Berth pangs: on the Karnataka coalition impasse

The Congress and the JD(S) need to quickly resolve their differences over portfolio sharing

May 31, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Quick and bold decisions are more often made during moments of crises than during periods of relative calm and quiet. After sealing a deal on a post-poll coalition in Karnataka even before the counting of votes drew to a close, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) are unable to reach an understanding on Cabinet berths and portfolios almost a week after the coalition proved its majority on the floor of the Assembly. Other than on having H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) as the Chief Minister and G. Parameshwara of the Congress as the Deputy Chief Minister, the two parties have been unable to agree on the contours of the coalition government. The Congress, which was hurried into conceding considerable ground to the JD(S) by a fast-moving opponent in the Bharatiya Janata Party, is now driving a hard bargain on the strength of its own numbers. The reasoning is that the party, with twice as many members as the JD(S) in the Assembly, should have its choice of ministries such as finance, home, public works and energy as the bigger partner that had stepped back from the race for the chief ministership. Otherwise, this would leave the JD(S) as the recognisable face of the government, leaving little for the Congress. The JD(S) appears willing to concede more berths to the Congress, but would like to have some of the key portfolios, especially finance, for itself.

In the post-GST regime the finance portfolio in a State is shorn of substantial tax-levying powers, but the presentation of the budget in the Assembly is still the occasion for announcing schemes and major policy initiatives. The home portfolio is important for the control of the police force, and its intelligence wing. Indeed, the first major decision that B.S. Yeddyurappa took after being sworn in Chief Minister was to make appointments to the intelligence wing of the police. Public works, another sought-after portfolio, allows the minister in charge control over construction of government buildings and road works with huge outlays. Public works contractors constitute the middle rungs in most political parties, and ministers need to distribute patronage, favours and contracts to keep up their own network of power and influence. The more protracted the tussle for berths and portfolios, the harder it will be for the new government to infuse confidence in the public mind about the post-poll coalition. After having thwarted the BJP by offering unconditional support to the JD(S), the Congress cannot afford to get into an unseemly scramble for portfolios now. But neither can it allow the JD(S) to run the government as its own show. Tact is everything in reaching a compromise.


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