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MLC Polls Out of the Way, BJP ‘Originals’ & Turncoats Butt Heads Again for K'taka Cabinet Berths

File photo of Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa along with state ministers at a meeting for coronavirus. (PTI Photo)

File photo of Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa along with state ministers at a meeting for coronavirus. (PTI Photo)

While chief minister BS Yediyurappa has said that the leaders who defected from the Congress and JD(S) to ensure the BJP formed the government must be given their due, long-time loyal legislators of the ruling party also want a taste of power by being included in the Cabinet.

MTB Nagaraj, once India's richest MLA with assets valued at over Rs 1,015 crore as per his affidavit filed in the 2018 assembly elections, had been doing the rounds of many BJP MLAs the past few weeks, trying to persuade them that nothing must stop him from achieving his goal of becoming a Member of the Legislative Council.

On Thursday, that goal was met — he was among the four MLC candidates fielded by the BJP for the elections to seven seats that are slated to be held on June 29. He and R Shankar, once an 'independent' MLA who had moved his loyalty from the Congress-JD(S) coalition government to join the Congress, to then move to the BJP all in the span of a few months, have both made it to the coveted MLC list of the saffron party.

In fact, with the BJP having enough numbers to vote four MLCs into office, the Congress having just enough numbers for two MLCs and the JD(S) for just one, there is unlikely to be an election on June 29. Each of these parties has nominated only the number of MLCs they are likely to win, and all seven will likely become Members of the Upper House of Legislature, unopposed.

But as they say, there is a new beginning in every ending. The election process formally ends on June 22 (the last date to withdraw nominations, when the results of the MLC poll will get announced without holding an election) — and this may kick-start the next round of political lobbying on who should make it to the Cabinet.

As it is, both MTB and Shankar have been talking publicly about how chief minister BS Yediyurappa is a "man of his word" — that he is a man who never goes back on his promise. Internally, everyone knows that at least 16 MLAs who quit the JD(S) and the Congress in June 2019 to pave the way for the BJP to come to power in Karnataka, have been assured of Cabinet berths. Since there was a long-drawn-out legal battle over their disqualification, this has taken its time (and given Yediyurappa some breather).

However, after 12 of them were re-elected in December, all barring one were inducted into the ministry. The one remaining — Mahesh Kumatahalli — was made chairman of a government-run board. But now it is time to pacify the others as well — Shankar and MTB will doubtless be demanding their rightful place in the Cabinet very soon.

Both, after all, were ministers in the JD(S)-Congress coalition government and have time and again reminded the BJP of their 'sacrifice' to facilitate the saffron party moving from the opposition benches to the treasury.

But while Shankar had not contested the bypolls as advised by the CM — preferring to wait for the MLC seats to get vacant — MTB lost the bypolls to a rebel BJP candidate, in fact the son of a sitting BJP MP.

Once they become MLCs, the next logical extension would be a ministry — but here, they may encounter problems. There is a long list of the 'original BJP' MLAs who are already unhappy at being ignored when it came to Cabinet formation. And they aren't going to keep quiet while the turncoats get their way.

"How long will they keep talking about their sacrifice? So, yes, they sacrificed their ministerial positions, but does that mean that the ones who have worked hard to bring the BJP's numbers to 105 made no sacrifices?" asks a BJP strongman who has been privy to many of the conflicts between the 'original partymen' versus the defecting rebels or the 'newcomers'.

In its choice for the four MLC seats, too, this conflict has been seen quite clearly — while two of the seats went to the turncoat MLAs who did not make it back to the Assembly, the other two seats went to 'original' BJP grassroots leaders Sunil Valyapure and Prathap Simha Nayak. The party deliberately ignored the plea of H Vishwanath, another of the 16 turncoat MLAs who had lost the bypolls in December. He, too, had done his share of 'sacrifices' for the BJP — having quit as the state president of the JD(S) to join the BJP.

A former minister in the SM Krishna government, later an MLA of the JD(S) from Mysuru, Vishwanath today finds himself nowhere. There is a chance that he could still get nominated by the government to the Council when it comes time to fill other vacancies — but it is seriously in doubt whether he would actually make it to the Cabinet.

"We have nothing against them being made ministers but what we are saying is, strike a balance between the original BJP and the newcomers. If there are four seats, give two to loyal leaders of decades, two to the newcomers. Similarly, when we know that there are six ministerial berths to be filled and when we know we still have another three years in power, we want to ensure that we are given as much of an opportunity in the Cabinet as them," says a BJP leader of the 'original' faction.

True to expectations, about eight MLAs such as Basangouda Patil Yatnala and Arvind Bellad met state party president Nalin Kumar Kateel on Thursday night to discuss the post-Council election scenario.

Usually, even if there are six vacancies, not all would be filled — typically chief ministers keep at least two or three Cabinet berths vacant for any future emergencies that may need sudden filling of these.

However, these MLAs are also anxious to see that if both the turncoats get inducted as ministers, it should not be at the cost of the original BJP.

"What we always say is, give them something proportionate to their strength. Eleven are already in the Cabinet now. You can't keep giving it to 'them' (turncoats) only. We need to balance it out... I always believe that government is a byproduct. Party is a production unit — if the production unit is not strong, how will the product be," remarks a minister.

What is worrying the party top-brass is that the list among ministerial aspirants in the 'original' faction is pretty long — from eight-time MLA Umesh Katti who has made his displeasure clear many times publicly, to Lingayat influencers like Murugesh Nirani who have held secret meetings of other like-minded-and-upset MLAs like SA Ramadas to share notes, to youngsters like Arvind Bellad, to the Kodagu-district MLAs like Bopaiah and Appachu Ranjan, to... there is no corner of Karnataka where there is an MLA who feels he has been given his due.

"The promise (given at the time of the turncoats quitting their parties and moving to the BJP) was that they would be fielded as MLA candidates and, if they lost, would be made MLCs. At the party level, there was no assurance of any Cabinet post... it would be wrong to infer that," says an aspirant from the 'original' faction.

The meeting with the party state president too focussed on how development projects and fund allocations of their constituencies have been sidelined: something that the originals have been feeling angsty about for many months, wondering why the turncoats have got more money and power to wield just because they came from other parties.

Two more by-elections are yet to be held, since they have been caught in legal wrangles — and once these are held, if the turncoat MLAs win, there would be two more in the line to demand their pound of flesh for their 'sacrifices'. And if that happens, the originals worry that they would be further sidelined — which is why they don't want to leave room for any more turncoats at the next Cabinet expansion.

Yediyurappa, of course, may not look at it in that light. He once famously told a party meeting before the bypolls: "Put yourselves in their place, if these 16 MLAs had not resigned and sacrificed their MLA posts, the BJP would have remained in the opposition benches for another three long years."

If nothing else, the turncoats have the saviour of their aspirations in him. Though that might have got Yediyurappa more enemies within the party — his recommendations for the Rajya Sabha seats, for instance, were completely disregarded by the party high-command in Delhi last week, who chose to find their own candidates without giving his short-list a second look.

first published:June 19, 2020, 16:07 IST