18/05/2018 9:30 AM IST | Updated 18/05/2018 2:25 PM IST

The BJP Is Shopping In Karnataka: Who Are The Congress MLAs On Offer?

Flight risk.

REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa
Lawmakers from the Congress party and the Janata Dal (Secular) protest against the Bharatiya Janata Party leader B.S. Yeddyurappa's swearing-in as Chief Minister of Karnataka, in Bengaluru, May 17, 2018.

BENGALURU, Karnataka — The Bharatiya Janata Party staked its claim to form the government in Karnataka on Thursday morning. But by evening, all eyes were on the city's chartered flight terminals as the Congress sought to herd its 78 legislators away from the clutches of the BJP, and into private jets bound for Kochi.

The Congress MLAs were eventually put on Hyderabad-bound buses, but two got away: Anand Singh is one of the state's richest politicians and is accused of smuggling iron ore; and Pratapgouda Patil, who claims to be the state's poorest politician, is believed to have taken a private jet out of the city in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Paranoia over horse trading in Karnataka has peaked as the Congress, with 78 MLAs, and the Janata Dal (Secular), with another 37, struggle to prevent the BJP from inducing their legislators to switch sides.

Senior Congress sources said they were particularly concerned about three MLAs, apart from Singh and Patil, who fell under three categories: those with pending criminal cases who were worried that the BJP would use India's supine law enforcement to hound them; those who had won elections before but had been denied ministerial roles, and Lingayat MLAs belonging to the same caste group as Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa.

HuffPost has the names of these MLAs, but is not publishing them until they can be reached and asked for comment.

Winning over these three MLAs, errant Congressmen Singh and Patil, and independent MLA R Shankar — who has already switched support more than once — brings the BJP to 110 MLAs, two shy of the 112 MLAs needed to form the government.

"We are doing our best but it can get difficult to control so many people for long," said a Congress source involved in the "protection" of its lawmakers. "Ultimately, it comes down to what one has entered politics for and these days there is more profit than idealism."

Ultimately, it comes down to what one has entered politics for and these days there is more profit than idealism.

Keeping it together

The imperative to control MLAs began as soon as the results trickled in, senior Congress leaders said. Party officials exchanged messages about potential defectors and made plans to monitor them. A chartered flight was sent out to collect one "senior" Lingayat lawmaker located in the northern part of the state.

When Ganesh Prakash Hukkeri didn't show up at a gathering of newly elected congress MLAs on Wednesday morning, his absence put his party in a panic. Hukkeri, who won the Chikkodi-Sadalga seat by over 10,000 seats, was eventually tracked down and put on the bus to Kochi.

"Senior or junior (lawmakers) does not matter. It depends on what they want and what is being offered," the Congress source said. "With our MLAs also, these days it is very difficult to fight elections, especially in Karnataka. It is the costliest election to date."

The Centre for Media studies described the polls as a "money-guzzler", with political parties reportedly spending over 10,500 crore rupees in the recently-concluded state election. JD(S) president H.D. Kumaraswamy claims that the BJP has already offered bribes worth 100 crores to lawmakers. The BJP has denied the allegation.

Horses for courses

While first and second time lawmakers can be placated with either a pep talk or a position on the board of a public body, those who have been elected multiple times are cause for worry.

"We are saying tell us what you want, but the truth is that everyone cannot be made a minister," the Congress source said.

We are saying tell us what you want, but the truth is that everyone cannot be made a minister.

The Congress believes its Lingayat lawmakers are especially susceptible to poaching. Former chief minister Siddaramaiah's move to grant Lingayats the status of a religious minority ahead of the election backfired: 38 Lingayat leaders from the BJP were elected to power — more than double that of the Congress. With the exception of M.B. Patil, five other Lingayat ministers in Siddaramaiah's cabinet lost their seats.

The BJP is also counting on Congress Lingayats refusing to work under Deve Gowda and his son Kumaraswamy, who is the president of Janata Dal Secular JD(S), as they are Vokkaligas.

"The Lingayats did not fight an election to serve under the Vokkaligas," said a BJP source, aware of the high-level discussions within the party.

The Lingayats did not fight an election to serve under the Vokkaligas.

Flight risk

The Congress is keeping a close eye on the Lingayats who are suspected of being at flight risk.

One is a legislator who has won three consecutive elections, but is yet to be made a minister. His contemporary from the same region, also a thrice-elected lawmaker, was a minister in the previous Congress cabinet. "A thrice-elected MLA, who has never been made a minister, might switch to another party," said the Congress source.

Another lawmaker considered at flight risk was a sitting MLA when he was denied a ticket in 2013. While coming back into the Congress fold and winning his seat this time around, the lawmaker is believed to have been deeply anguished by the experience.

The third has a brother in the BJP and is considered close to Yeddyurappa. Some within the Congress believe that he supported his brother's campaign in the recently-concluded election.

Amaregowda Bayyapur, who has the distinction of representing the Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United), the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress in the past two decades, but has only served as a minister once, was also considered a flight risk. Earlier this week, Bayyapur claimed that he had been offered a ministry by the BJP and he had turned it down.

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