Karanataka’s crisis-ridden Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah began his confabulations with central leaders in Delhi on Friday. The publicly-stated agenda was to discuss the party’s Rajya Sabha and legislative council election candidates in Karnataka, and a cabinet reconstitution that Siddaramaiah is being forced to undertake.
But Siddaramaiah has a lot more to talk to the ‘high command’ about. He has a long list of grievances against his own party leaders in the state who, he says, are working against him. And the central leaders already have several longer lists of grouses submitted by partymen, topped by the 84-year-old veteran and former Chief Minister SM Krishna. Their common grievance: the party is in for an electoral disaster when the state assembly goes to polls in 2018, a year before the Lok Sabha elections.
Siddaramaiah took over as the chief minister after the 2013 assembly election and in the last three years has not exactly covered himself with glory. The 70-lakh diamond-studded Hublot watch, which he wore till it became a butt of ridicule from not only the opposition but even his own party colleagues, was only one of the many issues that led to raging controversies. Party rebels competed with opposition members in heaping blame on Siddaramaiah each time he or ministers loyal to him took a wrong step.
The situation in Karnataka brings to mind the fall of the Congress in other states on account of dissidents. Rebels were responsible for the Congress losing Arunachal Pradesh and nearly losing Uttarakhand. Perhaps learning the lesson from the two states, the party quickly replaced the state party chief in Manipur where rebels were up in arms. Then the Congress lost the Assam assembly election earlier this month, one of the reasons being the defection of its senior leader Himanta Biswa Sarma.
All this has left partymen in Karnataka wondering what the central leadership will do to stop the open war that has been raging among senior leaders. The question upfront now is: Will the party replace Siddaramaiah with a new chief minister to save itself in the only big state that it rules in India?
But sacking Siddaramaiah is fraught with the obvious risk of losing the government. The Congress has 123 members in an assembly of 224 and, in case Siddaramaiah is replaced, his possible exit from the party, along with his supporters — a dozen or more — can mean the fall of the government. Keeping him in the saddle may also mean continued infighting and a possible election defeat in 2018. And the Congress leadership is not best known for getting itself out of catch-22 situations.
In the meantime, a weakened central leadership will only add strength to the rebel voices. While the disastrous performance of the Congress in the just-concluded assembly elections has enfeebled the “high command” (some partymen are referring to it as “low command”), the rebels in Karnataka are galvanising themselves into a fresh bout of campaigning against Siddaramaiah. Digvijaya Singh, who is in charge of the party’s affairs in Karnataka, may have to begin the state first for the “surgery” he spoke about, after the assembly election rout earlier this month.
Even if the “surgery” stops short of jettisoning Siddaramaiah, the leadership is in no position to ignore the rebels completely. The gravity of the crisis can be gauged from the fact that only 80 of the party’s 152 legislators (including 29 members of the legislative council) turned up for the legislature party meeting that the chief minister called three months ago, and even fewer were present at the dinner that followed. Among the abstainers were many senior leaders including Revenue Minister V Srinivasa Prasad and several former ministers.
‘Lower’ vs ‘upper’ castes
Caste comes in as a handy stick in politics to beat the enemy with. Siddaramaiah belongs to the backward caste of Kurubas. The state party chief G Parameshwara is a Dalit. Some dissidents argue that with the “lower” castes cornering both the top posts, the upper-caste voters may keep away from the party. This, they claim, will only bolster the BJP, which recently brought back the upper-caste Lingayat veteran BS Yeddyurappa as its state president.
Not all the rebels have the same demands. Some want the chief minister to be changed. Some of those who want a change want SM Krishna, an upper-caste Vokkaliga. Some others prefer Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress leader in Lok Sabha, a Dalit. They want the state party chief’s post to go to a Vokkaliga.
And there are other rebels who want no more than a reconstitution of the ministry. In other words, at least some of them want to be made ministers.
The net result of all this is that the chief minister and many senior leaders don’t see eye to eye. Party meetings are often shouting matches. This shouting is often carried over to streets and public forums. And the rebels keep making beeline for Delhi to complain to central leaders about the chief minister. Fed up, some of them are even demanding that Digvijaya Singh be stripped of his Karnataka responsibility. As if all this was not enough, you have Assembly Speaker Kagodu Thimmappa, whose loaded actions and words occasionally cause acute embarrassment to Siddaramaiah.
The ‘outsider’ syndrome
At the root of all this tension is the ‘outsider’ tag that Siddaramaiah’s foes in the Congress attach to him. This is because of his relatively recent entry into the party. He was an active anti-Congress politician, associated with one Janata outfit or another till Deve Gowda expelled him from Janata Dal (Secular) in 2005. He joined the Congress the next year, and went on to become the chief minister.
The ‘you-are-an-outsider’ tone was hard to miss when senior party leader Janardhana Poojary once publicly gave Siddaramaiah this piece of advice: “The chief minister should maintain the legacy of the Congress, which stands for clean and transparent governance.” Siddaramaiah’s factotum and Social Welfare Minister H Anjaneya took the outsider-insider tussle to a new low when he shot back, saying that Poojary had been losing elections because of his “big mouth”.
With Congress rebels doing much more than any opposition party could, the BJP is watching the ruckus in the ruling party with glee. Yeddyurappa must be a happy man. The BJP improved its 2013 assembly election vote share of 18 percent (40 seats) to 43 percent (17 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats) in 2014. Yeddyurappa is convinced that, after the 2018 assembly election, at least dakshin Bharat will be Congress-mukht, but for the tiny Puducherry, which the Congress won as a consolation prize this month.
Author tweets @sprasadindia
Updated Date: May 27, 2016 17:46 PM