The NCP Eyes Cash-rich Karnataka

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The wealth of its politicians went up 677 per cent. Which political party wouldn’t want a base here?

BANGALORE ~ The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is wooing sections of the Congress and BJP in Karnataka, hoping to extend its reach to a cash-rich state where politicians are switching allegiances at the drop of a hat. The NCP’s intentions had become clear last December, when news first surfaced that the party had sent feelers to former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, who had been asked by the BJP to step down because of corruption allegations.

Yeddyurappa has since emerged as a major regional satrap, with money to back him. He has been threatening the BJP’s central leadership that he could walk out with a majority of its MLAs if he is not made Chief Minister again.

A week after the NCP made its move, a former minister and sitting MLA of the Congress from north Karnataka, Mallikayya Guttedar, announced that he and some 20-odd MLAs would join the NCP soon. Though a rattled Congress promptly sent him a ‘show cause’ notice, the development seems to have had the desired impact. A senior leader tells Open: “With 20 MLAs in hand, anything can happen.”

The fear of an NCP raid is palpable in the state Congress, which is saddled with an ageing leadership. To protect its turf and herd, the Congress has done something unprecedented. After a New Year meeting to ‘take stock of the political situation’, the KPCC chief G Parameshwar has announced that his party is anticipating a snap poll in the state this year, and 150 Assembly candidates would be selected by March. “If you watch current political developments, it is evident polls will be inevitable in 2012,” he said, referring to the tussle between the BS Yeddyurappa-led faction and the rest of the BJP. The Congress currently has 71 MLAs in a house of 224 and the next Assembly elections are scheduled for mid-2013.

Asked if the Congress is also preparing for the NCP’s entry to Karnataka, Parameshwar avoided the question. But avoiding such hard questions has not done the Congress any good. The grand old party had last tasted power in the 2006 Assembly election, and has not been able to win even a single byelection after the BJP came to power in May 2008.

Even at the height of the Bellary brothers’ corrupt and dictatorial ways, all that the Congress could rustle up was a padayatra from Bangalore to Bellary. Many leaders, including the younger lot, could not even walk the full distance. It literally exposed the party’s ageing, unfit leaders who were getting used to interventions from the High Command and a compliant governor.

An opportunistic party, the NCP is always looking to expand its base. In the early 2000s, it joined forces with a block of MLAs who had deserted the ruling Congress in Manipur and formed a government that lasted a year. A similar scenario is being talked about for Karnataka now.

Seasoned politicians who spoke to Open say that the NCP could be looking at Karnataka as a potential source for funding its election campaigns, especially in a year with so many Assembly polls.

In the run-up to Karnataka’s May 2008 Assembly polls, the Association for Democratic Reforms compiled the declared assets of all candidates. In the second phase, with polling mostly in north Karnataka, the 372 candidates in the fray had Rs 902 crore between them. Party-wise, 66 BJP candidates were worth Rs 256 crore, the Congress’ 64 had Rs 470 crore, and the JDS’s 61 had Rs 77.9 crore. The study, conducted over both phases of the 2008 poll, revealed that the personal assets of Karnataka’s politicians had increased 677 per cent. With figures like these, any political party would want a base in the state.

Publicly at least, the Congress has dismissed the NCP’s inroads into Karnataka, pointing out that the 20 odd MLAs are just a disgruntled lot out to make trouble.

However, NCP leaders have strong links with north Karnataka. The region is also called Bombay Karnataka, because of its strong cultural and linguistic links with Maharashtra, whose NCP leaders visit the region’s religious places regularly. All this bonhomie may not translate into votes per se. “They cannot win on the NCP symbol in Karnataka as the party has no identity here,” say Congress leaders, forgetting that some of those rebels are strong enough to win on their own.

According to sources, the talk within NCP circles these days is that a spread across several states will give it more bargaining power in the future. With the UPA at the Centre looking vulnerable, that’s exactly the kind of long-term planning that Sharad Pawar is known for.