Karnataka BJP's dilemma: How to fill cabinet vacancies

The unending scandals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka are not only mauling the party's image but also creating a major headache for the party - filling up the increasing cabinet vacancies.

Chief Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda, who has not been able to form a full council of ministers of 34 even six months after taking over from the scam-hit B.S. Yeddyurappa, is handling 16 portfolios, three added to his kitty from the recent 'sleazegate' episode.

The state assembly strength is 225, including one nominated member. The laws of the country prescribe the council strength at 15 percent of assembly members. Hence Karnataka can have 34 ministers.

Gowda took over Aug 4 but deep divisions in the state unit, mainly on pro- and anti-Yeddyurappa lines, have forced him and the party central leaders to keep seven vacancies unfilled.

The Feb 8 resignation of Laxman Savadi, C.C. Patil and J. Krishna Palemar over porn viewing in the assembly Feb 7 and the death of veteran state BJP leader V.S. Acharya Feb 14 have led to four more vacant slots in the ministry.

With too many aspirants and various camps pushing for their candidates, the central leaders chose the usual method opted for by ruling parties -- putting off cabinet expansion.

Elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly came in handy for the central leaders to hold back the green signal to Gowda to fill the seven vacancies.

Since four more vacancies cropped up in the past week, he was hoping to persuade the central leaders to agree to take in a few more ministers as he was to present the budget in the second week of March.

However, Thursday's announcement of a March 18 byelection in the Udupi-Chikmagalur Lok Sabha constituency in the state, necessitated by Gowda resigning from the seat after becoming chief minister, has put paid to his plans.

The bypoll will also force him to reschedule budget presentation as the model code of conduct has come into effect.

Even without the byelection there was not much hope of early cabinet expansion as the party central leaders are focussing all their energies on the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

They certainly would not want another rebellion on hand at this juncture from Karnataka where they have quelled three revolts against Yeddyurappa in over three years of his rule in 2008-11.

The central leaders may give attention to clearing the Karnataka mess only after the Udupi-Chikmagalur bypoll.

For both state and central BJP leaders filling the vacancies will be a daunting task as, perhaps, this is the last chance for a major revamp of the cabinet to retrieve the ground lost due to various scams.

The state heads for elections in less than 15 months and hence Gowda and his council of ministers will have just about a year after the budget to ensure effective implementation of the proposals in it.

While Karnataka scandals, including 'sleazegate', may not affect the BJP's electoral prospects in Uttar Pradesh, an unimpressive show there will certainly weaken the central leaders and embolden Yeddyurappa and his supporters, making cabinet expansion a bitter exercise.

Gowda is still struggling to ensure his writ runs among his cabinet colleagues and is bravely carrying on despite repeated attempts by Yeddyurappa's supporters to run him down.

Unfortunately for Gowda and the BJP, the time for refurbishing the image of the party ahead of assembly elections is short while the list of problems by scandals and factions keeps lengthening.

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