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Karnataka: Rocky Road Ahead

Karnataka: Rocky Road Ahead
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Above: Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala (right) administering the oath to HD Kumaraswamy at the swearing-in ceremony

Considering that the JD(S) and the Congress fought each other and traded insults while making extravagant election promises, both sides will be keeping an eye on each other

~By Stephen David in Bengaluru

Hours before the new Karnataka chief minister, HD Kumaraswamy, was to face the floor test in the assembly, his deputy, G Parameshwara of the Congress, caused a flutter in the freshly minted coalition by appearing to cast doubts about the new government’s long-term stability.

Asked whether Kumaraswamy would stay chief minister for a full five-year term, Parameshwara said: “We are yet to decide on what portfolios will go to them and what should be with us, then five-year term—whether they should be or we should also…all those modalities we have still not discussed.” Kumaraswamy had said over the weekend that there was “no rotational arrangement”, indicating that he intended to be chief minister for a full term.

Despite the needless drama, the coalition sailed through the trust vote on May 25 after the BJP walked out. But by speaking at cross-purposes, the CM and his deputy managed to evoke memories of the last Congress-JD(S) coalition government which was headed by the Congress’ Dharam Singh, with Kumaraswamy as deputy CM. The government fell after the JD(S) ditched the Congress and tied up with the BJP.

No such danger awaits the new government but it is clear that the crown sits uneasily on Kumaraswamy’s head. According to the power-sharing formula worked out after protracted talks, the Congress-JD(S) combo will have 34 ministers—a lion’s share of 22 for the Congress, including the deputy chief minister’s post. The Congress’ choice, KR Ramesh Kumar, a seasoned statesman, was unanimously elected the Speaker after BJP candidate S Suresh Kumar pulled out of the race. The withdrawal  came shortly before the House took up the floor test and was seen as a major victory for the coalition.

Considering that the alliance partners had contested against each other and traded insults while making extravagant promises to the voters, ministers from both sides will be keeping an eye on each other as they go about implementing their campaign promises. Waiver of farm loans, a key component of the JD(S) poll manifesto, is a costly business: the government will have to write off Rs 53,000 crore to the exchequer to waive farmers’ debts and the CM needs the Congress nod to do that.

Besides, the Congress-JD(S) combo is yet to prepare a Common Minimum Programme to serve as a Bible to keep the bond intact for five years.

Unlike last time, when Kumaraswamy rebelled and brought down a government which his father had helped put together, this time the two worked in tandem. HD Deve Gowda worked the phone lines to invite leaders from the non-BJP Opposition from across the country. Responding to his personal invitation, leaders descended in droves to join the mammoth swearing-in jamboree on May 23. Among them four chief ministers—Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal, N Chandrababu Naidu from Andhra Pradesh, Arvind Kejriwal from Delhi, Pinarayi Vijayan from Kerala—and a dozen national leaders met and bonded, revving up for a united non-NDA front for 2019. It was perhaps the first time since he became prime minister that the entire Opposition grouped to send out the signal that it will sink differences and join hands to stop Narendra Modi’s 2019 bid. For the photographers, it was the rarest of rare photo-ops.Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala (right) administering the oath to HD Kumaraswamy at the swearing-in ceremony

Bengaluru Graffiti

Thanksgiving tours

The new Karnataka chief minister, HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (S), took the oath of office in the name of secularism but that does not mean he is anti-religion. In fact, he is a God-fearing man who, in the space of three days, before taking the oath, chopper-hopped to nearly a dozen temples across Karnataka—five in his home district of Hassan apart from Dharmasthala and Sringeri in the BJP bastion of coastal Karnataka. He also sought blessings from Goddess Chamundeshwari (or Durga, the fierce form of Shakti) in the 12th century Hoysala temple revered for centuries by Mysore maharajas.

The previous Congress CM, Siddaramaiah, had lost his seat to a JD (S) candidate, GT Deve Gowda. He also managed to visit temples in his constituency, Ramanagaram, and two others in Bengaluru.

Kumaraswamy’s wife, Anitha, tipped to contest from Ramanagaram in the bypoll (Kumaraswamy won from there as well as Channapatna), visits temples regularly—some say twice or thrice a week. For now, her prayers seem to have been answered.

Mamata miffed

Kumaraswamy called upon thousands of his followers to descend on Bengaluru to witness his swearing-in for the second time. And they did, jamming roads, choking traffic and causing untold misery to commuters and pedestrians alike. The city traffic police also seemed to have lost the plot with several VVIPs not being able to make it to the brief swearing-in function: it was all over in seven minutes flat. The politician who threw her VIP weight around was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who allegedly reprimanded the state Director General of Police, Neelamani Raju. The Trinamool chief was apparently unhappy as she had to “walk a few metres” after the police stopped her cavalcade. The unpredictable Mamata, who resorts to walkouts at the slightest provocation, was, however, quickly pacified by JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda. Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan faced no such problems with the traffic. He came in only after the function was over!

Sprinter’s long march

Karnataka’s new deputy chief minister is a man of many parts. A senior Congress and Dalit leader, 66-year-old Gangadhar Parameshwara is a plant pathologist (one who studies diseased plant tissues) and is said to have set a record during his university days by doing the 100m in 10.9 secs as an undergrad at Bengaluru’s University of Agricultural Sciences. For Parameshwara, whose family runs a large group of educational institutions, including a university, in his native Tumkur district near the state capital, it was a slow and long walk to achieve the highest political office in his long career: being sworn in as No 2 in the new cabinet. He was the state unit Congress chief for eight years and was an aspirant for the CM’s post in 2013 but blew his chance when he lost the seat in the assembly elections held that year. Now that he’s back, fellow Dalit leader Mallikharjuna Kharge, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, may have to wait a while to return to the state Congress.

