With assembly elections barely over a year away, the Congress leadership in Karnataka is grappling with a severe leadership challenge. And the situation is something of its own making.
The crisis for the party is unfolding in Nanjangud, a quaint temple town just 23 km from Mysuru famously known as Dakshina Kashi or the Kashi of the south. Till October, the Nanjangud constituency was represented by a powerful Congress leader with a huge following among Dalits and other marginalised communities – V Srinivas Prasad.
Six months ago, 69-year-old Prasad, who held the significant revenue portfolio in chief minister Siddaramaiah’s cabinet, was asked to step down during a reshuffle. He was replaced by someone with a similar political profile: Then speaker Kagodu Thimmappa, who represents the Sagar constituency. Thimmappa’s political life spans six decades and he too like Prasad is a socialist who is immensely popular among marginalised communities.
Infuriated by the CM’s move, Prasad quit the Karnataka assembly and resigned from the primary membership of his party, declaring that he would avenge the humiliation. Now with the resulting bypoll to Nanjangud assembly around the corner (likely in January), the entire state is watching Prasad as he has signed up to be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate. Siddaramaiah’s followers claim that they are unconcerned about the potentially explosive fallout of the reshuffle.
Prasad, a staunch Ambedkarite whose base as a minority leader spans the old Mysore region of Mysuru, Nanjangud, T Narasipur, Chamarajanagar among other towns, has, since his resignation, addressed three rallies in and around Nanjangud town. This region has stood by Prasad through his political career, which included stints in the Congress, Janata Dal(United), Samata Party, Janata Dal(Secular) and finally, the Congress once again.
The current political scene in Karnataka makes for an interesting triangle of a political battle: JD(S) led by HD Devegowda and Kumaraswamy, Congress led by Siddaramaiah and the BJP led by BS Yeddyurappa. It is a turf that will see two former CMs and one sitting CM go head to head, and is expected to be a test run for the state elections next year. CM Siddaramaiah never anticipated that the real challenge to his position would originate from his own district of Mysuru.
This bypoll is expected to be a two-way indicator. One, this is a challenge to Siddaramaiah’s leadership and charisma. Nanjangud constituency has been one of the largest beneficiaries of social welfare schemes and is also a melting pot of different communities with clashes between Dalits and Lingayats. Second, since this is happening at the fag end of Congress tenure in Karnataka, this will be a surefire indicator of how things are warming up for Lingayats and the BJP, especially since Lingayats form the main base for the BJP apart from Dakshina Kannada.
Nanjangud is known for its Shiva temple, strong religious beliefs and volatile caste dynamics. Beneath the surface, embers of caste hostilities are always simmering. The memories of the 1993 caste clash between Lingayats and Dalits, on the pretext of a rejuvenation of a temple, in nearby Badanavalu in Nanjangud taluk are still etched in the minds here.
Prasad’s love-hate relationship with Congress
This will not be the leader’s first association with the BJP. During his years with the JD(S), Prasad had served as the minister for food and civil supplies in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government between 1999 and 2004.
Essentially a Congress leader, though, even at the peak of his career he has had a love-hate relationship with his first party. He started his career with the Congress but switched to JD(S) to ‘teach Congress a lesson’. A little over a decade later, he is back at it wanting to teach the party a lesson again.
Political circles say the result of the forthcoming bypoll will be seen as a test of Siddaramaiah’s leadership skills and his ability to steer the party to victory in the 2018 assembly elections.
Siddaramaiah hails from the same region as Prasad and commands high confidence among its voters. Old Mysuru has always supported the current chief minister though he too switched from the JD(S) to Congress as a mark of protest against the ‘dictatorship’ of HD Devegowda and his son HD Kumaraswamy.
It is believed that Siddaramaiah will use the void created by Prasad to nurture another, younger Dalit leader in the region – most likely minister HC Mahadevappa’s son, Sunil Bose, who has worked closely with Congress honchos.
Old Mysuru’s backward communities will be deciding factor
Siddaramaiah has represented Varuna and Chamundeshwari constituencies, the core of Old Mysuru. He belongs to the Kuruba community, which along with the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, dominates the region. These communities are strong enough to tilt political equations in any part of the state, with the Kurubas having the clout to forge alliances with other backward communities. Religious institutions of these communities, once they are assured of benefits by political parties, are known to issue election diktats to their followers.
Sources within the JD(S) claim that Prasad would have stood a better chance at the bypoll if he re-joined the party or stood alone as an independent candidate, but the JD(S) failed to tempt Prasad. It is no secret that in Mysuru region, JD(S) had, in the last general elections, advised its supporters to align with the BJP to avenge Siddaramaiah’s switch to the Congress. That may no longer be the case.
“Had he gone to polls alone, we would have supported him. Now that it is certain he will join the BJP, we are sure to field a candidate and make it difficult for him,” say sources close to JD(S) chiefs and former chief ministers, Devegowda and Kumaraswamy.
Congress leaders admit that Prasad has a strong Dalit base that elected him to both the Parliament and Legislative Assembly. “He still commands a considerable amount of support in these constituencies. So he is surely going to pose a strong challenge to the Congress leadership in these polls,” says a staunch Prasad supporter who did not wish to be named.
Clock’s ticking for Siddaramaiah
There is no doubt that Siddaramaiah will have a tough time taking on the challenge posed by Prasad. He has just about a year left at the helm before he gets into campaign mode for the assembly elections.
The bypoll will give him an opportunity to test various caste equations and assess the prowess of his political enemies and rival parties. The results will allow him to make last-minute tweaks that will help the Congress face the assembly polls. And the fact remains that for the Congress party, this bypoll will mean a major test of their CM’s strength before they make last minute arrangements to face the state polls in case he fails to ensure victory for his candidate.
After CM Siddaramaiah lost his son Rakesh to multiple organ failures in Belgium, most visitors who came to condole and pay their respects were from the Nanjangud region. Rakesh was a popular and accessible leader in the area, according to party workers. They say that when the CM campaigns in the area he will be able to tap into this association to seek support for Sunil Bose.
According to the Congress, its central leadership is not worried about the local bypoll. According to highly placed sources in the party, it is banking heavily on the state government’s pro-poor schemes – better access to education, food and shelter – to strengthen its support base. “Siddaramaiah enjoys total confidence among the party’s top leaders. They do not see why he should be disturbed from his position despite the negative media coverage. At the national level, the Congress high command is focusing on building its image to deal with the 2019 general elections,” says the source.
The Congress might try to play it down but the result of the bypoll will likely set the roadmap for the state’s future. Congress leaders say that it will certainly give a new direction in Dalit politics in the state since the earlier generation of leaders is likely to be replaced with younger men and women who will have a longer shelf life in state politics.
The BJP has not yet made clear its strategy for the bypoll, but it will certainly be a test of Yeddyurappa’s leadership skills. He was cleared of corruption charges recently by the courts (he has been jailed in the past), but there is a question mark over his future – as per BJP norms no senior leader will be allowed to retain office past 75 years of age.
Yeddyurappa turns 75 in 2018, the year the state goes to polls. The party will have to start wooing big communities such as Lingayatas, Vokkaligas and others to rebuild its brand in the state.
In a sense, the Nanjangud bypoll will result in much more than just an interim arrangement – it will be a marker of the state’s political future.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)