. However, the BJP couldn’t get enough numbers.
For the BJP, it was a final push before the Lok Sabha elections. The party which holds 17 out of the 28 seats in Karnataka finds itself in tough spot after the Congress and JD(S) have come together. More than returning to power, for the BJP, round three of ‘Operation Lotus’ was about breaking the alliance.
While the initial announcement was that all MLAs will be shifted, but eventually only those MLAs suspected to be ‘potential targets’ for poaching remained at the resort.
Over the next two days, senior Congress leaders Dinesh Gundu Rao, KC Venugopal and Siddaramaiah held one-on-one meetings with these Congress MLAs, asking them their ‘problems and demands’.
In short, in the past two weeks, what started as an internal power struggle spiralled into a political crisis. Even though, the Congress has managed to quell the rebellion, the fear of destabilisation still looms.