On July 1, two Congress MLAs in Karnataka — Ramesh Jharkiholi from Gokak constituency in Belagavi region and Anand Singh from Vijayanagar constituency in Ballari region — tendered their resignations. Technically, the resignations are yet to be accepted by the Speaker of the Assembly. Yet, they have raised fresh questions about the stability of the Congress-JDS coalition government in the state.
What has changed?
The resignations imply that Congress tally in the 224-member strong Assembly falls from 79 (including the Speaker) to 77. While this reduction does not, by itself, rob the current government of a majority — because the coalition enjoys a simple majority thanks to the support of 37 JD(S) MLAs as well as 2 Independents and 1 BSP MLA – yet it signals an opportunity where the principal opposition, the BJP, can turn the tables on the government. One key change brought about by the two resignations is that the effective simple majority mark in the House falls from 113 seats to 112. That’s because the overall strength of the assembly is just 222 as against 224 earlier.
How the BJP can upstage the incumbent coalition?
Imagine a scenario where another 13 MLAs belonging to the coalition resign. In such a case, the Congress-JDS coalition tally would fall to 104 seats but more significantly, the overall strength of the House would fall to 209. This, in turn, would mean that the effective simple majority mark would then be 105 seats — exactly what the BJP already has. The BJP would be then able to form the government without being accused of engineering any defections.
How likely is this scenario?
The state BJP, led by former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa, has been keen to dislodge the coalition and form its own government. But the party’s central leadership is more intent on playing the waiting game and allow infighting and contradictions in the coalition to bring down the government. While there are as many as 20 disgruntled MLAs in the coalition, especially the Congress party, very few are eager to take the final step of quitting. That’s because no one wants another round of elections and the related expenses that doing so entails. The MLAs who have quit — Ramesh Jharkiholi and Anand Singh — are known to have the money and muscle power to win elections again from their seats. However, this is not the case with most other MLAs. Yeddyurappa, who initially solicited support from rebel MLAs by expressing intent to face fresh elections, has now changed his stance and repeatedly said that a new government will be formed by the BJP without dissolving the current Assembly.
For its part, the Congress-JD(S) coalition is fighting tooth and nail to preserve its government. It has carried out several tactical moves to prevent the BJP from getting into a position of numerical strength in the Assembly. For instance, the coalition recently gave ministerial posts to two independent MLAs to make it harder for the BJP to undermine the coalition. The coalition also appointed a rebel Congress MLA, K Sudhakar, as head of the state pollution board. It has also dangled the carrot of ministerial portfolios through a reshuffle within a couple of months.
Why did the two MLAs quit the Congress?
Ramesh Jharkiholi, a Congressman of long standing, had been angry with the party for over 10 months on account of a dispute with Congress leader D K Shivakumar. The Gokak MLA, who was a minister for a few months in the state cabinet, was eased out after a public spat with Shivakumar and his close associate MLA Lakshmi Hebbalkar (a former state Congress women’s unit president) over the control of Belagavi region. Jharkiholi was considered to be the leader of a group of eight to 10 Congress rebels before the rebellion was quelled in January. He was replaced with his brother Satish Jharkiholi in the Cabinet last year. The Jharkiholis are wealthy businessmen with interests in the sugar sector in north Karnataka. Ramesh Jharkiholi is, however, reported to have run up considerable debts in his businesses.
Anand Singh is a former BJP MLA who joined the Congress ahead of the Assembly polls in May 2018. He is a wealthy businessman with interests in iron ore mining in Ballari region. He was arrested by the CBI following investigations in large-scale illegal mining in Ballari during the tenure of the B S Yeddyurappa-led BJP government between 2008-2011. Singh, along with former BJP legislator G Janardhan Reddy, is still under trial in the illegal mining case. Singh’s business suffered losses after his firm was blacklisted for illegal mining and a lease for an iron ore mine was cancelled by the state government.
Will Karnataka face mid-term polls?
Even though the Congress-JD(S) coalition has been reassuring that the government will complete its full term, it is quite apparent that both parties are also preparing for mid-term polls. For one, both parties have kicked off exercises to revamp their internal party organisational structures. The Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee has been dissolved with only the president and the working president being retained. Congress leader Siddaramaiah is tipped to revive a popular movement to shore up support among backward castes, Dalits and minorities (or Ahinda). The Ahinda movement is widely believed to have helped the Congress come to power in the state with a clear majority in 2013. Some Congress leaders would not mind having the BJP in power for a while in order to allay the damage done to the image of the Congress thanks to its opportunistic coalition with the JDS.
The JD(S) has held multiple meetings of its office-bearers as well as past and present election candidates in an effort to galvanise the party at the grassroots. Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy has begun carrying out a village stay programme to increase his popularity in the hinterland in the north of the state where the JD(S) has lost ground in the past decade. JD(S) leaders are also planning padayatras to reach out to people.
Notwithstanding these efforts, both coalition partners are also wary of the BJP repeating its spectacular performance in the state in the recent Lok Sabha polls if mid-term polls were held. By the same measure, the BJP is confident that it would be able to emulate its stellar performance — it won 26 of 28 Lok Sabha seats — on the back of a Narendra Modi wave. The Lok Sabha results show that the BJP established leads in 177 of the 224 Assembly constituencies in the polls held in April this year.