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October 10, 1999


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S M Krishna is Karnataka CM

M D Riti in Bangalore

"So far, and yet so near to us all," quipped a Congress leader, in the corridors of the Vidhana Soudha. It finally took a telephone call from Sonia Gandhi to make Somanahalli Mallayya Krishna the chief minister of Karnataka this afternoon.

It was expected to be a simple event with the least controversy. Instead, the Congress Legislature Party created history in Karnataka by refusing to come to a unanimous decision over the choice of chief minister today. The issue was resolved eventually, after Sonia Gandhi intervened.

S M Krishna will be sworn in as the 16th chief minister of Karnataka in Bangalore at 1025 hours tomorrow.

Governor Kurshed Alam Khan will administer the oath of office to Krishna and his team at the Vidhana Soudha.

After his election as CLP leader, Krishna met the governor and formally staked his claim to form the government.

Talking to newsmen later, Krishna said he would decide on the composition of his ministry after consultations with his party colleagues and the central leadership.

He did not rule out the possibility of having a deputy chief minister.

On Sunday morning, at the scheduled time of the CLP meeting, the state secretariat building the Vidhana Soudha looked like a mini fortress with tight police cordons all around. Nevertheless, a large number of politicians and Congress party workers thronged the roads leading to this building. Those who managed to get past the police barriers crowded eagerly around the majestic front doors of the palatial building, harrying the already tense policemen.

The scene was so unlike the election of the last Congress chief minister of Karnataka, Veerappa Moily, which took place late in the evening on a cold winter night. At that time, the process was much more blatantly undemocratic. As a famous ghazal singer warbled, it was a case of " chitti ayee hai, ayee hai, chitti ayee hai." A sealed envelope bearing Veerappa Moily's name inside it was flown down from Delhi by the observers.

But it was also much less unruly. Today, farmers from Mandya also descended upon Vidhana Soudha in large numbers, adding to the police's problems. "This tradition of making the election of the chief minister a major political demonstration of strength dates back to the election of Deve Gowda, when crowds of his supporters mobbed Vidhana Soudha and wrecked the place," a police officer confided to "We are now afraid to leave anything to chance. We make sure that we have enough strength to control anyone who plans to go on a rampage."

The Congress high command flew four special observers down to Bangalore to supervise the process of the election of the chief minister: A K Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Vakkom Purushottaman and V Narayanaswamy. These four observers began interacting on a one-to-one basis with all the newly elected MLAs starting Saturday evening, at the state government VIP guesthouse Kumara Krupa, which is the standard venue for such sessions. This process continued right until 11AM today, the scheduled time of the Congress Legislature Party meeting in Vidhana Soudha.

Krishna himself came shortly before 11 AM in a white Contessa car marked 'Congress president.' He was dressed in one of his favourite outfits of spotless white with a checked waistcoat. There was an unusual air of tension in the corridors of the building and outside the conference hall where the party meeting was to take place as word spread that the four observers had been unsuccessful in getting all legislators to agree on an unanimous choice.

The meeting started off much later than scheduled, in the presence of all four observers. As soon as the issue of legislature party leader came up, several sections of the legislators began raising their voices, supporting the claims of their own candidates. In an unprecedented turn of events, the party simply could not arrive at a consensus. So they passed a one-line resolution authorising Sonia Gandhi to choose for them.

As this decision was made public confusion reigned outside, where preparations were already under way for the construction of a makeshift dais for the swearing-in of the new chief minister and his team. As everyone wondered whether they would have to wait for one more day for the decision, the observers quickly dialled Delhi. Sonia reportedly came on the line and gave the observers her answer. However, all that they reported to the media was that Sonia had declined to select anyone, and had left the decision to the legislators.

What she must have actually said soon became perfectly obvious, as the meeting quickly reconvened, and immediately passed an unanimous resolution electing Krishna as chief minister. Thus ended three stress-filled days for the Congress leadership in Karnataka, with the grand drama that came as its finale.

For several months now, all the three major parties in Karnataka, the Congress, the Janata Dal and the BJP, have made publicly known their candidates for chief minister. They seemed to be following the national scenario which had been reduced to a straight presidential-type fight between Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi.

When asked Krishna six months ago, when Sonia made him state party chief, whether that implied that he was also chief minister-elect, he said, "The Congress has consciously steered clear of this trend. We never projected Sheila Dixit as chief minister of Delhi or Ashok [Gehlot] in Rajasthan. When the Congress gets a majority, then the party high command applies its mind to choosing a chief minister. Until then, everyone is a chief minister in waiting. The traditions of the Congress party prescribe that we authorise the party president to choose someone to lead us."

This time around, as soon as the party won a majority in Karnataka, Sonia went on record saying that the legislators would democratically elect their own leader. Inevitably, four other senior party leaders immediately jumped into the fray. Three were regular aspirants, who invariably make an attempt every time the hot seat comes up for grabs : Margaret Alva, who was elected to Parliament from Canara, C K Jaffer Sharief, who won a Parliament seat from Bangalore North and Sarekoppa Bangarappa, who was sent to the Lok Sabha from Shimoga. Of these, only Bangarappa has ever actually enjoyed a spell in that position.

Party observer Ghulam Nabi Azad practically announced publicly that they were not serious contenders when he remarked that all possible candidates for the chief minister of Karnataka other than Krishna had been ''sent to Parliament.'' At least two of the Parliament seat winners had, however, taken pains to insure against this being held against them, by keeping close kinsmen ready to quit their assembly seats and fight a by-election. Bangarappa had his son Vasant Kumar waiting in Sorab, and Sharief his son-in-law Syed Yassin in Raichur.

But the genuine serious contender for this post, who has been sustaining the image of the legislature party in Karnataka for the past five years, is Mallikarjuna Kharge, the Backward Class leader who led the Congress legislature party in the opposition benches. Kharge has also won convincingly this time from Gurmitkal in Gulbarga. While Sharief and Bangarappa acted coy when asked whether they would like to be chief minister, Kharge replied quite honestly: "Everyone has their ambitions."

Whether the thwarted ambitions of any of the many contenders will lead them, in time, to try to overthrow Krishna is now a moot point. Dissidence and infighting have been the bugbear of all governments in Karnataka over the past decade, no matter what party is in power. Krishna himself had raised the banner of revolt against Veerappa Moily last time, five years ago. Will someone soon do unto him what he did unto others?

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