Opinion | The end of an unseemly drama in Karnataka

The Kumaraswamy government in the state has fallen after a prolonged power tussle that’s best described as an embarrassment to the electoral democracy we are so proud of

The political drama in Karnataka has finally come to an end, with the state’s H.D. Kumaraswamy government losing its trust vote. This was almost a fait accompli after the Supreme Court’s order granting dissident Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) legislators the right to stay away from proceedings in the assembly after they had sent their resignations, which the speaker was reluctant to accept. The implication was that it didn’t matter whether they’re allowed to quit or disqualified under the anti-defection law (as the departing coalition may have liked), as their exit necessitated a vote on the floor of the house for the Kumaraswamy government to prove its majority. Ever since the coalition lost the support of the dissident legislators, it was seen to be buying time to get them back into its fold, stalling the count of who stood on which side of the aisle. The coalition also claimed it had the undeclared support of some legislators of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which it charged with having lured its own dissidents away to topple the government. In the event, the coalition’s dissidents stayed out of the trust vote, while the BJP succeeded in keeping its flock together, pushing the Congress-JD(S) combine out of power.

In all this, what is of concern is the kind of politics that played out in Karnataka, and what it portends for the future of our electoral democracy. Political defections are not uncommon, and many a spectacle has been enacted in the past where legislators seemed more like horses up for trading—or for corralling in some resort or the other. The carrots and sticks brought into play only appear to have become juicier and bigger over the years. Efforts to keep this hidden from public view have also grown thin, almost as if electorates expect to see their elected representatives hop sides in response to incentives. In Karnataka’s case, the Congress-JD(S) alliance alleged that the BJP had used money and muscle power to swing its legislators away. The BJP, on its part, denied the charges and blamed the inherent divergences of political interest in the post-poll alliance for its failure to stick together. It also accused the speaker of favouring the alliance by unduly delaying the trust vote so that it could win back the support of rebel legislators. The coalition’s dilatory tactics also had the odour of attempts to strike a winning deal in what seemed like an openly equine market.

The entire episode reflects poorly on our democracy and the principles of representation that all candidates are supposed to uphold. On display was the naked pursuit of power, with little thought spared for what the people of Karnataka had voted for in the first place. If the switches were on the basis of disagreements over policy, or some higher-order political principle, then it could have been a redeeming factor. However, there is scarce evidence of that. Prolonged phases of instability don’t just hurt the credibility of the politicians involved, but also of the political system. Governance in Karnataka has suffered for the period that the Kumaraswamy government was in limbo. Before the country gets accustomed to such power tussles as a normal thing in politics, we need to take a good hard look at the systemic gaps that allow them. If there are grey areas in the rules, they need to be addressed. The people deserve better.

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