Karnataka election

Flashback 2008: Karnataka verdict brings back disturbing memories of BJP’s Operation Lotus

The BJP’s ten-year-old strategy to poach MLAs set off a long period of instability. Murmurs of its revival have begun after Tuesday’s verdict.

A hung verdict with the Bharatiya Janata Party as the single largest party, a hurried post-poll pact between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) and ensuing chaos – for the electorate in Karnataka, Tuesday’s results of the Assembly elections were almost a repeat of 2004, when the same key players had found themselves in these very positions.

But while the 2004 elections ended in defeat for the BJP, the verdict this time has gone in the saffron party’s favour, at least for now. On Wednesday night, Governor Vajubhai Vala invited the BJP to form the government, dashing the hopes of the Congress and Janata Dal who had tried to convince him that they have the strength to provide a stable regime.

The BJP, which has 104 seats (nine short of the majority mark of 113) now has two weeks to shore up its numbers or get enough support on the Assembly floor – a situation that brings back memories of its controversial Operation Lotus, its alleged strategy to engineer defections from rival parties that it first employed in 2008.

Same script

In 2004, the BJP won 79 seats to emerge the single largest party. The Congress, with 65 seats, and the Janata Dal (Secular), with 58, banded together to form the government with Dharam Singh as chief minister – even though they had been rivals during the elections. Unlike Tuesday, when the alliance was sealed within hours of the results, the parties took two weeks to broker a deal in 2004. But the coalition that came out of it was unstable and 20 months later, the Janata Dal (Secular)’s HD Kumaraswamy – the combine’s choice for chief minister this time round – pulled the rug from under the coalition government. Rebelling against his father and party patriarch HD Deve Gowda, Kumaraswamy and the majority of his party’s legislators withdrew support to the Congress-led government and offered their support to the BJP. In January 2006, Dharam Singh resigned and the BJP formed the government after striking a power-sharing deal with Kumaraswamy. Under the agreement, Kumaraswamy would be chief minister for 20 months, after which a BJP candidate would succeed him.

The BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa was the deputy chief minister and the finance minister in Kumaraswamy’s government. But in October 2007, when it was Yeddyurappa’s turn to become chief minister, Kumaraswamy reneged on the promise and refused to handover the chief ministership to Yeddyurappa. On October 5, 2007, the BJP formally withdrew support to the Kumaraswamy government, President’s rule was imposed and finally revoked on November 7 when JD(S) and BJP decided to come together again. Yeddyurappa was sworn in as the 25th chief minister of Karnataka on November 12 2007. Fresh disagreements over sharing of ministries led to a final parting of ways and having been reduced to a minority, Yeddyurappa decided not to face the floor test and resigned on November 19, 2007, leading once again to President’s rule.

Musical chairs

Assembly elections were next held in Karnataka in 2008, and the BJP once again emerged the single largest party, but three short of the majority mark. The support of six independent candidates helped it form the government, with Yeddyurappa at the helm. Shortly after, to boost its strength, the BJP reportedly poached seven Opposition MLAs – four from the Janata Dal (Secular) and three from the Congress – after promising them ministerial positions or other powerful berths. To escape the anti-defection law, the legislators were made to quit their posts and join the BJP, necessitating bye-polls in seven constituencies in December. Of these, the newly recruited BJP members won five seats. This strategy, spearheaded by Yeddyurappa, was called Operation Lotus or Operation Kamal. Defending the move, the chief minister told Outlook magazine at the time, “This was an inevitable step because the Opposition was trying to dislodge my government and I had to defend it. Only if the safety of the government is assured can we fulfil the promises we have made to the people.”

Yeddyurappa remained chief minister from May 30, 2008 to July 31, 2011 but all these actions would have a lasting impact on Karnataka politics. In 2009, the BJP extended its Operation Lotus strategy to local body elections, reportedly luring away thousands of members of other parties with promises of power or money. Ahead of the 2013 Assembly elections, Business Standard reported that several legislators who had joined the BJP in 2008 were making their way back to the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular).

During his tenure, Yeddyurappa faced three floor tests, all of which he won, the first in 2008 and the second one in 2010 were relatively easy but the second floor test in 2010 became close when when 16 BJP MLAs withdrew their support to him, but they were disqualified from the house by the speaker, thus bringing down the strength of the house and allowing Yeddyurappa to emerge triumphant from the floor test. Later, in 2011, the Supreme Court labelled the speaker’s decision to disqualify the MLAs failed the tests of natural justice and fair play and termed it as “drastic” and “partisan” with “extraneous considerations”.

In 2012, Yeddyurappa himself left the BJP to form the short-lived Karnataka Janata Paksha. He was angry at having been made to step down as chief minister the previous year, after he was indicted by the Karnataka Lokayukta in an illegal mining case. After he left the BJP, Yeddyurappa denounced Operation Lotus and expressed regret for having been a part of it. By 2014, he was back in the BJP fold.

That Operation Lotus has cast a long shadow in the state is evident after Tuesday’s verdict. Murmurs of an “Operation Lotus 2.0” are doing the rounds. Talks of horse-trading have begun. And on Wednesday, Kumaraswamy accused the BJP of offering his MLAs “Rs 100 crore and a Cabinet berth”.

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