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No early end in sight to Karnataka turbulence

The author is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst
Published : Jul 25, 2019, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jul 25, 2019, 12:00 am IST

It is a moot question whether it would have survived if the coalition partners had done well in the parliamentary elections.

JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy  (Photo: PTI)
 JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy (Photo: PTI)

The Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition government of chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy had to fall sooner than later. The rebels MLAs — 13 from the Congress and three from the JD(S) — provided the immediate trigger for the collapse of the government, but they are not the real cause. The coalition was untenable right from the day it was formed, with a larger Congress playing second fiddle to a smaller JD(S). It was expected to last till the Lok Sabha elections this summer. It is a moot question whether it would have survived if the coalition partners had done well in the parliamentary elections. It would be naïve to expect that better sense would have prevailed among the leaders of the two parties to keep the coalition government going.

Meanwhile, the BJP in the state and at the Centre had tried to occupy the moral high ground by saying that the problem of the breakaway MLAs was that of the Congress and the JD(S), and not theirs. But the BJP’s stand would convince no one but themselves. The tacit role played by the party managers in keeping the 16 MLAs at a five-star hotel in Mumbai was visible to all. And the cat will be out of the bag when some of these rebels are likely to be offered ministerial berths in the government that the BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa is keen to form. The BJP’s claim to form the government again cannot be on the basis of the Lok Sabha poll results, where the BJP won a huge mandate. The people of Karnataka did not trust this party in the Assembly election, and that is what counts.

To keep up the appearance of neutrality, the BJP then should not offer any political inducements to the rebels until they win the election which they are bound to fight. But the BJP cannot be expected to be so scrupulous as the standards of scrupulosity are not very high in general, and it will not be judged too harshly. In terms of power politics, the BJP is quite justified in playing ball with the rebels. The BJP apologists are sure to cite Kautilya’s Arthashastra to rationalise their political cunning.

There has been much unnecessary debate about the political morality of the rebels and their constitutional liability arising out of their resignations. The rebels played within the narrow confines of the rules. Their resignations are not from their respective parties but from the state Assembly, and they must fight an election to come back. If some of them are made ministers, then they would have to fight the election within six months. The pseudo-constitutional question that has been raised by the critics of the crisis was that the Speaker had the discretion to reject their resignations, and that he could also disqualify them. It is a tendentious argument because the anti-defection law is for leaving one party to join another and remain a member of the Assembly. Here, the rebels have not technically defected, but they opted out of the Assembly, and showed their willingness to go back to their respective constituencies and fight an election. Now, it is for the people of these constituencies to reject them or re-elect them. The only ground on which the Speaker can disqualify some of the rebels is on the charge of corruption. But that is an extremely grey area.

The rebels, whether they are disqualified or re-elected, will play the same destabilising role in the BJP government that they did in the last one. The BJP government cannot hope to have a smooth ride for the rest of its term. The rebels who will be co-opted by the BJP will remain like the proverbial Sword of Damocles over the BJP’s head. The right-wing party, with its strongarm tactics, can hope to force the rebels to fall in line. The parties and their partisans are sure to sermonise about the political immorality of these rebels. But it doesn’t water.

There is need to change our thinking on  the role of political parties and that of the people’s representatives. An elected representative’s legitimacy cannot revolve around the loyalty he/she shows to the political party of which he/she is a member. Right now, party bosses on all sides demand the absolute loyalty of elected representatives.

Politics is not just about parties and their quest for power. It is also about the people’s mandate, given or denied to parties. In 2018, it was clear that the Congress government was rejected, the BJP was not given full backing and the JD(S) remained a relatively small but significant player in the state polity. In India, the politicians have not understood the meaning of a hung Assembly. The people’s verdict in a hung Assembly is that they do not trust any of the political parties, and expect the single largest political party to form the government and work in cooperation with other parties. The political parties are so obsessed with absolute power that they resort to stratagems to attain a full majority so that they can rule without hindrance. This leads to covert and overt horse-trading.  The BJP, as the single largest party, was the legitimate claimant to form the government, but with the caveat that it would not impose its agenda of governance and seek the help of other parties. Like in the American system, it should be possible for members across the aisle to vote for legislation that is acceptable to all. Of course, this militates against the party system that rules the parliamentary form of government. But parties will have to loosen their stranglehold over members and allow them to vote for common good legislation. The whip should be restricted to trust and no-trust motions. This should possibly prevent the poaching game played by the parties. This would also prevent the exigency of elections until one party gains a simple majority.

This kind of solution becomes necessary in a state like Karnataka, where three parties are in the reckoning. The attempt to eliminate the third player so that a two-party system emerges is not healthy in a diverse polity like ours. The JD(S), the smaller player, should not have been cannibalised either by the Congress or by the BJP. The resulting complexity should be seen as a positive feature, rather than as a sore thumb.

Tags: hd kumaraswamy, karnataka crisis