“In permanent strife” perhaps best describes the five-year record of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka. With no more than three and a half months for the term of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly to end, the government has run into yet another stretch of political rapids. Fourteen legislators, including two ministers, resigned from the House and the BJP to join the Karnataka Janata Party headed by the former Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa. The ‘party with a difference’ — which is how the BJP liked to present itself in less fractious times — is today a ‘party with many differences.’ Over the last five years there have been 10 occasions when serious factional infighting broke out in the BJP, bringing the government to the brink. The latest round of discord brings the ruling party uncomfortably close to losing its majority in the Assembly. In a House whose strength has come down from 225 to 210, the BJP now has only 106 members (including an Independent). Facing the slog overs in a limited overs game, Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar hopes to use the budget on February 8 as his final sixer.
In hindsight, it is clear that the BJP’s inherent instability stemmed from the artificial majority it enjoyed in the House (through the support of five Independents), and, more importantly, the tactics it employed to retain and expand its slender majority. Crafted by Mr. Yeddyurappa in the good old days when he was helmsman of the BJP in the State, the plan, code-named “Operation Lotus,” involved persuading willing Opposition MLAs to quit, win the by-elections on a BJP ticket, and then join the ministry. Party old-timers allied to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh never reconciled themselves to the brash new entrants who quickly established their dominance. This group remains Mr. Yeddyurappa’s support base in the KJP. As and when Assembly elections are held, the BJP will go to the electorate carrying a sorry report card. Its government presided over monumental scandals that included a vast illegal iron-ore mining operation in Bellary and several land-grab cases involving prominent BJP leaders. Law and order has also been a problem, especially in regions where sangh parivar activists have sought to flex their muscles. So focussed was the party on its own survival strategies that several of its poll promises, most notably that of re-working the poverty line and ensuring rice at Rs. 2 per kg to the poor, were forgotten. Having done little to counter the effects of an unprecedented drought last year, the BJP is likely to make cynical use of the forthcoming budget as a tool of economic populism. Whether this will enable it to retrieve lost ground is another matter.