Competition, aggression and loyalty are all on the younger leader’s side
Congress members will undoubtedly agree with the assessment that their party’s leadership leaves them positively or negatively impacted more often, flummoxed.
In Karnataka, the party high command has attempted, on the face of it, a delicate balancing act by appointing its best trouble-shooter in recent years, DK Shivakumar, as state party president.
At the same time, it has not disturbed former chief minister Siddaramaiah from his dual responsibilities as Leader of the Congress Legislature Party as well as the Leader of the Opposition.
It has attempted to keep Siddaramaiah also happy by accepting his suggestion and appointing two of his supporters, Easwar Khandre and Satish Jarkiholi, as working presidents. Saleem Ahmed, the third working president, appears to be the nominee of the high command.
Coming as it did after the party lost its ‘side-lined’ Madhya Pradesh leader, Jyotiraditya Scindia, to the BJP, the Karnataka initiative may appear to be a knee-jerk reaction. But the high command appears to have introduced an element of competition in the top leadership of the Karnataka unit.
Shivakumar’s appointment is one way of the high command saying thank you and an attempt at making good the promise that it had not been able to keep on many occasions in the past. His gutsy marshalling of resources in shepherding party MLAs from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and, now, Madhya Pradesh, and then facing the onslaught of the IT department is well known.
Some partymen do believe that they will not be able to speak about issues like corruption now that Shivakumar has been appointed to the post. But that is a non-issue for Shivakumar because he firmly believes that the IT case is a foisted case, a political one.
The interesting aspect of Shivakumar's appointment lies in south Karnataka, the region where both he and Siddaramaiah hail from. The third player in this sub-regional game is former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, who, till recently, was the undisputed lord of the powerful and dominant Vokkaliga community of the region.
Shivakumar, to date, has been the only person from this community who took Gowda head on and sometimes even won the game. Siddaramaiah comes into the picture as the leader of the other backward classes, which in this context, currently excludes the Vokkaligas. He is Gowda's former protege turned bete noire.
And keeping true to the old adage, the enemy's enemy is a friend, the three-cornered game is still being played with enemies and friends trading places as and when the situation requires it.
Over the last couple of years, on the surface, Gowda and his son, former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy appeared to be joining hands with Shivakumar to even curb the influence of his rival Congressman Siddaramaiah in south Karnataka.
Siddaramaiah has also added his bit by antagonising the Vokkaliga community during his five-year term as chief minister, leading to even his defeat in his home constituency that first elected him in 1985. The Congress suffered huge losses in the region as well, except in Shivakumar’s pocket boroughs, all around Bengaluru.
The Congress high command, obviously, looks at walking the tight rope here by hoping to cash in on the camaraderie between Shivakumar and Gowda and still retain the draw of Siddaramaiah.
Siddaramaiah may not have the same strength as he did in 2013 but he is still the only state-wide leader that the party has, like the BJP has in chief minister BS Yediyurappa and unlike Deve Gowda. The tussle between the three to establish suzerainty over the region are bound to be interesting to observe in the next three years before the state goes to the polls.
It should be said to the credit of Shivakumar that he learnt from the experience of Deve Gowda that it is very important to have a state-wide support base. His nature in building bridges across all sections of society, particularly the Lingayat community which is the dominant caste group of North Karnataka.
It is also the community Siddaramaiah tried so hard to woo ahead of 2018 and failed spectacularly. If Shivakumar can pull a larger section of the Lingayats to the Congress and retain the Vokkaliga community, he is bound to be king, not just kingmaker.
The issue for Siddaramaiah is whether he can get back the hold over the OBCs that he had. The challenge is not an easy one as the BJP has been making clinical cuts in every election since then to break his hold over this critical section of society which is spread across the state.
If both of them cooperate, the Congress is on solid ground to recovery even if the Lingayats, currently hardcore supporters of the BJP, continue to ignore the grand old party. With Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah, the party aims to get back the social axis of OBCs – Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – minorities plus the support of the Vokkaliga community in place.
But given the nature of the Congress party and the character of both men, they are more likely to be competing to ensure that each of them garners enough and more for the party to return to power whenever the assembly elections are held, with themselves as the focal point.
Still, it is fairly clear that the tipping point for Shivakumar to replace Siddaramaiah as the leader of the legislature party, whenever the state goes to the polls, would be the number of seats that the JDS will win in Southern Karnataka. If the Congress cannot get the magic number of 112 on its own, it will have to look at the JDS for support again.
That is when Deve Gowda could do what he did in 2004. He preferred a pliable Dharam Singh to an SM Krishna. And two years later, his son struck a deal with BS Yediyurappa to form the JDS-BJP coalition government, paving the way for the first BJP government in southern India in 2008. It is fairly clear to all that even at its worst performance, the JDS can garner about two dozen seats.
It is in this context that the Congress high command has introduced the competitive spirit between a laid-back strategist and a go-getter who is crystal clear that he will be the chief minister, someday.