Bengaluru, Jan 29, 2020: The Karnataka government could well see a game of musical chairs of sorts, with a cabinet expansion on the cards by the end of this month. In fact, it is something that has been in the making for as long as a month and a half, now that 11 MLAs have changed their status from ‘disqualified’ to ‘qualified’ after winning by-elections last month.
But, it is obvious by the many times chief minister BS Yediyurappa has avoided questions on his cabinet expansion that it is an issue which has given him much headache, and heartache, over the past few weeks, Yahoo reported.
Eleven MLAs came freshly minted into the assembly on December 9, when they won the bypolls that were held to their constituencies after they had resigned in July to rebel against the JD(S)-Congress coalition government of which they were a part. They were disqualified, but allowed to re-contest the bypolls, and have now come back into the assembly as members of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
All 11 are aspiring ministers – in fact, the CM himself had campaigned for them during the bypolls, telling voters they weren’t voting for mere MLAs, but for future ministers. Some – like Ramesh Jarkiholi from Belagavi who was instrumental in getting together others to rebel in July – have even specified what portfolios they want.
But more than a month since their re-election, the legislators are yet to be inducted into the cabinet and patience is running thin. And the chief minister seems to be just dodging – going by the number of times he has turned his back on the media asking him questions about cabinet expansion, the last being on Monday in Kodagu when reporters asked if the two MLAs who lost the polls will also be accommodated.
So what’s holding up the expansion? After all, Yediyurappa has famously declared time and again that once he makes a promise, he is not one to go back on his word. So if he had committed to including all rebels in his team, that shouldn’t be taking as long as a month and a half. Besides, 16 ministerial berths have been kept vacant for the last six months just for these people.
“He doesn’t want it to be just an expansion (of adding ministers). He wants it to be a reshuffle. There are at least five ministers who, it is felt, aren’t taking forward the party’s work in any significant way. So he wants to ease them out and bring in others of his choice,” said a source close to one of the three deputy chief ministers in Yediyurappa’s team.
The CM is apparently unhappy with ministers CC Patil, Shashikala Jolle, Suresh Kumar, Kota Srinivasa Poojary and, interestingly, home minister Basavaraj Bommai. Bommai, source says, has been cribbing that he has had to undertake many police transfers because of ‘recommendations’ from the chief minister’s son, and this has irked the CM.
But the BJP high command is not convinced about the need to drop so many ministers. Apart from the fact that they feel these concerns may be misplaced, the party also doesn’t want its image dented. If it drops these many ministers, it would could be seen as akin to admitting that its government has so far not been able to make a difference.
Amid the large number of rebels who think of themselves as natural choices for ministerships, there are also ‘original’ BJP MLAs who think they are being side-lined while “those who came to the party yesterday are being gifted portfolios generously”.
Though this is not a line the party high command agrees with – it has made amply clear that, but for the sacrifices of these ministers, the BJP would never have come to power – there are also strong voices within the party lobbying for the seniors. There are other seniors like Neharu Olekar and young faces like Aravind Bellad who are all hopefuls. “In politics, everyone is an aspirant,” as one of them put it!
Umesh Katti, an eight-time MLA from Belagavi, is among the strongest claimants – he went to Delhi on Monday to meet party president JP Nadda and others to put forth his own case.
But with so many ministers from Belagavi already, he is on a weak footing – unless some other minister from the district is dropped. Laxman Savadi, for instance, who is neither an MLA nor an MLC but is a deputy CM, is also from Belagavi. He would have to necessarily become an MLC by February 23, if he has to remain in the cabinet (rules mandate that if a minister is appointed who is not an MLC or MLA, he must become a member of either of the Houses within six months).
There is only one MLC post vacant currently, for which the Election Commission has notified a schedule on Monday. Election to this vacant seat will be held by February 17, but if it is uncontested (and it could well be, since the BJP has the numbers), the state may see a new MLC by February 7.
Whether this will be Savadi, though, remains in doubt. Because there is another ‘rebel’ R Shankar who was persuaded that he will be elected to the legislative council if he did not fight the assembly bypoll. Shankar too is now holding Yediyurappa’s ‘word’ to account. “He had given me his word that he would make me an MLC and then a minister. I expect that he stands by his word,” he told newspersons last week.
Another source in the BJP says there is hectic lobbying not just to become a minister, but to become a deputy CM. There are already three holding that post in Karnataka (Savadi included), but there have been campaigns to make health minister B Sriramulu, a popular Scheduled Tribe leader, a deputy chief minister too.
"It is inevitable that Savadi will be dropped. Another deputy chief minister CN Ashwathnarayan too could be dropped. They have both failed to establish themselves as leaders in their own right, though the object of bringing in three deputy CMs was to see if a second rung of leadership can be created as alternatives to take the party forward. Either the government may drop the ’DCM’ tag for all three, or change the DCMs,” said a source close to Sriramulu.
The BJP is also growing concerned about the way the party has been divided in Bengaluru city – with Ashwathnarayan being seen as a parallel force of the Vokkaliga community, instead of revenue minister R Ashoka. It was supposed to be an attempt to project Ashwathnarayan as an alternative to Ashoka, but this has ended up making the cadre choose between the two.
If two power centres in Bengaluru (and in the Vokkaliga community) have emerged as a new concern in these past five months, the fact that there is over-representation of Belagavi district has been a source of anger for many MLAs from other parts of the state. With three of the newly elected ‘rebel’ legislators now also hailing from this district, and the lobbying by Savadi and Katti for their share of the pie, this north Karnataka district has become a cause of sore feelings all around.
The party high command is said to have approved only one among the rebels to the cabinet – Ramesh Jarkiholi – while the CM has been asked to assuage the feelings of the other two, Mahesh Kumathalli and Shrimant Patil, by putting off their induction to another phase of expansion. One party source said it may not be just two who have to be persuaded – that the party top brass may allow only six rebels to be inducted in this phase, and keep others waiting. The lucky six would be K Sudhakar, Anand Singh, Ramesh Jarkiholi, BC Patil, ST Somashekar and Byrathi Basavaraj. Besides, the non-MLA/non-MLC Savadi may be replaced with Katti.
The party’s logic to taking this forward is simply this: the ‘rebel’ MLAs are under their command now. Since they have already resigned from their previous parties and have faced bypolls once, they won’t have much choice other than to swallow such a decision. They could not possibly rebel yet again, since the party already has the numbers to stay in government.
But it may not be a stand Yediyurappa himself would go with – after all, he has ‘given his word’.
The CM will soon face another problem on this front. He had appointed two ‘political secretaries’ in September to placate two of his ardent loyalists. They are SR Vishwanath and MP Renukacharya who, though not officially ministers, enjoy ranks on par with ministers. However, two weeks ago, the Karnataka high court said that appointment of political secretaries is unconstitutional while giving its order on a public interest litigation.
If these two appointments are questioned now, and they would have to be stripped of their posts, that just makes room for more discontent.
Yediyurappa then is tasked with balancing different lobbies, besides staying away from stepping on many a fragile ego. The proclamations of “we will complete the cabinet expansion this week” has been made many weeks ago now. There have been many days when he has taken up tours in different districts to stay away from Bengaluru, and hence lobby groups. And from “end of January”, it already looks like this will spill into the first week of February.