How Congress fought back from loss in Karnataka: A new ally on board, a plane for Singhvi, an app to record phone calls

Rahul Gandhi met Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot and K C Venugopal — the AICC minder for Karnataka — on the morning of May 14, a day before counting. It was decided that the party should unconditionally offer its support to the JD(S) if it falls well short of the half-way mark.

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi | Updated: May 20, 2018 9:35:28 am
How Congress fought back from loss in Karnataka: A new ally on board, a plane for Singhvi, an app to record phone calls Congress President Rahul Gandhi smiles as he addresses the media at party office, in New Delhi (PTI Photo)

From deciding 24 hours before counting to unconditionally support the JD(S) if it fell short of the 100-mark, to changing hotels of MLAs, asking them to download apps to record “tempting” phone calls and sending a chartered flight to Pinjore to airlift the party’s legal brain stranded in Chandigarh, the Congress did everything it could to snatch the proverbial victory from the jaws of its defeat in Karnataka. Sources said the party had a fair idea of what was in store. Rahul Gandhi met Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot and K C Venugopal — the AICC minder for Karnataka — on the morning of May 14, a day before counting. It was decided that the party should unconditionally offer its support to the JD(S) if it falls well short of the half-way mark.

This message was relayed to the JD(S) that day. All five AICC secretaries Manicka Tagore, P C Vishnunath, Madhu Yashki Goud, Sake Sailjanath and Yashomati Thakur, were asked to be in the regions allocated to them on the day of counting. Azad, Gehlot and Venugopal were stationed in Bengaluru. As it became clear that the BJP would fall short, the secretaries were asked to contact each of the MLAs and ask them to move to Bengaluru. Drama began on May 16, the day after the results — both in Delhi and Bengaluru.

Read | How BJP was on top, then slipped

The Congress-JD(S) combine had staked claim to form the Government on May 15 itself. As it became clear that B S Yeddyurappa was to meet Governor Vajubhai Vala again with a formal letter to stake claim, top Congress leaders met in Delhi and decided that the party should brace for an urgent legal battle. But there was a problem. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who was to lead the charge, was away in Chandigarh. Frantic calls were made to him by Ahmed Patel and Randeep Surjewala. The first draft was discussed and agreed upon over the phone itself. M B Patil, the high-profile Karnataka Congress leader, was also contacted. He was the legal point person in Karnataka. Singhvi discussed the brief with his juniors including Devdutt Kamat who had assisted him in the Uttarakhand case.

Singhvi was asked to rush back but the Chandigarh airport was closed. By train, he would have reached Delhi only by midnight. Pinjore was then decided as his exit route. A chartered flight was hurriedly arranged and Singhvi boarded it at 4.30 pm to land in Delhi at 6.30 pm. He drove straight to the 15, GRG war room of the Congress. And present there were Patel, P Chidambaram, Surjewala, Vivek Tankha and Kapil Sibal. The draft of the petition was finalised.

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How Congress fought back from loss in Karnataka Congress president Rahul Gandhi outside the party headquarters in New Delhi on Saturday (Express Photo/Amit Mehra)

But the initial petition was to urge the Supreme Court to direct the Governor to invite the Congress-JD(S) combine which had the majority in the House. But leaders knew that the Governor could invite Yeddyurappa soon. The brief for the second petition challenging the Governor’s decision was also discussed.

Chidambaram, Tankha, Sibal and Singhvi then went to the AICC headquarters to address a press conference. Singhvi excused himself from the press conference halfway as it became clear that the Governor had decided to invite Yeddyurappa.

At 9.30 pm, the entire petition was rewritten when the Governor invited Yeddyurappa and he announced he would take oath at 9 am. “It was the BJP which handed us the best answer for urgency…had they not called the oath at 9 am, we would not have been able to do this,” a senior leader said.

Also read | Rahul Gandhi identifies takeaway: Opposition will work in coordination to defeat BJP

Kamat and other junior lawyers rushed to the court shortly after 10 pm and around midnight, Singhvi with his juniors left his Neeti Bagh residence to be somewhere near the Supreme Court. They went to the Machan restaurant at the Taj Mansingh and from there, they reached the court for the 1.45 am hearing.

Im parallel, an equally gripping drama was unfolding in Bengaluru. And it went on for four days — from May 16 to May 19. Many Congress MLAs were getting calls from BJP leaders and middle-men asking them to cross over. The MLAs were taken to Eagleton resort. As it became clear that the BJP would make an all-out bid to poach, the MLAs were divided into groups of ten. And one senior leader was given charge of each group to keep a hawk-eye on them, especially the vulnerable ones.

The likes of K J George, D K Suresh Kumar, R Dhruvanarayana, M B Patil were given charge. When MLAs started reporting that they were getting calls to switch over, they were told to download call-recording apps. “The MLAs were getting all sorts of offers. Couple of them were asked to come out of the resort saying a vehicle would be waiting outside with Rs 5 crore inside,” a senior leader said. “We haven’t even released one-tenth of the recorded calls…” he said. As the police security was withdrawn, the Congress decided to move them to Kochi.

Also read | Karnataka elections 2018: On the ground, some tension; a Cong-JD(S) reality check

But then there was a hitch. The party’s managers had contacted the owner of a five-star hotel in Kochi who agreed but backed out within two hours saying he was under pressure from the BJP leadership. Another hotel in Kochi was chosen but Congress leaders claim they could not go as permission for the chartered flight which was to take the MLAs to Kochi was cancelled at the last minute. The DGCA later said that chartered flights don’t need any permission.

It was then decided to go to Hyderabad by road. Surprisingly, for the Congress leaders, vehicles of Telangana police were awaiting them at the border to escort them to the hotel safely. The logistical support was provided by Telangana PCC president Uttam Kumar Reddy and former MP T Subbarami Reddy.

Congress leaders said the MLAs did not break and stuck together more because of the “personal relationship” some of them enjoyed with some of the top leaders, caste equations and the apprehension about their future in the BJP. A top Congress leader said the “aggressive poaching bid” by the BJP only deepened the resolve of many to fight back.
“When R Shankar walked out, Siddaramaiah made one call to Shankar and asked him to come back if he respected him and he came back,” a senior leader said.

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