NEW DELHI: Karnataka’s eight-month-old ruling alliance of Congress-Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), has hit rough weather. Several absentee Congress legislators have defied the party whip, the party has had to threaten action against them, and chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy has threatened to quit in January over ‘out of turn’ statements. In an interview, Karnataka Congress president Dinesh Gundu Rao, 49, one of the youngest to hold the post, spoke about the ongoing controversy. Rao maintained that all was well with the alliance, but accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of “exploiting the disgruntlement" of Congress legislators. Edited excerpts:
Karnataka is one of the biggest states which has an opposition alliance. How critical is the success of this alliance, especially for 2019?
It is very important because the Congress has formed this alliance to show that it is ready to work with other political parties and we are ready to sacrifice also. Even though we were the bigger party, we aligned with the smaller party and gave them the chief ministerial post.
This is to tell people that we are willing to go the extra mile to see that the alliance is working. Today, whatever may be the impression that is being created, at many levels, this alliance is working very well. We are going to fight elections together only and I am confident we will do very well in Lok Sabha.
What is the reason behind the present crisis?
Some of our MLAs who are upset over different reasons, which is natural politics, their disgruntlement has been exploited (by) the BJP. Since the beginning, BJP has been trying to bring down this government at any cost. Today, we have said very clearly that this is a ₹200-300 crore Operation Kamal, where MLAs are being offered ₹10 crore officially...They have been desperately trying to bring this government down...completely anti-constitutional steps are being taken.
What are the demands of these MLAs?
Some of them want to be ministers, so they are being lured into this. On some of them, a lot of pressure may be put by the use of (investigative) agencies...or using inducements like ministerial berths. (The audio) said clearly that they will manage Governor, judges etc. I have never seen any political party go to this extent to destabilize or disrespect people’s mandate. BJP’s attitude and money power is the main reason behind this crisis.
But Congress is in power in other states as well. Why, according to you, BJP is trying to do this only in Karnataka?
Because, they are desperate. It is a policy they have adopted at the national level to see that this government breaks because they want to show that Congress cannot do alliance politics, if they (Congress) cannot manage Karnataka, how will they manage the country. This is the kind of messaging they want to put out.
Your party has now said action will be taken against these erring MLAs. Is it a strategy to bring down the strength of the assembly?
We have to take action because ultimately, if there is no discipline, then how will a political party survive? And what about other MLAs who will be noticing all this and if we don’t take action against these errant MLAs, then everybody else will also start imitating them.
Is the passing of the budget a concern?
No, no. Budget is no concern, stability is no concern. We will come through (with) flying colours, we are very confident about everything. I am hopeful that some out of these four MLAs against whom we are going to move for anti-defection, they will realise the mistake they made falling prey to BJP. Some of them actually now may reconsider and come back also.
But the problem in the alliance has been there almost since the beginning. Do you think it is dysfunctional? What according to you is the pain point?
It is functional except in 2-3 districts where the problem is more because of a straight fight between JD(S) and Congress. Otherwise, (in) rest of Karnataka, there is no problem. We have been fighting each other for a long time and we were not allies. So, naturally, there will be some heartburn and some issues but at the state and national level, there is no problem.
Recently, when we had a general body meeting, I gave a clear signal to all our workers and leaders that we are going to fight elections in an alliance, there will be some issues at the local level which may be a problem but you have to understand the national situation... We are telling our people and I am sure those flash points will be eased out. We have also told them not to make any comments in public, not to speak out unnecessarily.
These fights have clearly spilled out in the public domain so much so that the chief minister had threatened to quit...
In today’s media frenzied world, one statement can get hyped up ten times over. A person would have said in a different context but by the time it comes out, it carries a different meaning altogether. We have told and warned our leaders that strict action will be taken if they don’t desist from it.
Do you think the messaging is problematic that the top leadership is not able to rein in erring leaders?
I think now, more or less things have got sorted out. After this session is over, we will go ahead with seat-sharing talks and go ahead with campaigning.
Do you think ambition of some of the senior leaders in the party is a hindrance in the prospects of the alliance?
Whoever may be senior or junior, party is more important than anybody. Nobody is bigger than the party and all of them understand that. Under Rahul Gandhiji’s leadership—he has good communication with all the senior leaders—so, all of them have understood that however big they may be, they know that party is more important and they all have to work together. Overall, we are united and there is no big issue. Nothing which is worrying or can cause concern. Within the party, more or less, we are all united and together.
Do you think the troubles within the coalition has led to intra-party fights and factionalism?
Not much is there except two districts of Mandya and Hassan and to some extent Mysore. Rest of Karnataka in remaining 27 districts, there is no issue. Here (three districts) there is lot of friction; so, we had a separate meeting with them.
When is the seat-sharing for Lok Sabha expected?
We will start after 15 February, after assembly session gets over.
But do you expect JD(S) to play hardball?
We will both ultimately play hardball. My only principle will be who is in a better position to win. We want more MPs. If Congress is in a better position to win, then Congress should take it, if JD(S) is, then JD(S) should. Let us go by merit of the constituency is my guiding principle and I am sure everybody else will also follow that. Ultimately, we want more MPs, does not matter whether if it is Congress or JD(S).
What role do you see Congress playing in southern politics in the forthcoming general elections?
Winning back Karnataka and winning more MPs from Karnataka will be a big boost. Rest of south India, apart from Karnataka, I don’t think BJP will be able to win more than one or two seats. If we can push them out of Karnataka, then we can push them out of south India.