S.M. Krishna is said to have advised dissidents against “harming the party”, and said he'd take their case to the high command after Ramadan.
A cabinet rejig brews discontent among the shunned. But, if the protests turn into rebellion and threaten to shake up the government, it becomes a cause for concern for the incumbent.
After the Karnataka cabinet reshuffle on June 19, supporters of sidelined leaders have held dramatic protests—some blocked highways, some burned effigies and some attempted self-immolation. The backlash has further fragmented the already divided state Congress. The former ministers are not only demanding a change in leadership, but are also questioning Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's authority to drop them. Some leaders have said that, with Siddaramaiah and Mallikarjun Kharge leading the party, “Congress mukt (free) Karnataka” is closer to becoming reality.
The rebellion sparked by former ministers Ambareesh and Srinivas Prasad has shaken the Congress. Karnataka is the only south Indian state where the party is in power. It is also the largest of the six states the party rules, either independently or with allies. The Congress leadership wants to avoid the drama of Uttarakhand, where, in May, nine rebel MLAs joined hands with the BJP to attempt to oust the ruling Congress government. In December 2015, Arunachal Pradesh had also witnessed a similar crisis.
Apparently, a group of 40 MLAs, who feel ‘let down’ by the cabinet reshuffle, is hoping to reach out to the party high command for help. Meanwhile, opposition parties, including the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), are fishing in troubled waters. Soon after Ambareesh and Prasad were removed, opposition leaders, including JD(S) president H.D. Deve Gowda, dropped in at the former's residence to “pacify” them.
The problem, it seems, started when the Congress high command okayed Siddaramaiah’s formula for the cabinet reshuffle, which was based on the caste matrix, public image and performance. However, even after several rounds of meetings held in Delhi, Siddaramaiah had overlooked the suggestions of senior leaders such as Digvijaya Singh, Kharge, Oscar Fernandes and Karnataka Congress president G. Parameshwara.
With an eye on the 2018 assembly elections, Siddaramaiah has ensured a mix of various castes in his cabinet. This, many in the Congress believe, also had to do with the appointment of Lingayat strongman B.S. Yeddyurappa as state BJP president. Now, the Siddaramaiah cabinet has eight Lingayats, four Vokkaligas, four dalits, two Kurubas (including him), three Muslims, two brahmins, two Reddys, five OBCs, and one member each from Christian, Scheduled Tribes and Kshatriya Maratha communities.
The call for Siddaramaiah's ouster came from Prasad, who rubbished the former's claims of being the uncontested leader of the minorities, backward classes and dalits. “Siddaramaiah has done enough damage to the party and the recent rejig will be counterproductive to the party,” he said. “Siddaramaiah is with the Congress only for power. He did not have the courtesy to inform me about dropping me. This rejig is only to secure his post for the next two years and not to benefit the party.”
Actor-turned-politician Ambareesh was upset that he was counted among the non-performers. He suspected it was conspiracy to bring in former MP Ramya, another actor-turned-politician, who has the backing of Congress veteran and former chief minister S.M. Krishna. Both Krishna and Ambareesh hail from Mandya and belong to the politically strong Vokkaliga community.
According to sources, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has ‘directed’ the state Congress to nominate Ramya as an MLC. Also, Siddaramaiah has strategically kept open one position in the 34-member cabinet—he dropped 14 ministers and inducted only 13—which could work in Ramya's favour.
AMBAREESH AND RAMYA have been bitter rivals for long, with the latter believing Ambareesh was responsible for her loss in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However, upsetting Ambareesh could cost the party in the old Mysuru area, which is a Vokkaliga heartland.
Also, after Siddaramaiah removed wakf minister Qamarul Islam, MLAs led by Malikayya Guttedar and A.B. Malaka Reddy alleged a “great betrayal” by Kharge. Apparently, Kharge had earlier opposed the removal of Islam. However, when his son, Chittapur MLA Priyank Kharge, was offered the cabinet berth, Kharge kept mum and did not fight for Islam. Kharge's recent U-turn could hurt his chances of re-election from minority dominated Kalaburagi, where Islam is from.
Perhaps more controversial is the cabinet induction of Kalghatgi MLA Santosh Lad, who had previously quit as minister after allegations of illegal mining. The move was taken to win over Bellary, which is a BJP stronghold. Similarly, former speaker and MLA Ramesh Kumar, a brahmin, was accommodated to balance the caste equation, despite facing charges of land grabbing.
However, to restore the party's image, Siddaramaiah dropped three ministers—Baburao Chinchansur, Shivaraj Tangadagi and P.T. Parameshwar Naik—who were facing charges of corruption.
To inject young blood into the government ahead of the 2018 polls, Pramod Madhwaraj, Eshwar Khandre, Tanveer Sait, Priyank and Lad were inducted into the cabinet. Ministers Krishna Byre Gowda, 43, and Sharan Prakash Patil, 49, were elevated to cabinet rank. Dynasty politics, too, played its part, with S.S. Mallikarjun succeeding his father, Shamanur Shivashankarappa, and Ramesh Jarkiholi replacing his brother, Satish.
The detractors, meanwhile, are trying to rope in veterans like Krishna and Fernandes, and are in no mood for a compromise. Krishna, however, is said to have advised them against “harming the party” and said he would take their case to the high command after Ramadan.
For his part, Siddaramaiah has offered plum posts in boards and corporations to the dissidents. Also, he has been holding a series of department review meetings—cracking the whip on lethargic officials and making a big noise over non-performers—in a bid to boost his image. Will Siddaramaiah quell dissidence, or will he be felled? Only time will tell.