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How Congress isolated its angry MLA & foiled BJP ‘designs’ of grabbing power in Karnataka

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MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi threatened to quit, along with 25 legislators, after being dropped from the cabinet. Speculation was that he will join BJP.

Bengaluru: The Congress, it appears, has learnt the art of fire-fighting in Karnataka, where it has been in a shaky coalition government with the Janata Dal (Secular) for the past seven months. The party has swiftly quelled the latest dissent in its ranks that had at one point threatened to bring down the coalition government.

The crisis centred around party MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi who had threatened to quit the Congress after being dropped from the state cabinet on 23 December, leading to speculation that he may join the BJP.

Jarkiholi’s departure could have spelt trouble for the ruling Congress-JD(S) combine, which just about has a majority with 113 seats in the 224-member assembly. Jarkiholi, replaced in the cabinet by his brother, Satish, claimed to have the support of nearly 25 Congress MLAs.

“There is no threat to the government. To attract anti-defection law, they will have to have 26 MLAs,” Congress Rajya Sabha MP, Dr Naseer Hussain told ThePrint.

“We are sure that not a single MLA will cross over or get lured by BJP. It is the BJP’s futile attempts to grab power. The people of Karnataka have put their stamp of approval by giving a massive mandate in the bye-election,” he said.

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A two-pronged strategy

After his threat to quit, the Congress initially attempted to assuage Jarkiholi. The high command sent party general secretary K.C. Venugopal, who is its Karnataka in-charge, to placate the sulking former minister. But Jarkiholi deftly avoided Venugopal, leaving Bengaluru for his pocket borough of Belagavi Tuesday morning, when the senior Congressman was in town.

The Congress, it appears, then decided not to give in to Jarkiholi’s posturing. The party adopted an adept two-pronged strategy to douse the situation.

The Karnataka Congress first came down heavily on every single party worker, issuing a diktat that if any of them were to defect or revolt, their political career in the party would end.

The stern message came from Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Dinesh Gundu Rao. “If any leader goes against the interest of the party, strict action will be taken against them,” Rao told The Print. “Nobody is above the party and we treat everybody as equals, so let there be no doubt in anybody’s mind.”

The Congress then identified the 25 MLAs that Jarkiholi had claimed to have the support of and deputed senior party leaders to individually speak to them. Sources said the leaders assured disgruntled MLAs and MLCs that they had a better future in the Congress.

This way, the party isolated Jarkiholi and projected him to be the “problem child”.

The party also got Jarkiholi’s younger brother, Satish, to convince him to remain in the Congress. The Jarkiholi brothers are known to be a very closely knit family.

A senior Congress leader told ThePrint that the party realised that Jarkiholi was issuing “empty threats” and that nobody seems to take them seriously anymore.

“Even the numbers don’t add up if you go by the anti-defection law. Ramesh will have to go away with at least 25 MLAs and this is impossible as nobody wants to leave the Congress, except him,” the leader said.

Jarkiholi & Yeddyurappa

This is not the first run-in between the Congress and the Jarkiholis.

In September this year, the Jarkiholi brothers had declared an all-out war against Belagavi Rural MLA Lakshmi Hebbalkar for ‘meddling” in the affairs of their stronghold, Belagavi. Then, too, they had threatened to quit the party. Jarkiholi is an MLA from Gokak which is an assembly constituency in Lok Sabha seat of Belagavi.

In 2017, when Satish was dropped from the cabinet and Jarkiholi was inducted, Satish threatened to quit the Congress. It took the intervention of the then chief minister Siddaramaiah and Congress president Rahul Gandhi to get him to stay.

Senior Congressmen told ThePrint that the party has had enough of tantrums by Jarkiholi, which stems from the standoffs the brothers have had with Irrigation Minister D.K. Shivakumar and Hebbalkar.

But through the course of these run-ins, speculation that Jarkiholi may switch over to the BJP has always been around.

In the past four months, Jarkiholi is reported to have met Karnataka BJP president B.S.Yeddyurappa on at least three occasions, the latest coming last week. A local Kannada channel, Public TV, reported that Yeddyurappa and Jarkiholi travelled together from Bengaluru to Hubli.

In September, Yeddyurappa allegedly approached Jarkiholi and six to eight MLAs from the Mumbai and Hyderabad Karnataka regions who support him to defect to the BJP.

Then, two months later, Jarkiholi attended the wedding of Yeddyurappa’s personal assistant Santosh, when it was reported by the local media that the two held a separate meeting to discuss the Congress MLA’s course of action.

Jarkiholi was also seen hobnobbing with BJP leaders at a dinner in Belagavi at a time when he was supposed to have participated in a crucial cabinet meeting.

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BJP keeps eye on the row

A senior BJP leader, under the condition of anonymity, told ThePrint that the BJP would give Jarkiholi a chance if he brought along at least 15-20 disgruntled Congress MLAs.

As of now, however, the BJP believes that the Belagavi leader does not have the support he claims.

Senior BJP leader Basavaraj Bommai told ThePrint that the Congress-JD(S) government may not last its term.

“The coalition is an unnatural one. There are huge fissures in this government and during cabinet expansion, such fissures get bigger,” Bommai said. “This issue is an indicator that the government will not be able to sustain itself. If you ask me whether Ramesh Jarkiholi can tilt the scales, I think it is too early to say as the situation seems to be a hypothetical one.”

BJP spokesperson S. Prakash, however, said that the rumblings within the Congress are for the party to handle.

“The BJP is a very responsible party and we have no intention to disturb this coalition. If somebody wants to leave the party, it is for the Congress to handle,” he said. “We have no role to play in this.”

A. Narayana, a political analyst at Azim Premji University, however, feels that even if Ramesh quits the Congress, it may not topple the government.

“Jarkiholi might go but for the BJP to tilt the scales the party needs at least 17 MLAs. I don’t think they can get so many as of now,” he said. “So, Jarkiholi’s exit from the Congress and the possibility of him joining the BJP does not make sense unless he can garner the support of at least 17 MLAs.”

Even BJP forming the government will not benefit the party, he said. “It may lead to negative publicity and they would not want this before the 2019 elections. Jarkiholi will quit only based on his ego as he is using this opportunity as a bargaining chip.”

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