The Karnataka MLAs whose rebellion led to the Congress-Janata Dal Secular (JDS) government crashing in July, setting the stage for the BJP's takeover, remain disqualified but they can contest polls, the Supreme Court said today.
Soon after, Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa hinted that the MLAs, whose disqualification by the then speaker left 17 assembly seats vacant, will contest by-polls to fill the constituencies as BJP candidates. His deputy Ashwath Narayan was more upfront, stating that all the MLAs would join the BJP tomorrow in Bengaluru.
By-elections for 15 of the 17 seats will be held on December 5. Litigation is pending in the two remaining seats.
"I welcome the decision of the Supreme Court. All 17 MLAs can contest elections. From tomorrow we are going all out in all Assembly constituencies. 100 per cent we are going to win all 17 seats," Mr Yediyurappa told reporters. Asked whether all the MLAs would get BJP tickets, the chief minister said the decision would be taken in a meeting and in consultation with the national leadership.
In his attempts to reward the rebel MLAs -- 14 quit the Congress and three quit the JDS, plunging the coalition into a minority -- Mr Yediyurappa may upset many in the Karnataka BJP. Their lack of enthusiasm was what made Mr Yediyurappa talk to them about gratitude. In a leaked audio tape, he is heard urging colleagues to be more supportive of the disqualified MLAs, reminding them that they had made "sacrifices" and that it was because of them that the BJP was now in power in Karnataka.
On the possibility of rebel candidates from his party contesting the by-polls against these "turncoat" MLAs, if they are given the BJP ticket, the Chief Minister said, "Don't mix up things. As of today, all are working and all our supporting us. Our candidate is going to win in all constituencies."
Former chief minister Siddaramaiah said, "If you go by morality, the BJP should not give the tickets to them. If you look at the morality point of view, they are not eligible to contest the election. If anybody crosses over to any political party he will be disqualified - that is the judgement of the Supreme Court. Contesting in the by-election is a different thing. Ultimately, the people's vote will punish him."
The man who lost his job as Karnataka chief minister because of the disqualified MLAs, JDS leader HD Kumaraswamy, told NDTV he was "really disappointed" with the court verdict.
"I am not criticising them. But giving permission to all these MLAs to contest elections, what is the use of the anti-defection bill? There is no doubt they will be fielded by the BJP. It has already been decided. All 15 MLAs they will accommodate in BJP," Mr Kumaraswamy said.
The former chief minister denied speculation that the JDS was warming up to the BJP. "Why do I have to get close to the BJP," he questioned, accusing the Congress of spreading such speculation.
"Siddaramaiah is playing the same card as in 2018 when he said, through Rahul Gandhi, that we were the B-team of the BJP. He wanted to send a message to a particular community that JDS is sympathetic to the BJP, so please vote for Congress," Mr Kumaraswamy said.
"I will tell the people that our party is the major party in Karnataka to control the spread of the BJP. Congress cannot stop BJP. I have not surrendered to any national party. I will take appropriate decision for the state when needed."
His father, former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, told NDTV, "Yediyurappa is safe. Siddaramaiah is safe. Why? That is the main aim. Why I say Yediyurappa is safe now is that if all 17 MLAs win their seats, there will be no question of their getting cabinet portfolios. He can protect his original 104 MLAs and his government will be safe for the next three-and-a-half years."
Deve Gowda added that it was "over" with the Congress and the two parties were contesting the by-polls separately. The pronouncement comes as the former coalition partners were seen to be noticeably bitter with each other over the past few weeks. "The coalition is experienced and all finished. It is over," said Deve Gowda.
The disqualified MLAs, most had travelled to Delhi for the verdict, were relieved to find their political careers were no longer on hold. Ramesh Jarkiholi, who was one of the first to withdraw support from the Congress-JDS government, said: "I will fight on a BJP ticket. I will join the BJP first. We will move forward under the leadership of Yediyurappa, Amit Shah and (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi."
The results of by-polls in the 15 seats will be crucial for the BJP to finish its term. The ruling party currently has 105 MLAs and the support of one independent in an assembly in which 113 is the majority mark. The JDS and the Congress together have 101 members.