In depth
Bye-elections to the two seats of Kundagol and Chincholi are crucial for the survival of the coalition government in Karnataka.

The fate of the troubled JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka hangs in balance as bye-elections to two state Assembly seats are to be held on May 19.

The bye-polls to the two seats -- Kundagol and Chincholi -- has brought the coalition to a knife-edge. Both seats were held by the Congress but are in danger of being swept up by the opposition BJP amid grumbles of discontent between the coalition partners. So much so that former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has had to forcibly state that he was not in the race to become the CM again in place of HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) as "the seat is not vacant."

The Kundagol bye-poll was necessitated as sitting MLA and Minister CS Shivalli, who won the 2018 Assembly Elections with a super-slim margin of 634 votes, passed away in March. The Congress-JD(S) has fielded his wife Kusuma, while the BJP has chosen Eshwargoud Chikangoudra, the man who beat Shivalli earlier and almost pulled it off in 2018.

Chincholi had elected Umesh G Jadhav of the Congress, who was up against BJP’s Sunil Valyapure last year. But Jadhav fell out with his mentor and Congress leader Mallikarjun M Kharge, who is the MP of his district, Kalburagi. Umesh went on to quit the seat and the Congress party in March, joining the BJP. He recently contested against Kharge in the Lok Sabha poll that was held in April. His son Dr Arvind Jadhav is the BJP candidate in the bye-poll, while the Congress-JD(S) candidate is another Kharge protege, Subhash Rathod.

If the BJP manages to wrest these two seats, the party could bring down the Congress-JD(S) government.

The numbers

The Congress presently has 77 MLAs excluding the Speaker, who only votes in the event of a tie, while the JD(S) has 37 legislators. With one BSP MLA also supporting the coalition, the Congress-JD(S) combine have 115 MLAs. The BJP has 104 MLAs in the 224-member Assembly. The majority mark is 113.

BJP, which now has the support of two independent MLAs, could see its tally rise to 108 if it wins the bye-elections.  However, with four Congress MLAs reportedly ready to switch camps and indications that a fifth legislator may cave in under tremendous pressure from the powerful mining barons, Janardhan Reddy and Sriramulu, the BJP may be able to touch the magic figure.  

The results of the Lok Sabha Elections are a double-edge sword for the Congress. Even if the party manages to retain one or both these bye-poll seats, it faces the risk of losing two sitting Congress MLAs - Krishna Byre Gowda and Eshwar Khandre - who have contested the Lok Sabha polls. If they win and give up their Assembly seats, the Congress has put itself under tremendous pressure to retain the seats and save the state government.

This is said to be a major reason why a "winning" candidate like Khanapur Congress MLA Anjali Nimbalkar was not asked to contest against Anantkumar Hegde of the BJP for the Karwar Lok Sabha seat.

From 2018 to now

The 2018 Assembly Elections, which delivered a fractured mandate, saw the BJP emerge as the largest party with 104 seats.

The Congress and JD(S) which came together post polls managed to cobble together 118 seats, excluding the support of two independents, while the BJP at the time was stuck nine short of the 113 mark. A seething BS Yeddyurappa of the BJP, who had to step down after two days as Chief Minister, conceded defeat and did not take a trust vote, after the intervention by the Supreme Court that held a post-midnight hearing and curtailed horse-trading efforts. It paved the way for Kumaraswamy to take charge as the head of the coalition government.

In the last one year, however, the coalition has seen many ups and downs and repeated efforts on both sides to maintain balance.

Karnataka has already seen the BJP blueprint of Operation Kamala in 2004, where opposition MLAs were lured to resign from their seats, contest again on a BJP ticket and win with huge money power, and be made ministers. 

Both Congress and JD(S) had ‘safeguarded' their MLAs last year around this time, putting them up in resorts and keeping vigil over phone calls.Both parties individually released audio tapes of Yeddyurappa and the Janardhan Reddy- Sriramulu duo (architects of the 2004 Operation Kamala) offering money and positions to their MLAs over phone calls.

The situation is different now as there is open disgruntlement among some Congress MLAs who were not accommodated in the cabinet or were dropped in a reshuffle. Four MLAs have been openly dissenting and siding with the BJP, led by former minister Ramesh Jarkiholi, who even issued a statement that he was leaving the Congress and would contest on a BJP ticket in Yamkanmaradi constituency against his brother Satish, who replaced him in the Kumaraswamy ministry.

If the BJP wins both Kundagol and Chincholi, the magic number of 113 will be very much within their grasp. And this time, Yeddyurappa’s claims of becoming the CM of Karnataka might not just be empty bravado.

Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.