Ever since he took over as Karnataka chief minister in May 2013, K Siddaramaiah has been at the receiving end of his detractors within the party.
They gave him six months when he took over and then warned he would be replaced if the Congress got less than 20 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. When both these predictions failed, they said the Bengaluru civic polls of August 2015 would be his final test.
The Congress lost the civic polls but Siddaramaiah is still here. Not for long, repeat his opponents, pointing to the banner of revolt raised by former chief minister SM Krishna. The veteran Congressman met Ahmed Patel and Sonia Gandhi in Delhi last week and is reported to have argued that Siddaramaiah must go if the party is to be saved in Karnataka.
“Krishna is not doing this for himself. It is not like he wants to be CM,” said a confidant of senior Congressman Mallikarjun Kharge, the man the rival faction wants to see as the first Dalit CM of Karnataka.
A Kharge loyalist said that this time the push against Siddaramaiah is different. “All the senior Karnataka Congress leaders - C K Jaffer Sharief, KPCC president G Parameshwara and Mallikharjun Kharge - are behind Krishna.
The Krishna-Kharge camp calls their struggle the ‘save Congress campaign’-- a term picked up by local newspapers.
The party insider said, “Earlier, MLAs and ministers used to criticise Siddaramaiah only in private. Today, 30-40 MLAs are pleading with Kharge to stake claim. Many of them also complained to party vice-president Rahul Gandhi when he was in the State earlier this month.
However, a source close to Siddaramaiah mocked these efforts and said, “All Krishna needs now is for some ministers to be appointed from his camp. Once that is done, everything will be back to normal.”
But the Krishna-Kharge camp says the time for a cabinet reshuffle has passed. “Now, all we want is for him to be sacked.”
As proof of the CM’s incompetence they list out that he has given all powerful posts in the state machinery to his Kuruba caste-men; that he has failed to rein in right wing groups that are holding the state to ransom; that drought-hit farmers are committing suicides and turning against an unresponsive Congress; and that he is arrogant.
Yet, it is a Catch-22 for the party. “Karnataka is the only major state that the Congress controls. The high command is scared that replacing Siddaramaiah could destabilise the government,” said the source close to Kharge.
Siddaramaiah’s supporters in the party make a similar point. They argue that if Siddaramaiah is sacked, he has the capacity to split the party. And if there are snap elections, everybody ends up losing.
Perhaps, the only source of comfort for the party leadership is that Kharge himself has never demanded the CM’s chair openly. His public position has always been that he will don any role the party sees fit.
Internally, he is said to have told the Delhi leadership that he finds it insulting when people say he should be made CM because he is a Dalit. “Mr. Kharge has told the leadership that if he is made CM, it should be because he is the most meritorious candidate who has handled major portfolios and rescued the party from many tricky situations,” a senior Dalit leader in the party told Hindustan Times.