Sauna baths. Elaborate massages. Crates of Chivas Regal. When did Karnataka acquire such a pronounced taste for conducting all its politics behind the walls of swish resorts, asks Imran Khan
SOME QUICK-WITTED gent said that Karnataka is the Bihar of south India — an appellation that new Bihar may object to. In any case, Karnataka does things its own way. Like what, you may ask. For instance, it likes to ‘adjust maadi’ its political machinations in swishy resorts.
Recently, the Karnataka Lokayukta report on the multi-crore mining scam had BS Yeddyurappa step down as chief minister. Anxiety ran high that the BJP might appoint his rival Jagadish Shettar and not his pick Sadananda Gowda. Twenty-five legislators of the Yeddyurappa camp were lodged at The Golden Palms Hotel and Spa, 25 km from Bengaluru. The rooms at the 14-acre Golden Palms (owned by Bollywood actor Sanjay Khan) run from Rs 12,000 to Rs 35,000 per night. Some MLAs are said to have expressed their disappointment, having hoped for an all-expenses-paid tour abroad. Yeddyurappa is reported to have had his consolation ready: “I will take you abroad, but now you can party here.”
Don’t blame the MLAs. This is standard operating procedure in Karnataka. If you are trying to put together a majority in the Vidhana Soudha, the last thing you want is to wake up and find your support has switched sides overnight. Karnataka’s political leaders struck on a practical solution. Why not sequester the whole lot under your watchful eye and far away from temptation until the Governor’s call? And why not gild and silk-line the temporary cage? Welcome to resort politics. When horse-trading is in the air, Karnataka MLAs are quarantined en masse in swanky resorts. They are not even allowed to carry cell phones. However, if a spouse or a close family member calls, they are allowed to speak to them. These restrictions aside, the revelry usually continues for days during which the sky is the limit.
The parties employ what can best be described as tough bouncers to keep an eye on the legislators who are selected “on the basis of their loyalty to the party and how less they charge”. The bouncers are in the game early. They are the ones who deliver the money to the legislators to buy their allegiances and get them to the resort. A Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) leader says the money is usually delivered through respectable conveyances such as a vice-chancellor’s car, ambulance, government cars or an IAS officer’s vehicle. Or even the Golden Chariot luxury train, he says sarcastically.
The bar (forgive us the pun) for loyalty has been set pretty high. Usually, the MLAs are kept safe in resorts close to Bengaluru such as The Golden Palms, the Silver Oak or Eagleton: The Golf Resort, among others. October 2010, for instance, saw a political crisis filled with the stuff of pulp-fiction writers’ dreams. A mental breakdown, an abduction charge, a suicide attempt and, of course, horse-trading. The BJP took its flock to the favourite, The Golden Palms, the Congress to a resort near Devanahalli, close to the new international airport. The BJP rebels who had withdrawn support to the Yeddyurappa government are said to have hopped secretly and swiftly from city to city, first in a five-star hotel in Chennai, then Kochi, then Mumbai and finally Goa. Whichever the resort, you can bet that it has all the services you’d expect to let boys be boys — health clubs, gyms, lavish restaurants, business centres, gyms and pools.
The hosts can be sometimes resentful of the hordes they have to house within their gates. A JD(S) politician says snidely, “I knew this MLA who never drank anything other than cheap rum. In the resort, he’d only drink Chivas Regal at the party.” Other MLAs prefer the sauna or long massages. (One small note of decorum: Word has it that since the day-long revelry turn into raucous parties, female MLAs are never invited to the resorts. Alas, this leads to a mind-boggling image — a political stag party.) “Sometimes, fulfilling their wishes becomes more difficult than running a government,” continues the ungracious host. Another politician punctures this bubble of resentment by saying, “Most politicians are shareholders in these resorts and avail discounts on food, drinks or rooms. Sometimes the resort owners themselves refuse to take money as they want to be in the good books of these parties.” None of the resorts wished to comment.
What has made resort culture a staple in Karnataka? The answer is rather simple. In the mercurial politics of this state, few MLAs have long-term aspirations in politics and most have won their privileges in the world the hard way. They mostly think in terms of the party affiliation that would benefit them most. So when an opportunity like this presents itself, there is very little reason to turn it down. For some legislators, though, going to the resort with the rest of the gang is self-preservation. On the outside, they run the active risk of kidnap and even harsher punishments.
Resort politics is not that new. Some believe its seeds were sown way back in 2006 when JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy, with ample help from the Reddy brothers and Lad brothers, toppled the state government. The JD(S) was a coalition partner in the Dharam Singh government then. The party insiders claim that the plan was hatched at the Silver Oak. In a chain of events that followed, Kumaraswamy broke away from his own party, paraded 38 of his 58 MLAs in front of Raj Bhavan who were later herded and whisked away to The Golden Palms. Fearing they could be poached by the ruling Congress, the legislators were soon sent to a resort in Goa, while the BJP MLAs were holed up in a Hyderabad resort. The Congress, however, shepherded its MLAs to Amby Valley Resort in Pune for five days.
Word has it that female MLAs are never invited to the resorts. Alas, this leads to a mind-boggling image — a political stag party
Political commentator Ravindra Reshmee points out that during former chief minister SM Krishna’s time, all party meetings were held at The Golden Palms. In fact, even government meetings were held either at Hotel Taj West End or the Hotel Windsor Manor. Congress leader VS Ugrappa, on the other hand, says the trend is even older and blames it on a foreign hand. According to him, in 1984, Chandrababu Naidu and other Telugu Desam Party (TDP) MLAs had stayed at the famous Dasaprakash Paradise Hotel in Mysore with the then chief minister Rama Krishna Hegde – supporting them in their endeavour. The story goes that TDP founder NT Rama Rao had the reputation of being a belligerent adversary. Disregarding his majority, the then Andhra Pradesh Governor Ram Lal removed his government and swore in N Bhaskara Rao of the Congress in August 1984. It was then that Karnataka Chief Minister Hegde offered hospitality to the 164 MLAs supporting NTR at Dasaprakash Paradise Hotel in Mysore for three weeks. “That was the first time resort politics was witnessed in the state,” remarks Ugrappa.
In 2010, the Chairman of the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission SR Nayak wailed that it was shameful that elected representatives hide in resorts instead of dealing with governance. But resort culture is here to stay, believes S Suresh Kumar, a cabinet minister in Karnataka’s current BJP government. “Everybody has contributed to it. The MLAs are custodians of independence, life and liberty. But the way they are huddled in these resorts is below their dignity. Some are drawn to it because they fear abduction and some are just lured. Every party’s worry these days is to send the required numbers to the Assembly, not the MLAs. Unless we convert these to real members, the resort culture will continue.”
KUMARASWAMY responds to the allegation of being a trendsetter thus: “People are unnecessarily making a big issue. Earlier, there were no resorts hence the legislators had no option.” He justifies it more seriously by saying, “Resorts give us a space for private conversations without disturbance. It is wrong to say that horse-trading happens only with MLAs. Even if you look at local body elections, people are holed up in hotels for 15 days prior to the election. And why assume horse-trading happens only in resorts, it can happen at home. Like the nuclear deal.”
A central leader of the JD(S), who was in charge of shepherding legislators in 2010, scoffs at the effectiveness of sequestering MLAs in resorts. He asks, “What about the cases where a spouse or a brother or a father has struck a deal on behalf of an MLA?”
Imran Khan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.com.