BJP's Karnataka Experiment Is a Cautionary Tale for Maharashtra

The fact that a rebellion and defection could be orchestrated in Karnataka with a group as large as 17 MLAs shows that no state government is safe.

The lesson from the by-polls to 15 assembly constituencies in Karnataka is simple and one that has national importance. An MLA who has the final word in his or her constituency and is confident of an electoral victory, irrespective of which party they represent, can defect, topple governments and enjoy the dividends of a new one with audacity.

Anti-defection legislation does not matter to them because the Supreme Court of India itself has declared that, even if an MLA is disqualified for disobeying a party whip and openly defects to another party, they can recontest an election and return to the house.

It only delays their appointments to posts or cabinet berths and does not deny them the prospect of shifting sides for gains of position and appointments.

Every Indian state has MLAs who have the final word in their constituencies and can risk running for another election. They either belong to a powerful family or use strong-arm tactics with money power to keep their constituencies under their control.

Most of the 17 Congress and JD(S) MLAs who defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and managed to disband the H.D. Kumaraswamy government in Karnataka in July had a stronghold over their constituencies, which they proved in the recent by-elections.

Also read: After Exploiting a Volatile Scenario, BJP Secures Its Hold on Karnataka

That is exactly why they could risk brazenly defecting to the BJP by resigning from the house and the by-elections were a mere formality for them. Now that formality has been completed they will return, some as ministers in B.S.Yeddyurappa’s cabinet and others with coveted appointments.

For instance, Ramesh Jarkhioli, former minister and one who had created a ruckus with resignation threats during his term in Siddaramiah’s cabinet will return to the house from the Gokak constituency as a BJP MLA and is certain to be a minister.

The Jarkhioli family has had a complete hold over the constituency and the Congress had to field Ramesh’s brother Lakhan Jarkhioli to contest against him. The results were a foregone conclusion.

In effect, the Jarkhiolis can shift to any side they want but Gokak and few neighbouring constituencies will go with them. Anti-defection rules are a mute witness.

Yeshwanthpura BJP candidate S.T. Somashekar flashes the victory sign on December 9, 2019. Photo: PTI

In 13 of the 15 constituencies that went to polls, the BJP fielded MLAs who resigned from the Congress or JD(S) and 11 of them return to the house. It is obvious that they will demand their pound of flesh. Not all are as powerful as the Jarkhiolis, but all of them have the same traits.

The fact that the BJP is dependent and was willing to brazenly ally with them to form a government in Karnataka only makes them stronger. It is a similar kind of politics that led to the rise and fall of the BJP government between 2007 and 2012 when it was controlled by the infamous Reddy brothers of Ballari.

But the lessons have not been learnt and it will be interesting to see how B.S. Yeddyurappa manages and accommodates the new lot.

Also read: SC Judgment on Disqualified Karnataka MLAs Could Further Weaken Anti-Defection Act

On the other hand, the infighting in the Congress leadership in Karnataka has intensified and the old leadership of the party is taking on Siddaramiah who has offered to resign as the leader of opposition. The party’s old guard is lobbying behind former minister D.K. Shivakumar and the Congress high command will have to deal with some strong bargaining even in defeat.

But apart from internal troubles within the Congress and the BJP, an important aspect of the Karnataka exercise was the scale at which it was carried out. The fact that a rebellion and defection could be orchestrated with a group as large as 17 MLAs shows that no government is safe.

The Maha Vikas Aghadi in Maharashtra – a difficult coalition of contradiction – will have to be wary of the successful Karnataka experiment. Maharashtra too has a large number of MLAs, independent and otherwise, who rule their constituencies and, despite the steep numbers required in the state, the threat exists.

T.M. Veeraraghav is an independent journalist.