Congress’s new dilemma in Karnataka, leaders press for change in state unit
Just a month after its coalition government with Janata Dal (Secular) collapsed during a floor test, Karnataka Congress leaders are clamouring for changes in the state unit as they try to assert power.
The Congress high command is yet to take a call on the vacant Leader of the Opposition post in the Assembly, and the party’s Karnataka unit president Dinesh Gundu Rao’s tenure is set to end in a year.
Both these posts have now become sought-after as the party has come out of power after six long years, and those who were interested in ministerial berths over this period are now vying for party posts.
Currently, former chief minister Siddaramaiah is the front runner for the LoP post as he is also the chief of the Congress Legislature Party. However, the high command’s slow pace in resolving this matter has been interpreted by leaders here as its willingness to make changes.
Leaders from the different factions said the high command had to decide on three crucial issues. One, on whether it wants build a younger leadership. Two, it has a decision to make on whether it will continue with the AHINDA (Kannada acronym for a coalition of minority communities, backward classes and Dalits) or back one of the two dominant castes of Vokkaligas or Lingayats.
Three, there is the larger question of whether the Congress wishes to continue building coalitions across the country as it had done in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls. This has gained significance in the state, especially after former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda hit out at Siddaramaiah, blaming him for the collapse of the coalition, making it clear that the Gowda family will not willingly join hands with the former CM.
Gundu Rao, the current state president, is seen as being close to Siddaramaiah, so those who are in the anti-Siddaramaiah camp are believed to have informed the high command to divest power away from the former CM and spread it evenly.
These concerns are set to be aired on Saturday when AICC general secretary KC Venugopal and senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad are scheduled to visit the state capital and hold talks. They will give party president Sonia Gandhi a report based on these consultations.
The primary challenger from the state is DK Shivakumar. The Vokkaliga leader was recently in New Delhi for four days and met senior leaders there to sound them out on the change. A leader from the Shivakumar faction, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that it was time for Siddaramaiah to step aside. “He has already been the chief minister and he was LoP before that, so it is now time for him to step aside and let younger leaders take over.”
Another leader from the state said that the party had to make a decision on whether it would continue with the AHINDA policy. “This hasn’t borne any fruit and in the meanwhile we are losing out on dominant caste votes to the BJP, which has the support of Lingayats, and the JD(S), which is backed by Vokkaligas. No party can hope for a majority without the backing of at least one of these communities,” said the leader.
There are regional equations at play as well. One senior leader from the northern Mumbai-Karnataka region said that the party must include one person from the region. “This is why it will be ideal for the party to have three different leaders as the LoP, CLP chief and the party president,” he said.
Another person, whose name has cropped up in discussions among the state leaders, is the former MP Mallikajun Kharge. “We lost all seven of the reserved constituencies in the state in the Lok Sabha polls. This was a historic low,” said one leader from the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, from where Kharge hails.
This faction of senior leaders like Kharge, former MP KH Muniyappa and others have also expressed reservations against Siddaramaiah, blaming him primarily for the poor showing of the coalition in the Lok Sabha elections in the state, as it won only two of the 28 seats on offer.
The leader from the Shivakumar camp added that the spat with Deve Gowda had also caused some anger. “We need to maintain a working relationship with them,” he said. “Besides, the high command is aware that many of the 17 MLAs, whose resignations led to the coalition government’s collapse, were from Siddaramaiah’s camp,” he said.
However, close aides of the former chief minister claim that he still enjoys the most support in the party. “It is natural that these people will lobby for posts, but it is doubtful that they have many followers. Siddaramaiah remains the most popular leader,” the person, a senior MLA, said.
Political analyst Narendar Pani, who is faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, said the Congress had no choice but to build on the AHINDA grouping. “The party just cannot afford to be the second the choice of Lingayats and Vokkaligas and will have to project its own support group,” he said.
Pani said the next few months would be a time of flux, especially as the BJP central leadership had decided to stamp its authority on the state party, sidelining many senior leaders that had led to resentment from some quarters. “If the Congress builds on the AHINDA grouping, it will then also be able to absorb the disenchanted from the BJP, because the way things are going it appears that there will be a backlash for the national party soon,” he said.