Since the Congress and JD(S) cobbled together a hurried coalition to keep the BJP out of power in Karnataka in May last year, the alliance has been tenuous. Then, legislators in the alliance were sequestered in resorts, and asked to record telephone conversations with BJP leaders allegedly attempting to make them switch sides.
In the eight months that followed, little has changed. Late Tuesday, five rebel MLAs, one from the JD(S) and four from the Congress — all reportedly negotiating with the BJP in Mumbai — reappeared in Bengaluru. They reiterated their support to the coalition and the government dodged a crisis, again.
Dissidence had bubbled to the surface in August 2018, too, when reports emerged that 12 unhappy Congress MLAs were in talks to defect. Many, sources said, were supporters of former Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah. It was brought under control with promises of government positions.
In December 2018, more dissent emerged featuring six Congress MLAs – most were part of the rebellion in August. Last month, with four Congress legislators going incommunicado before the budget session, the party moved its remaining 76 MLAs to a resort again. And instead of assurances as in May, they now turned to warnings of disqualification under the anti-defection law.
Any attempt to topple the government, incidentally, is far-fetched. This could happen if the BJP with 104 seats in the 224-member House can get 13 coalition MLAs to quit, reducing the government to a minority of 105 from 118. Or if two Independents support the BJP, they will reach 106. The ifs, however, outweigh any real chance of success, and all parties know it. With the Lok Sabha elections around the corner, a look at what all this means for each player and how it affects their poll prospects.
What BJP is up to in Karnataka
Officially, the BJP has claimed it has done nothing to poach MLAs or foment dissent. The party, however, has projected the rebellion in the Congress-JD(S) coalition as being more pronounced than what the ground reality suggests, and senior leaders have said that as many as 20 Congress MLAs could switch sides.
However, recent audio recordings of a purported attempt by BJP state president B S Yeddyurappa to lure a JD(S) MLA to the BJP — released by Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy — has turned the tide.
How it could matter: The government has used the audio recording to accuse the BJP of trying to destabilise the government. By constantly harping on dissatisfied MLAs, the BJP has projected to its core base – the Lingayat community in the north and the communally sensitive coastal districts – that the coalition government is on tenterhooks, that coalitions are fragile and that governance suffers when coalitions are in power.
Yeddyurappa is also gathering sympathy among his vote base claiming that he was trapped in a sting operation by Kumaraswamy and that he wasn’t able to form a government despite emerging the single-largest party last year.
What Congress is up to in Karnataka
Some of the early reports of dissidence seemed part of internal jockeying for power among Congress leaders to gain leverage over Kumaraswamy. Also, Siddaramaiah has managed to emerge as the foremost coalition leader by nipping the early dissidence in the bud and has also managed to get most of his supporters, some allegedly involved in the rebellion, positions in the government despite JD(S) reticence.
The Congress seemed to have positioned a few permanent dissidents as part of a strategy for possibly exiting the alliance in the aftermath of the Lok Sabha polls. Incidentally, out of four recent dissidents, Chincholi MLA Umesh Jadhav is widely expected to exit the party and contest against Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge in the Lok Sabha polls. A second Congress MLA, B Nagendra, who joined the party last year from the BJP, is angling for a Lok Sabha seat for his brother from Ballari, which the Congress denied in the 2018 bypoll.
How it could matter: The party has used the dissidence as a bargaining plank for the eventual seat-sharing deal with the JD(S). The Congress will also likely use the purported Yeddyurappa audio to project among its constituents and neutrals in the run-up to the polls that the BJP was indeed attempting to destabilise the government. The consolidation of BJP votes and the sympathy garnered by Yeddyurappa could also hurt the Congress in North Karnataka, where it will fight the BJP directly in the Lok Sabha polls.
And JD(S) in Karnataka
The JD(S) has been largely defensive – preferring to control dissidence by acquiescing to Congress demands. The party has indirectly accused the Congress of making life difficult for chief minister Kumaraswamy and directly charged the BJP with meddling with coalition MLAs. The purported Yeddyurappa audio has given the JD(S) an opportunity to go on the offensive since one of its MLAs is purportedly being lured to the BJP by Yeddyurappa. This has helped the party highlight the BJP’s role in destabilising the coalition government.
How it could matter: The party is primarily restricted to southern Karnataka and its Vokkaliga vote bank. Dissidence in the Congress is expected to help Kumaraswamy consolidate this JD(S) vote base, given that they will fight in alliance with the Congress, its traditional rival in the region.
The JD(S) is also likely to be in a position to withstand Congress pressure in seat-sharing talks in the wake of the audio that shows that even JD(S) MLAs are being lured by the BJP. And with the party winning just two seats in the 2014 polls, the JD(S) needs to better this performance not just to stay relevant in national politics but to gain more bargaining power with the Congress in the coalition government.