The fact that democratic governance is a matter of negotiation and compromise, especially in coalition governments, is no secret. However, Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy’s choice to make public the fissures in the ruling alliance will only serve to undermine the new government in the eyes of the people. Placed on the defensive by the BJP on the issue of farm loan waivers in the state, Kumaraswamy has pleaded helplessness, claiming that his government was “at the mercy of the Congress” — the senior partner, with nearly twice the number of seats in the Assembly. Kumaraswamy’s statement may say it like it is but it does not bode well, either for the Karnataka government or the larger project of “opposition unity”.
The tussle between the Congress and JD(S) over cabinet berths has already cast a shadow on the government which easily passed the floor test in the Assembly on Friday. The two parties also differ on the manner in which farm loan waivers should be administered: While Kumaraswamy had promised a blanket waiver during the election campaign, the Congress has sought a more fiscally prudent approach. That BS Yeddyurappa chose to announce a blanket waiver during his six-day tenure as chief minister has only put greater pressure on Kumaraswamy. On both issues — the allocation of ministries and relief for farmers — it was incumbent on the chief minister to negotiate the minutiae of the government’s policy behind closed doors, rather than plead helplessness in the face of a larger ally. His clarification that he was seeking “breathing room” to “consult” with the Congress will do little to allay apprehensions that he himself has engendered. The CM must, as head of the government, realise that the buck stops with him and that the negotiations within an alliance need not always be put on public view.
Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony was also a show of strength for the national opposition. The Congress-JD(S) alliance was presented as a political victory against the BJP, hard to come by as these have been since the 2014 general election. A galaxy of leaders from Mayawati to Mamata Banerjee, from Akhilesh Yadav to Chandrababu Naidu attended the ceremony to parade the possibility of an anti-BJP front. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the success and stability of the Karnataka government will carry considerable symbolic weight in that regard: To demonstrate that political rivals can come and stay together. The Karnataka CM’s statement has not helped that project.