Fourteen months after the Congress pulled off a major coup on the Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka, its coalition government with the Janata Dal (Secular) is on the verge of collapse.
In the May 2018 assembly elections, the BJP emerged as the single-largest party with 105 seats in the 224-member house. Despite that, it was kept away from power after the Congress struck a post-poll deal with the Janata Dal (Secular).
The Congress had won 78 seats while the JD(S) bagged only 37. However, the Congress central leadership decided that keeping the BJP out of government took precedence over leading the coalition. It conceded the chief minister’s position to HD Kumaraswamy, the JD(S) leader. A lone legislator of the Bahujan Samaj Party and two independents backed the coalition.
But the alliance government was built on a shaky foundation. Soon after taking charge, Kumaraswamy began to complain about pressure from the Congress impeding his independence as the chief minister. He even burst into sobs in public, citing the immense stress he was under. Within the faction-ridden Congress, meanwhile, party leaders remained focused on capturing berths in the Cabinet.
This tussle meant there was a conspicuous lack of coordination between the Congress and the JD(S). This hurt governance and culminated in a humiliating defeat at the hands of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in May.
Less than two months after the Lok Sabha defeat, the tension between the allies has opened a window for the BJP.
On July 1, a Congress legislator announced his decision to resign from the assembly. By July 5, Friday, 14 legislators from the Congress and the JD(S) had submitted their resignations to the office of the Speaker Ramesh Kumar. Ten rebel legislators flew to Mumbai in a plane belonging to a company owned by BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekar and are staying in a hotel there. The Congress has accused the BJP of engineering the defections.
Here is a look at what has happened so far and what is likely next.
What led to the political crisis?
The difficulty of sharing power is at the heart of the ongoing crisis. A coalition government meant limited number of ministerial berths had to be shared between the Congress and the JD(S). This sparked resentment and rebellion within both the parties.
Congress leader Ramalinga Reddy is seen as the leader of the current rebellion. He had served as the home minister in the previous government. Left out of the cabinet this time around, for over six months, Reddy had been complaining that the Congress leadership had ignored him and other senior leaders.
The same resentment was visible among other Congress and JD(S) MLAs, who all hoped to find a plum position in the government as quickly as possible, since there were doubts over how long the coalition would last.
The Lok Sabha results, in which the BJP swept Karnataka, only exacerbated the situation. With the Centre firmly in the hands of the BJP, these rebel legislators may have come to a conclusion that there was no advantage in continuing in the Congress or the JD(S).
Who are the rebelling MLAs?
In all, 14 MLAs have submitted resignations since July 1. The first to resign was Congress MLA Anand Singh, who represents the Vijayanagara seat in Ballari. Other high profile names from the Congress include Ramalinga Reddy and BC Patil, two senior leaders who were seen as opposed to former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who currently heads the coalition’s coordination council.
Also among the rebels is Ramesh Jarkiholi, who has for months shown an inclination to quit the Congress and join the BJP. A local heavyweight from Belgavi in North Karnataka, he was dropped from the Cabinet in December and has ever since become the biggest headache for the coalition government.
Jarikholi was expected to be reinstated as minister in June, but the Cabinet expansion was restricted to including two independent MLAs, H Nagesh and AR Shankar, as the coalition leadership felt giving berths to one aspirant and ignoring the others would unsettle the government.
Other Congress legislators who have rebelled are Pratapgauda Patil from Maski, Shivram Hebbar from Yellapur, Mahesh Kumatahalli from Athani, ST Somashekar from Yeshvantpur, Byrathi Basavaraj from KR Puram, Muniratna Naidu from RR Nagar and SN Subba Reddy from KGF.
On the list of JD(S) MLAs who have submitted resignations are Narayana Gowda from KR Pet, Gopalaiah from Mahalakshmi Layout and AH Vishwanath from Hunsur.
In all, five MLAs from the Bengaluru region have resigned, making this the largest bloc. Speculations have been rife that Ramalinga Reddy’s daughter and Jayanagar constituency MLA Sowmya Reddy is also gearing up to join the rebellion.
How do the party numbers stack up?
The most critical question following the rebellion is whether the coalition government can survive. Given the close numbers in the Karnataka Assembly, this is unlikely.
In all the Congress-JD(S) coalition has 118 members in the 224-member assembly, excluding the Speaker. This count includes the 14 rebels. If their resignations are accepted by the Speaker, the coalition strength will drop to 104.
Meanwhile, the BJP has 105 MLAs. If the assembly loses 14 members, its strength will drop to 210, which means the BJP will be just one legislator short of majority.
The problem for the Congress and the JD(S) is that of the 118 MLAs, two are independents and one belongs to the Bahujan Samaj Party. If these three shift loyalties, the BJP could comfortably form the government and wait for the bye-elections to the 14 seats to improve its numbers.
In fact, the BJP’s performance in the Lok Sabha elections may have boosted the confidence of the rebel legislators, who may perhaps feel that they have a strong chance of re-election as a BJP candidate.
The coalition is hoping that as ministers, the two independents will not quit.
What will the speaker do?
Part of Friday’s drama was the fact that Speaker Ramesh Kumar chose to stay away from office and said that he would decide on the resignations on Tuesday, the next working day he will be in office.
There is a possibility that the speaker would try to delay the fall of the government by a few weeks by rejecting their resignations. But as per the assembly rules, unless and until there is a problem with the format in which resignations are submitted, the speaker has no option but to accept them.
Another possibility is that the speaker could simply sit on the resignations and not decide on them as the law is still unclear on whether the courts can order the speaker to make a decision since the assembly is his exclusive domain.
Will there be a vote of confidence?
If the governor feels the speaker is stalling the resignations, he has the right to order a confidence vote. This means the government will have to face a confidence vote on the floor of the assembly whether or not the Speaker accepts the resignations.
On Friday, the rebel MLAs met Governor Vajubhai Vala after submitting their resignations to the speaker’s office. The governor is selected by the Union government, which is why many believe the advantage lies with the BJP.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy is expected to return to Bengaluru on Sunday evening from a personal visit to the United States. He is expected to hold a meeting of the JD(S) legislative party. The Congress is also likely to hold multiple meetings on Sunday evening. The party has fielded its senior leader DK Shivakumar to bring the rebels back to the party.