Four Congress MLAs missed a meeting of the party on Friday despite a whip and warnings they may fall foul of anti-defection laws, amid a ballooning political crisis in the Karnataka government.
The four members of legislative assembly (MLAs), who were holed up in a hotel in Mumbai and were suspected to have plans to defect to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), missed the all important legislature party meeting, convened on the threat of a whip, including the application of anti-defection laws for absentees.
Two of them, Umesh Jadhav and H. Nagendra, had contacted the party and explained the reason for their absence, former chief minister Siddaramaiah said. However, the other two, Ramesh Jarkiholi and Mahesh Kumatahalli, had not given any reason, he said.
The party will issue notices to all four, and, on receipt of an explanation, will decide the next course of action, he said.
Siddaramaiah said all Congress representatives will “stay together in one place for as long as required" to thwart any further attempts by the opposition to poach its members.
The decision clearly underlines a deepening political crisis, which could pose a bigger challenge for the fragile coalition in the coming days.
The announcement by Siddaramaiah, who is also the leader of the Congress legislature party, comes just a day after the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), or JDS, claimed to have thwarted alleged attempts by the BJP to convince or coerce some of its members to defect.
“This is to escape the onslaught of the BJP," Siddaramaiah said after convening a special session of all the party’s legislators in Bengaluru—minutes after he reiterated confidence that the Congress was “intact and united".
The Congress, which had criticized the BJP’s decision to house all its 104 MLAs in a high-end resort in Gurugram for several days, said that it would use the time to also discuss the drought situation and review the preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
This, in effect, means that around 90 members of the BJP and at least 76 members of the Congress—around three quarters of the state’s elected representatives—will be residing in posh resorts and hotels at a time when Karnataka is reeling under severe drought, deepening agrarian distress and rising farmer suicide rates.
“This is only as a precaution. We are not afraid of any ‘lotus operation’ (operation kamala)," the former chief minister said, minutes before luxury buses made their way into the Vidhana Soudha to transport its legislators to Eagleton Resort, on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
The decision of the Congress and the BJP to take their members to resorts and hotels revived the phenomenon of “resort politics" pioneered by the late (erstwhile undivided) Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao around 1984. Since then, Karnataka has become the host for resort politics for leaders and parties from across the country to either save a government or bring one down.
The party will move all of its leaders, including members of legislative assembly, council and Parliament to Eagleton Resort, the preferred destination of the Congress, which remains firmly under the control of D.K. Shivakumar, who has made this kind of politics one of his better known attributes in recent years.
Siddaramaiah’s announcement was made even as former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda attended a rally organized by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to muster support for a mahagatbandhan (grand alliance), in which the Congress is trying to consolidate the support of the entire political opposition to take on the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
“We are totally relaxed and there is no threat to this government," said JD(S) spokesperson Kunwar Danish Ali. The Congress is taking its legislators to a resort for a “strategy session", he said.
However, the BJP was quick to pick on the Congress and the coalition. “In the next two to three days, the political development will be such that one after the other Congress members will start resigning and the government will fall," senior BJP leader, K.S. Eshwarappa, said on Friday.