Will Chief Minister Siddaramaiah remain the undisputed leader of the Congress in Karnataka? Or, will the Congress high command anoint Vokkaliga leader and ace strategist D.K. Shivakumar as state party president? Also, is veteran Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s return to state politics inevitable? Ahead of the assembly elections, due in May 2018, the Congress needs to answer these questions.
More than the BJP, which is weighed down by infighting and charges of corruption, it is factional wars and anti-incumbency that threaten to dislodge the ruling Congress.
Signalling a tectonic shift in its poll strategy, the All India Congress Committee replaced Digvijaya Singh with a younger general secretary, K.C. Venugopal, to lead the party’s campaign for the assembly elections. The party, however, is still not ready to give up on the “caste factor”. The party’s strategy is to consolidate the Ahinda (minorities, backward classes and dalits), its traditional vote base, and capture dominant caste groups like the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, which currently identify with the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular).
“Every responsibility is a challenge. We will try to overcome the challenges to ensure the Congress retains power in Karnataka,” said Venugopal, who landed in Bengaluru on May 8 for his new assignment. “The high command will take a call on who will head the KPCC before the end of May.”
Faced with the daunting task of curbing dissent and desertions, and of reading the caste barometer before picking the right leader, Venugopal and his young team of four party secretaries—Manicka Tagore, P.C. Vishnunath, Madhu Goud Yashki and Sake Sailjanath—have been in a huddle over the last week. While veterans are apprehensive as the team is new, younger Congressmen feel the team would infuse new vigour and enthusiasm into the party.
During the three-day visit, the AICC team held marathon meetings with party members at all levels to study the caste composition of every district and the position of rival parties in each segment. The approach of taking honest opinions at the grassroots level, without yielding to the powerful lobbies, has made the cadres hopeful of the party’s comeback. Venugopal submitted a report to Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi based on the opinions of more than 430 leaders in the state.
“At least 10 potential youth leaders will be identified and given the responsibility of building the party ahead of the polls,” said Venugopal, who is also said to have conveyed that winnability and a clean image would be the criteria for candidate selection.
The team’s first major task would be the selection of a successor to state party president G. Parameshwara, who has been holding the post since 2010. Apparently, the AICC order has been—“No lobbying for any person”. The frontrunners for the post are Energy Minister D.K. Shivakumar (Vokkaliga), former minister S.R. Patil and Water Resources Minister M.B. Patil, both Lingayat leaders from North Karnataka, and Mallikarjun Kharge, a dalit leader.
After the exit of veteran leader S.M. Krishna, Shivakumar is the tallest Congress leader from the Vokkaliga community. While he enjoys the support of many office-bearers and workers, he also has enemies among senior leaders, who suspect he will evolve into a parallel power centre. Moreover, he belongs to South Karnataka (Cauvery belt), like Siddaramaiah, and the party would not risk “neglecting” leaders from other regions like North Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka.
S.R. Patil is perceived to be Siddaramaiah’s candidate. His elevation would help checkmate the BJP, which has announced Lingayat strongman B.S. Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate. M.B. Patil, another Lingayat leader, finds favour among cadres after he successfully led the party to victory in the recent assembly byelections in the drought-hit Gundlupet and Nanjangud constituencies.
Kharge’s candidature was mooted by seniors in the party who felt that a mass leader like him could “reestablish the primacy of the party”. If the party chooses Kharge for his stature, he could be an immediate threat to Siddaramaiah. This would result in Siddaramaiah backing Parameshwara for another term.
The Congress cannot afford to antagonise the dalit community by sidelining Parameshwara, especially after dalit leader Srinivasa Prasad quit the party. A controversial caste-based survey (said to be conducted by the state government, and yet to be published) hints at dalits (1.03 crore) being the largest community in the state (which has a total population of about 6 crore), followed by Muslims (75 lakh). The Ahinda coalition can prove to be a challenge to the politically strong Lingayats (59 lakh) and Vokkaligas (49 lakh). The survey, if made public, would upset the political hegemony of the dominant communities.
The party is on the lookout for an efficient and amicable KPCC chief who can not only hold the flock together, but also forge a post-poll alliance with the JD(S), if necessary, to keep the BJP out of power. Old timers recall how Ghulam Nabi Azad, the state in-charge, had managed to engineer a coalition with the JD(S) to form the government in 2004, when the Congress had won only 65 out of 224 seats. In contrast, Digvijaya Singh recently failed to form a Congress government in Goa even after it emerged as the single largest party. This explains the choice of Venugopal over Digvijaya Singh. Also, if the Congress wants an alliance with the JD(S), S.R. Patil, backed by Siddaramaiah—who has a good rapport with JD(S) president H.D. Deve Gowda—would be the preferred choice. Shivakumar and the Gowda family are sworn enemies.
As far as the chief minister’s post is concerned, senior leaders said Siddaramaiah’s increasing appeasement of the Ahinda had upset the dominant communities, and his “dictatorial” style of functioning had sidelined the party.
In a three-page letter to Venugopal, Adagur H. Vishwanath, former Mysuru MP, said: “Many senior leaders have left the party while some others will quit soon because of the arrogant attitude of the chief minister. The party lacks internal democracy and even the cabinet lacks harmony as senior Congressmen have no voice. The party needs more seniors on the advisory board.”
Vishwanath, who met Venugopal, dismissed the byelection victories, saying: “Sometimes the weakness of our enemy becomes our strength.”
However, despite the criticism, Siddaramaiah is emerging as the party’s best bet. Despite his “outsider” tag, he has a good equation with the central leadership. The AICC team considers it best to align poll-related decisions to the likes and dislikes of the chief minister, who is among the top mass leaders of the state.
Siddaramaiah on issues affecting the party
Infighting within the Congress.
There is no infighting, but only a difference of opinion.
Whether he would remain chief minister.
I will lead my party back to power. But, choosing the next chief minister is the prerogative of the Congress legislature party.
The next Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president.
It is true that I supported the candidature of S.R. Patil. But, the high command will take a call on it based on caste equations. We are all united and will fight the elections together.
Appeasing the Ahinda communities.
I am not embarrassed to say I am pro-Ahinda as I support the poor in all communities. My Anna Bhagya, Ksheera Bhagya or Vidya Siri have benefited all communities. The free rice scheme has reduced migration to cities. I am amused by the BJP allegations that I am pro-Ahinda. The BJP is chanting “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, but practising exclusion of Muslims. Is it not self-betrayal?
The BJP was keen to project the Gundlupet and Nanjangud bypolls as a referendum. As they lost miserably, they are now desperate. I never badmouthed them during the campaign, but sought votes on account of the good work done by my government.
The BJP’s mission 150+.
The BJP is a divided house and people have seen the corruption of the BJP government. We have delivered 155 of 165 poll promises. The few that are unfulfilled are because of technical issues. People will vote us back to power.
B.S. Yeddyurappa’s “charge-sheet”.
The BJP’s “charge-sheet” (on non-performance of the Siddaramaiah government) is a bundle of lies. What moral right does Yeddyurappa have to talk about corruption? He has been charge-sheeted in various cases and is out on bail.
Karnataka being named the most corrupt state in a survey.
The NGO [which said Karnataka was the most corrupt] is run by member of the Niti Aayog, who is part of [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s drama company.