Until the filing of nomination papers by the candidates, everybody in Karnataka’s political circles was under the impression that this edition of elections to Rajya Sabha would be a smooth affair.
Last week though, the southern state made it to national headlines over a cash for votes controversy. Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs Mallikarjun Khuba and GT Deve Gowda were shown in a taped video encounter demanding over Rs 5 crore for their vote. Another MLA BR Patil, a member of the erstwhile Karnataka Janata Paksha, a party formed by former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa when he split from the Bharatiya Janata Party, was also recorded on tape haggling for cash. Varthur Prakash, an Independent MLA from Kolar too is embroiled in the controversy.
How the numbers stack up
In the house of 224 legislators, the winning candidate needs a minimum of 45 first preference votes. The BJP has the required strength of 45 votes to win a seat and an additional support of two Independents in its kitty.
The JD(S) has 40 members in the house, leaving it five short. Technically, the JD(S) would have had to manage to get additional votes with all its 40 votes not being intact due to internal rebellion.
The Congress can win two seats easily with its existing strength of 121 candidates in the house. As per the party high command’s calculations, each of the Congress’ big ticket candidates, Jairam Ramesh and Oscar Fernandes, will be allocated 45 votes to ensure victory.
It meant that the BJP would get one seat and the fourth seat was left for the JD(S) to take with some extra effort.
The remaining 15 legislators either are Independents or belong to smaller political groups like Karnataka Janata Paksha or Shramika Raitha Congress.
What queered the pitch
But the Karnataka Congress leadership decided to push former Indian Police Service officer and head of an educational institution, KC Ramamurthy, to get the third seat for the party, instead of letting JD(S) take it.
Ramamurthy’s candidature received post-facto approval by Digvijay Singh. Interestingly, the official statement of the All India Congress Committee does not mention the name of Ramamurthy.
The move of the state Congress leadership led to a direct threat to the already divided JD(S) house. Five JD(S) legislators had been hobnobbing with the Congress for quite some time and it was an invitation to the JD(S) to fish among the Independents as well.
It thus became an invitation to the age-old practice of something-in-return for votes. This came to be reflected in the sting operation in which some legislators were caught on camera negotiating a deal in exchange for their votes.
“If the Congress leaders from the state, particularly Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and energy minister DK Shivakumar had kept quiet and not defied the high command, the party would have been saved this current embarrassment and criticism in the media," said a party leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "One has no idea why the high command did not deal with this issue sternly,’’ he said.
When the election process began, it appeared that it would still not be too difficult a task for the Congress to manage the support of the 11 Independents. But, the JD(S) decided to match Ramamurthy’s money power by fielding a rich industrialist BM Farooq.
Soon, it became a battle for the two parties to garner the support of the Independents. According to rebel JD(S) legislator Mallikarjun Khuba, who was caught on camera bargaining a price for his vote, the Congress leaders had hired some private agencies to conduct the sting operation to know the mindset of the JD(S) legislators in particular.
“This was the reason I argued with the sting operators about the money and how much they are ready to offer. I have the full details of the conversation between me and two sting operators who approached me,” he said. Khuba’s argument is that he needed no such money as he was capable of handling election expenses on his own. Another JD(S) legislator GT Deve Gowda denied he was demanding money to cast his vote in favour of the Congress candidate and demanded a CBI inquiry into the issue scandal.
“The chief minister himself is the culprit in this whole issue as he has perfected the art of luring legislators and political rivals through his money and political power,’’ Gowda, a former friend-turned-foe of Siddaramaiah said. He also claimed that whatever his son-in law said to the sting operator was a reflection of his anxiety to know more about the “cash for vote” operations to lure the legislators being carried out by Congress leaders.
Not in cash – but kind
Sops for votes is not new to Karnataka. In the state’s political history, subtlety was a norm, especially when it came to the bribing of legislators. Cash was not the preferred instrument of financial transaction. Legislators and political leaders would rather issue some kind of a promissory note. It would be a transaction that would take time to process.
When the first non-Congress government came to power in Karnataka, headed by then Janata party leader Ramakrishna Hegde, there were multiple instruments at play. One Independent member from a semi-rural constituency was, reportedly, offered a ministership during the next reshuffle.
“I don’t want to be a minister. Please make me a member of the Bangalore Development Authority. Before that, get me two sites (in one particular area),” the legislator is said to have haggled with the junior minister who was speaking on Hegde’s behalf.
Those in the know about this particular transaction told Scroll.in that the junior minister had agreed, since he knew that the handing over of a couple of plots would go unnoticed and their sale at a subsequent date would fetch the Independent MLA enough to fight the next election.
There was honour amongst thieves at the time in Karnataka – trust abounded that the promissory note would always be honoured. There have been instances of a couple of seats in a medical college being promised during the heyday of capitation fees for the legislators to make their money.
These transactions turned into hard cash deals once non-politician industrialists started contesting elections in the last couple of decades. “These are all businessmen, we don’t know how they will change later," a legislator explained to this reporter, about why cash was suddenly in vogue. "What if he doesn’t give our share after taking our vote?”
The surprising aspect of this outrage over cash for vote operations is in the process of luring legislators from other political parties and Independents. The money factor has reached such levels that now the Congress legislators are upset with their leaders for goodies being given to the Independents. “Why should the chief minister pay money only to the Independents? Do we have to pay a price for being loyal to the party,” said a legislator from North Karnataka on condition of anonymity.
Par for the course
But will it not matter in the constituency if a legislator is accused of taking money to vote in the Rajya Sabha election?
“This is only an urban phenomenon, that too, among those who read newspapers. It will not be an issue in my rural constituency,’’ said a Congress MLA who did not wish to be identified.
The reasons for this apparent uncaring attitude among legislators seeking illegal gratification is the lack of initiative on the part of the Election Commission to crack the whip even when there were reports of cross-voting over the years.
As per existing rules, even the video evidence provided by television channels is incomplete because it does not show any money being exchanged. The entire conversation appears to be in the realm of intention.
Constitutional expert and advocate CKN Raja felt the Election Commission needs more teeth in such issues. “If one acts dishonestly, the law can definitely take cognisance of the issue and probe the entire matter,” he said. “It is equally important for the Election Commission not to depend on the frail proof provided by the sting operations but take cognisance of the circumstances to pin down the offenders.”
As the debate rages on, legislators sit pretty, unpunished and many perhaps richer by a few crores.
In politics though, all is fair, especially during election time. If the Congress is able to counter the JD(S) effectively and get away with winning the third seat, the Congress party high command would also be pleased to ignore the state leadership’s defiance.
If the local leadership fails, it will have to face an embarrassment that will not do any good to its already sullied image.
The JD(S) doesn’t have much to lose except another election.