Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah probably never anticipated that the real challenge to his position would originate from his district of Mysuru. Former Union Minister V Srinivasa Prasad, who quit the Congress, following his removal from the state Cabinet, has hit Siddaramaiah hard.
The Chief Minister now has to face a testing time in the coming days as by-elections loom large in the Nanjangud Assembly segment (expected in January), which is also a stronghold of Dalit leader Srinivasa Prasad. The bypoll by itself may be insignificant but it is being seen as a test of Siddaramaiah’s popularity by the Congress bosses in New Delhi.
Political analysts in the state say that the ruling Congress has lost much of its sheen in Karnataka with its last bastion crumbling under the weight of alleged wrongdoings, continuing scams and scandals, as well as the non-performance of Siddaramaiah’s government. They say the Nanjangud bypolls is likely to set the tone for the 2018 Assembly elections in the state.
The BJP knows it too. On a high since the acquittal of former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa in corruption cases, the party is working overtime to woo Srinivasa Prasad, an influential Dalit leader in the state, whose support could well tilt the balance in favour of the BJP, at least in the old Mysuru region where Balagai (right hand) sect Dalits (the community to which Prasad belongs) are present in sizeable numbers.
In October, Prasad resigned from his seat after he was dropped from the Cabinet, citing health reasons. Piqued by his unceremonious removal from the cabinet, Srinivasa Prasad, who held the key revenue portfolio in Siddaramaiah’s Cabinet then challenged the latter to win the elections from his Varuna constituency in 2018. "My exclusion from the Cabinet has not only pricked my ego, it has also hurt the self-respect of Dalits all over the state," Prasad roared at the Swabhiman (self-respect) rally in Nanjangud a fortnight ago, declaring that his only intention was to put Siddaramiah, in his place; his "arrogance of power" had become intolerable for the people of Karnataka.
Political pundits in the state are of the firm opinion that the BJP and its leader BS Yeddyurappa, who has been declared as the next chief ministerial candidate of Karnataka, will have added value if Srinivasa Prasad joins the campaign bandwagon. Prasad could well provide a winning edge to the party in the old Mysuru region, particularly in Mysuru, Chamarajanagar and Mandya districts. In addition to these districts, Prasad has his own following all over the state, especially among the right-hand sect of Dalits, who are vocal and organised in Karnataka compared to people of other sub-castes among the Dalit community.
Why Siddaramaiah sidelined Prasad
In reality, Prasad’s ouster appears to have been a calculated risk by Siddaramaiah, who is trying to groom his close Cabinet colleague HC Mahadevappa, also a Dalit hailing from Mysuru district, as an alternative Dalit face in the region. Prasad and Siddaramaiah had never worked together in politics. Barring a brief period between 2004 and 2006, when Prasad had joined Janata Dal (Secular), both these politicians remained in rival political parties until the 2008 Assembly elections, when Prasad returned to the Congress after exiting from JD(S). Srinivasa Prasad had quit the Congress in 1996 and joined Ramakrishna Hegde-led Janata Dal (United) in Karnataka to win the Chamarajanagar Lok Sabha seat, becoming a Minister in the Atal Bihari-led NDA government.
Even in the 1996 general elections, Prasad, as an independent candidate, finished second in the race behind the Janata Dal candidate, relegating the Congress to third position. Prasad has won the Chamarajanagar Lok Sabha seat five times — in fact, an unbeaten four times in a row from 1981. In 2008, when the BJP-JD(S) coalition broke down and the state went to polls, Prasad joined the Congress, deciding to enter state politics.
Delhi waits and watches
For reasons best known to them, Congress leaders in Karnataka as well as the Delhi high command have remained silent on the issue of Siddaramaiah’s open support to Mahadevappa and his attempt to curb Srinivasa Prasad. "Now with a weakened high command, Siddaramaiah has emerged as the unquestionable leader in Karnataka Congress and by virtue of being in the top post, nobody dares to question him and tell the truth," says a Muslim leader from Mysuru, who is aware of Prasad’s clout among the Dalits in the region.
Another staunch supporter of Prasad, Mohan Kumar, former Mysuru Urban Development Authority chairman who resigned from the party along with Prasad, says that the Congress high command will realise the damage caused to the party by Siddaramaiah only when Srinivasa Prasad wins the bypoll. "Even if Prasad remains silent in the 2018 elections, Dalits from the region will vote for either BJP or JD(S), based on the winning chances of the candidates of respective parties," he points out, revealing the voting pattern of Dalits in Chamarajanagar and Mysuru districts in the past when Prasad had quit the Congress.
Many Congress leaders feel that Prasad, who had decided to retire from power politics and not contest the 2018 Assembly elections, has been provoked and forced to remain in politics by Siddaramaiah. "If Siddaramaiah had allowed Prasad to serve in the Cabinet for the remaining one-and-a half-years, he would have graciously retired from politics, but now Siddaramaiah, in his haste to encourage Mahadevappa, has caused severe damage to the Congress," a Dalit Lok Sabha member from Karnataka felt. He also expressed his inability to question Siddaramaiah, who has been given a free hand by the Congress high command. "We have brought all this to the notice of the Congress high command, but to no avail," he revealed.
Sources within the Congress tell Firstpost that the party high command and leaders are aware of the political situation and are of the opinion that Siddaramaiah has damaged the party’s image in Karnataka. A top Congress leader from the state who wished to remain anonymous, said that Siddaramaiah was not bothered about the Congress and its well-being in Karnataka after he succeeded becoming the Chief Minister. “Siddaramaiah is now absolutely a complacent person and he is neither bothered about the Congress party’s well-being nor his political future,” he claimed, depicting a gloomy future for the grand old party in Karnataka with the BJP going all out to consolidate its position before the 2018 Assembly elections.