That the Congress won Karnataka was no fluke. It took many sets of hands to build the victory, but the two that were most callused belonged to Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar. The two united, setting aside their longstanding rivalry and power tussle, to land their party a memorable win.
Siddaramaiah’s mass appeal combined with Shivakumar’s ability to organise men and money helped defeat the mighty Modi-Shah juggernaut. Their bonhomie, in fact, was the main reason the Congress won. The BJP was expecting them to undercut each other’s efforts and sabotage the party’s campaign. For a while, it looked that way. In July, when the leadership crisis was at its peak, Rahul Gandhi held a closed-door meeting with the two leaders in Delhi and asked them to “work together” under a “collective leadership”. And so they did.
If master strategist Shivakumar beefed up the numbers in south Karnataka with his emotional appeal to fellow Vokkaligas to help him become chief minister, Siddaramaiah launched a fierce attack on the BJP and its alleged corruption. He called the Basavaraj Bommai government a “40 per cent commission sarkar” and criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “tolerating” corruption. The “PayCM” campaign, with Bommai’s face on a QR code, was especially catchy.
Apparently, Shivakumar’s Mekedatu padyatra in the Vokkaliga belt helped not only in winning over the community, but also in energising the cadre in the Old Mysuru region.
Also, the Congress, which had been eyeing the Lingayat vote ever since B.S. Yediyurappa stepped down as chief minister in July 2021, split the subsects by welcoming BJP rebels into its fold. The unexpected defection of senior Lingayat leaders―former chief minister Jagadish Shettar (Banajiga subsect) and former deputy chief minister Laxman Savadi (Ganiga)―helped the Congress a lot. Shivakumar had swiftly and prudently flown Savadi in a helicopter from Belagavi to Bengaluru. Savadi won from Athani.
Also, many in the community were not happy that the BJP government’s decision to hike the quota for Lingayats―seemingly snatching it from the Muslims―ended up in court. Or that the party was sidelining Lingayat leaders.
The Congress, meanwhile, not only promised to restore the Muslim quota, but also sought to ban the Bajrang Dal. The Muslims flocked to the Congress.
Shivakumar, though, was careful not to react to communally sensitive issues for fear of being labelled “anti-Hindu”. However, he let Siddaramaiah take up Muslim issues like the halal row and the hijab ban. It was a balancing act.
While the BJP was busy highlighting its ‘double-engine’ government through high-decibel roadshows, the Congress quietly reached the voters’ doorstep to hand out the “guarantee card” that both Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar had signed. It seems the card was also a guarantee of victory for the Congress.
Shivakumar’s elevation as state Congress president, in July 2020, had come at a time when the party was facing an identity crisis following mass defections, constant drubbings in elections and the emergence of the BJP as a strong political opponent in the state. Bitter factional feuds had demoralised leaders and workers alike. Shivakumar, however, placed his faith in the ordinary party worker. He boosted the confidence of frontal organisations like the Youth Congress, the Seva Dal and the women’s wing, and dreamt of making it a cadre-based party.
He soon revamped the district and block units, and tasked the five working presidents with identifying committed workers. A screening committee was set up to assess the potential of party hoppers willing to join the Congress.
To counter the BJP’s social media warriors, he overhauled the Congress communications network and picked tech-savvy, booth-level workers to strengthen the party’s reach in the villages.
Shivakumar’s nickname of ‘Kanakapura Bande (rock)’ makes sense when you realise how many times he has stood solidly beside his party. While his critics might link the name to his contentious granite business, Shivakumar has, on more than one occasion, single-handedly stopped the BJP from poaching Congress MLAs, be it in Maharashtra, Gujarat or Karnataka.
Siddaramaiah, on the other hand, is known as “huliya” (tiger) and “tagaru” (ram) for his aggression towards his opponents. He is also seen as the chief challenger to Modi as he matches his oratory and is a vote-puller.
The Kuruba strongman has a personal rapport with his supporters. His speech imitating Modi, especially, was a hit with the crowds.
If the connect with voters was Siddaramaiah’s advantage, by Shivakumar’s side was Bengaluru Rural MP D.K. Suresh, who managed the back room in Kanakapura and has also been handling Congress events ever since his elder brother took over as state party president.
“For more than a year now, he (Shivakumar) has hardly slept for a couple of hours a day,” said an aide. “He has been touring the state relentlessly and has food while on the move.”
Besides the fact that they are both multiple-time MLAs and are part of the Congress, not much else is in common between Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah. The latter, for instance, is a late riser and prefers non-vegetarian food, especially ragi mudde and chicken curry.
While Siddaramaiah is a vocal critic of hindutva and visits all places of worship, Shivakumar does marathon temple visits, performs rituals and make offerings before any important event. His critics, in fact, have often accused him of practising soft hindutva.
Siddaramaiah’s clean image is in stark contrast to Shivakumar’s; the latter is battling a slew of IT and ED cases, and was arrested on September 3, 2019, in a money laundering case. He spent 48 days in Tihar jail―he called it a “political witch hunt”―and, on being released, said, “Whatever pain I endured was for my party.”
Siddaramaiah has declared assets worth Rs20 crore, while Shivakumar has Rs1,213 crore, making him one of the richest politicians in the state. While Siddaramaiah has openly admitted his technophobia and his dislike for smartphones and social media, Shivakumar has hired image-building professionals to attract the youth. The two leaders are only around a decade apart in age, but the generation gap is wide and obvious.
They might not be birds of a feather, but this time, for the Congress’s sake, they did flock together.