Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah said on Sunday that it was fine with him if the Congress party decided to replace him with a Dalit candidate after election results are declared on Tuesday. This was a loaded answer to what might have been a loaded question from a TV reporter.
In the slavish culture of the Congress, run by a family and the small coterie around it, it is pretty common for a leader to answer questions by paying obeisance to the high command. But Siddaramaiah's statement was more than the familiar expression of loyalty to royalty. It has so far been interpreted to mean the following:
1) Siddaramaiah is hinting at Congress not getting a clear majority after Tuesday's vote-counting;
2) A coalition with the Janata Dal (Secular) is possible;
3) A Dalit alternative to him would facilitate such an alliance since he himself wouldn't be acceptable to that party. But there is possibly more than what meets the eye.
Killing three birds with one stone
Siddaramaiah's sudden love for Dalits fits neatly into the latest national trope of singing the Dalit tune. But Congress is possibly trying to kill two birds — or maybe even three — with one stone. Siddaramaiah is sending a message to JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda that he is more than willing to go out of the race for the top job in case of a hung verdict. Siddaramaiah was part of JD(S) before he joined Congress in 2006 and the personal animosity between him and the Gowda family has probably reached a point of no return. He and Gowda (or his son HD Kumaraswamy) not only can't see eye to eye but can't even breathe the same air in the same room for any length of time.
Equally, Siddaramaiah is also sending a message to Bahujan Samaj Party's (BSP) Queen Bee Mayawati, or he is sending it at the behest of his high command. As part of an alliance with JD(S), the BSP is contesting some 18 seats in this Karnataka election. Mayawati is, or at least wanting to be, in the forefront of forging a non-BJP, non-Congress front to take on BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Talk of a Dalit chief minister in Karnataka would be Carnatic music to her ears. This would get her adrenalin going. This can also raise her own stock among Dalits in her home state and elsewhere. Siddaramaiah would like nothing better than having Mayawati to pressure Gowda to move away from BJP and join forces with Congress instead when the time came for it.
This might also be Siddaramaiah's own way of trying to clip Gowda's wings. Projection of a Dalit as chief minister would give the Gowda family less room for manipulating who should get the chief minister's job in a coalition with Congress.
Game is still open
Behind this statement by Siddaramaiah, however, is the continuing nervousness within Congress over the election outcome. To begin with, the party had been confident of a cakewalk some months ago, even up to halfway through the campaign. But this self-assurance ebbed after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his final push in the state which saw 21 well-attended rallies by him across Karnataka.
Congress is even less sure of scraping through with a clear majority after exit polls came out at the end of polling on Saturday.
But the game is still wide open. With most of the exit polls projecting either a hung Assembly or an edge for the BJP, confusion reigns in all parties. The unpredictability of the exit polls can be understood from just one aspect of them. One poll that projected a simple majority for Congress gave 33 seats to the party and seven to BJP in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, one of the key areas that will determine the result. Another exit poll that also sees Congress emerging as the single-largest party, but projects only 12 seats for Congress and 19 for BJP in the same region.
All possibilities still exist in Karnataka: A majority for either Congress or BJP, a hung Assembly or a coalition between either of the two main parties and JD(S).
Cong door half-open, BJP's fully-open
Clearly, the chief minister and his Congress are readying for the eventuality of a hung verdict. They want to leave the party's door ajar for the JD(S) now, and fully open it if necessary on Tuesday.
But Congress has one problem. Modi fully opened the BJP's door fully for JD(S) a long time ago. While Siddaramaiah was burning his bridges with Deve Gowda in every way he could, Modi was busy building his own with the former prime minister.
That Congress would be ready for an alliance with JD(S) if necessary was also hinted at by another leader a day earlier in a mealy-mouthed fashion. Senior leader Veerappa Moily told a channel on Saturday that an alliance was possible because Siddaramaiah had once been part of JD(S) and "blood is thicker than politics".
But Moily may find that the blood that runs in the Gowda family is even thicker. Though Gowda said he would disown his son if he went with BJP, nobody takes him seriously. He had said this even in 2006 when Kumarawamy allied with BJP to become chief minister. Kumarawamy will still go ahead and do it if he believes that he would be better off with an alliance with BJP rather than with Congress.
State BJP president BS Yeddyurappa, meanwhile, is repeatedly and confidently announcing that he will take oath as chief minister on 17 May. This could be nothing more than bluff and braggadocio.
But this could also mean that Modi has not only opened BJP's door open but even let the JD(S) in and he already has a deal on hand to put into effect when necessary.
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Updated Date: May 15, 2018 08:24:50 IST