Karnataka is the next big test for Congress but party must tackle anti-incumbency, rejig state leadership

The realisation that anti-incumbency against the Siddaramaiah regime in Karnataka is huge and the BJP has its nose ahead in the race, has dawned on the Congress high command.

TS Sudhir March 14, 2017 15:51:08 IST
Karnataka is the next big test for Congress but party must tackle anti-incumbency, rejig state leadership

Even before the debacle in the Assembly elections stared the Congress in the face, work was on to revamp the party structure in Karnataka, the only big state it has been in power now for some time. The realisation that anti-incumbency against the Siddaramaiah regime is huge and the opposition BJP has its nose ahead in the race, has dawned on the Congress high command.

That it won't be easy in 2018, is an admission several Congress leaders are willing to make, off the record. On the priority list is to find a new Karnataka Congress president. The incumbent G Parameshwara also holds the Home portfolio in Siddaramaiah's cabinet and his critics deride him by referring to `PCC' (President of State Congress committee) as `Press Conference Chief'. Though a Dalit, Parameshwara is not seen as having enough hold over the community and the party is not confident that it will stick by him next year.

Karnataka is the next big test for Congress but party must tackle antiincumbency rejig state leadership

The Congress has realised that anti-incumbency factor in Karnataka could spoil the game for it in 2018 polls and that the BJP has its nose ahead in the race. Reuters

Two leaders who are in the race, according to sources in the Congress, are DK Shivakumar and BK Hariprasad. Shivakumar, the Energy minister of the state, is the tallest Vokkaliga leader in the Congress after SM Krishna's exit and has the reputation of being a go-getter. His detractors in Delhi, however, have pointed to reports about his not-so-clean image, even if they are at the level of unsubstantiated allegations at the moment.

Shivakumar, if he is given the responsibility, also will be on the horns of a dilemma on how to tackle Krishna. The former chief minister is his mentor and Shivakumar will find it tough to criticise Krishna should he take the Congress to the cleaners during campaigning. The Shivakumar camp is also in two minds if leading a ship that is not exactly in the best shape will do wonders to his political profile and future.

Hariprasad, an OBC like Siddaramaiah, resigned as AICC general secretary on Monday taking responsibility for the humiliating loss in the Odisha Zilla Parishad elections but now reportedly wants to head the Karnataka Congress. But he has always been seen as Karnataka's man in Delhi, even though he has been out of touch with the heat and dust of the politics in the districts of Karnataka. After the UP debacle, Delhi's currency when it comes to state politics has taken a beating.

The dark horse could be the suave KPCC working president, Dinesh Gundu Rao. But the odds are that Rao could be moved to Delhi and made to go national as AICC secretary.

The immediate worry however, is the byelection to the Nanjangud constituency, a reserved seat in Mysuru district on 9 April. The bypoll has been caused by the resignation of Srinivas Prasad, who was dropped in the cabinet reshuffle last year. Prasad, a senior Dalit leader, felt humiliated by the manner in which he was axed and is now taking revenge by joining the BJP. Mysuru is the CM's backyard and an adverse verdict in a constituency where the Congress has won nine times till now, will dent his image. The fact that the Congress is fielding an import from the Janata Dal (S), K Keshavamurthy, is a poor commentary on the courage among original Congress leaders to take on Prasad or perhaps it simply shows a paucity of winnable Congress talent.

But more importantly, the election will give a sense of the mood among the Dalits and on Parameshwara's ability to net the community votes.

Compared to the Congress, the BJP is making its moves swiftly in Karnataka. SM Krishna will join the party this week. Former minister Kumar Bangarappa, whose family name will be an asset in Shimoga district, is already in the BJP fold. Actor-turned-politician Ambareesh from Mandya who was dropped from the Siddaramaiah cabinet, too is headed towards the BJP. Sources say his actor wife Sumalatha could test the waters from a constituency in Bengaluru next year on the BJP ticket.

The effect of the huge UP win is likely to be felt most in Karnataka, a state the BJP has called its gateway to the south in the past. After making a mess of its previous tenure in 2008-13, the BJP now wants to ensure it gets its act together this time. A combo of getting the caste and community arithmetic right along with targeting different groups with specific leaders is the gameplan. The Modi factor, Amit Shah would hope, will be final tadka to the BJP dish.

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