Keeping doors open

Several seats on the dais, reserved for BJP leaders, were empty as the party boycotted the event, calling the day Anti-People’s Mandate Day. Seats were reserved for former Karnataka Chief Ministers BS Yeddyurappa, DVS Gowda, SM Krishna and former Union ministers Ananth Kumar and GM Siddeshwara. But Yeddyurappa and many of his party leaders were staging a dharna near the Mahatma Gandhi statue close to the Vidhana Soudha. “It was a mandate against the Congress government as the party’s strength was reduced from 122 to 78 and the JD(S) numbers were also reduced from 40 to 38. The Congress and JD(S) hijacked the people’s mandate and entered into an unholy alliance,” a BJP leader said. PM Modi, for a change, showed some grace. Still smarting from the fact that his whirlwind visits to the state did not help the BJP win a majority, Modi nevertheless phoned Kumaraswamy and congratulated him. The new CM in return tweeted a thank you to the BJP’s star campaigner. In a hung House, it’s wise to keep all options open.

All in the family

JD(S) national president HD Deve Gowda, 85, who personally invited several Opposition leaders, was a proud, gleeful patriarch as his five children and many grandchildren turned up in their best on the grand steps of the Vidhana Soudha. Gowda’s two sons—HD Kumaraswamy and HD Revanna—are long-time party legislators. Revanna’s son, Prajwal, and Kumaraswamy’s son, Nikhil Kumar Gowda, a film actor, are also hoping to follow the family tradition of politics. Deve Gowda wants Prajwal to contest the Hassan Lok Sabha seat in 2019. Nikhil wants his mother, Anitha Kumaraswamy—who was an MLA from Madhugiri in 2008 to contest from Ramanagaram when his father vacates the seat and retains the other one, Channapatna, which he also won in the Cauvery heartland of Mandya. The four old Mysore districts, dominated by Vokkaligas, the state’s second largest community to which the Gowdas belong, voted strongly for the father-son duo.

Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati shared a stage for the first time as did Chandrababu Naidu, whose TDP was built on the foundation of anti-Congressism. He shared the stage with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, while Mamata, who has fought Communists all her life, was seen shaking hands with the CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury. Opposition leaders see May 16 as a turning point in Indian politics and point to the BJP’s defeat in Bihar against a united Opposition. And the more recent setbacks for the party in two Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh—a state where the BJP had not lost even one seat in 2014—as proof that together, they can topple the BJP.

In Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD and the Congress will be part of the Third Front as the two parties were already in the Grand Alliance that defeated the BJP. Mamata is leading the crusade against the BJP which has made huge inroads in her state and pushed the CPI(M) and the Congress to third and fourth places. She has been one of the strongest advocates of Opposition unity to take on the saffron brigade. In Odisha, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has remained neutral but is facing a stiff challenge from the BJP, and Opposition sources say this should spur him to drift towards them. The Northeast will see the Congress forging alliances with regional parties while the BJP’s prospects in Kerala are next to nothing.

The sudden thundershowers preceding the 4.30 pm swearing-in ceremony were interpreted as a sign of divine blessing for Kumaraswamy who had crisscrossed the state to a dozen temples in three days prior to his swearing-in. “My visits to the temples are only to pray for our people, especially the farmers, and to pray for the stability of the coalition government,” Kumaraswamy said. On May 24, he sought the blessings of his Vokkaliga community pontiff, Nirmalanandanatha Swami—the 48-year-old former IIT Madras postgrad—at the Adichunchanagiri mutt.

Incidentally, BJP national chief Amit Shah had also called on Nirmalanandanatha Swami. The BJP tried to make political capital when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath —who shares a bond with his fellow seer—met him and stayed overnight at the mutt during a January 2018 visit to Karnataka. The BJP’s most recent import of a powerful Vokkaliga leader is former Karnataka Chief Minister SM Krishna, a veteran Congressman, who has a hot and cold relationship with his new party.

Considering the pulls and pressures of a coalition government packed with members of the state’s largest community blocs, Kumaraswamy took a helicopter to pay his maiden visit to the Siddaganga mutt and sought the blessings of the 111-year-old Sri Shivakumara Swamiji. The most revered of the Lingayat pontiffs, he was born in Ramanagaram, the assembly constituency on the outskirts of Bengaluru from where Kumaraswamy has won four times. This time too, he has won the seat but is expected to give it up in favour of his wife who may contest the bye-election.

Kumaraswamy’s strategic photo-ops with pontiffs of the state’s largest and second largest communities—all in one day—will surely come in handy for his long political haul.

To gain some more cache in the Lingayat community, sources say he is getting ready to request the prime minister to bestow the Bharat Ratna on the Lingayat pontiff in 2018 itself.

Kumaraswamy has also decided to not move into any of the official CM bungalows close to the state secretariat against the advice of his astrologers, although he says his decision to stay put at his private residence in Jaya Prakash Nagar is part of his austerity measure. He plans to meet the public directly as part of janata darshan at the official CM residence, Krishna, every morning when he is in Bengaluru. Perhaps this darshan of the people directly will prove to be a big boon to help him complete his full term as chief minister of Karnataka.

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