Bengaluru: Days after the early-June Cabinet expansion in the JDS-Congress coalition government in Karnataka, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah disappeared from the political headquarters of the state.
He did a five-day journey in his newly-adopted Badami constituency and then went off on a 12-day naturopathy sojourn to a nature-cure resort called ‘Shantivana’ in Dharmasthala. Except, that there has been not much ‘shanti (quiet)’ in Karnataka politics ever since he started meeting party leaders and MLAs at this centre.
In the last three days, two videos have emerged where he is candidly discussing politics with supporters who have gone to Shantivana to meet him.
The first showed differences between the two coalition partners on the state budget that will be presented next week. Siddaramaiah wondered what the need for a completely fresh budget was, when he has already given one in February. “A supplementary budget would have sufficed,” his supporters goad him in the video.
The second video shows him having a conversation on electoral losses and who youngsters have voted for, etc. Someone in the room expresses doubt if the coalition government will actually last five full years. Siddaramaiah is heard musing, “Five years? Let us see… It will certainly last till the Parliament elections. Beyond that, we have to see, based on political developments.”
The videos – and the fact that 12 MLAs (including two ministers) went all the way to Dharmasthala to meet him – have set off fresh talk of how stable this government is.
While the MLAs who went to meet him in Dharmasthala said it was a courtesy call to enquire about Siddaramaiah’s health, there are others who are angry with the way things are turning out – merely because of public perception and the wrong signals these meetings are sending.
“Siddaramaiah joined Congress in 2006 and was made leader of Opposition in 2010 and later Chief Minister for five years from 2013-2018. The Congress party rewarded him way beyond though his contribution to the party was not less than nothing. It’s time for the Congress leadership to ask him to just shut up and not meddle with the secular coalition government in the state and allow room for the BJP in Karnataka.”
Thus ran one message from a former MLC of the Congress. It’s not just about rebellion or pressure tactics; it’s also anger about rocking the boat at a time when the Congress can’t afford to do so.
“The Congress high command is also miffed about all these reports - this is the only large state where Congress is in power – the JDS has nothing to lose if the Congress pulls out support and the government falls. They will either still be in power by getting the support of the BJP or they will face a fresh election on the sympathy factor. But what about us? So close to the general elections, if we are bringing down a government that is primarily supported by the Vokkaliga community, Congress’ own chances in the Vokkaliga belt gets washed out in 2019. And it has already lost the support of the other major community, Lingayats,” the MLC said.
Just as the party’s high command stitches up different kinds of delicate alliances across the country, having such discord openly expressed will go against the party in the south, he felt. The Lingayat issue debacle is being squarely blamed on Siddaramaiah.
Doubtless, with the mixed signals coming from Siddaramaiah, there is increasing concern on how smoothly this caravan will move along till May 2019, when elections are due.
An angry Deputy CM G Parameshwara lashed out amid all these speculations, “I don’t know what these people are discussing privately. All I can say is, this government will last its full term, and I say it as the president of the Congress party. The matter is closed.”
What the two parties have also decided now is that, right after the budget session on July 12, they will both start with appointing chairpersons to State-run Boards and Corporations. There are 103 of these Boards, and as all chairpersons are political appointees, this is one way of keeping unhappy MLAs in check.
The Congress and JDS have decided to divide these posts in a 65:35 ratio – 65 per cent of them to the larger partner, the Congress. In the first phase, at least 30 of the chairpersons will be appointed within a week of the budget session.
As both parties are acutely aware of the resentful MLAs in different regions and of different communities, they are both pussy-footing their way around these appointments. They will test the waters with the 30 appointments, then probably take up a mini-cabinet expansion, and later fill the other posts of Boards and Corporations.
In any case, with 34 Cabinet berths and 103 Boards and Corporations, there is enough and more place for the 117 MLAs. But MLCs – many of them, senior functionaries and strategists – have also to be placated.
In the JDS camp, ‘Doddavaru,’ party patriarch and national president HD Deve Gowda, made clear that he is not going to deal with the party’s state leaders on ironing out differences. “It was (AICC Karnataka-in-charge) KC Venugopal who sought out the JDS and gave unconditional support. If there are problems, Venugopal will sort them out,” Gowda told the media after a meeting of his party office-bearers.
He is in Delhi on Wednesday for meetings related to Parliament committees, but is also likely to meet senior Congress leaders like Venugopal, Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad – all of whom were keen on the Karnataka coalition.
The JDS is also unlikely to change any major schemes or announcements of the Siddaramaiah budget of February, JDS MLC and spokesperson T A Sharavana told News18.
In a come-down of sorts, the JDS has decided to keep alive most of these schemes – like expansion of Indira canteens, free education for girls upto post-graduation.
However, what it will do is add on certain of its key manifesto promises to the budget – primarily, the farm loan waiver.
“The JDS is committed to announcing this – people raise doubts, saying it will cost over Rs 50,000 crore, where is the money going to come from. But we realised it is not that much. We will form a committee that will identify deserving beneficiaries and carry this out in two phases. We are also trying to convince banks to waive the interest part, and may cut down on allocations to other departments like social welfare and education that have large unutilised funds,” Sharavana said.
The coordination committee that was to decide on all major policies of the coalition government – headed by Siddaramaiah – will meet on June 30 ahead of the budget session.
The other members of the committee are Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, JDS leader Danish Ali, Deputy CM G Parameshwar and KC Venugopal. It will be the first time these leaders will meet face-to-face after the two-week period of ‘dissidence’ activity, if it may be called that.