OPINION: Siddaramaiah and Congress’ dilemma on the leadership in the state

Neerja Chowdhury
File photo of Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah

File photo of Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah

Karnataka 2018 is about many things but above all it is about leadership. It is about the leadership of Siddaramaiah who has managed to stem the anti-incumbency of the last five years to the extent that the K-battle is being seen as a close fight today.

Karnataka has for a long time been known to change its government every five years. And till 18 months ago, the BJP’s victory was being seen as a fait accompli. Today it’s a neck and neck fight, largely because of the welfare measures the CM has put in place, and the “Ahinda”(Dalit, Minority, OBC)caste axis he has forged over the years.

The fight is also about the leadership of BS Yedyurappa. His Lingayat credentials compelled the BJP brass to make him the party’s chief ministerial candidate in 2018. The powerful community adding up to around 17% of the voters—there are around 1100 mutts influencing it– appears to have largely stayed by his side despite the minority status the Siddharamaiah government conferred on them to wean them away.

File photo of former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa.

File photo of former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa.

In 2013, the BJP was down to 40 seats—the same number as was notched up by regional party JD(S)—largely because Yedyurappa quit the BJP. With his newly launched KJP, he cut into the saffron party’s votes and managed to garner almost 10% of the popular vote. And yet, this time, Yedyurappa has not been his old self. His son BS Vijendra, who had wanted to take on Siddharamaiah’s son Dr Yathindra in Varuna, converting it into a high profile contest, and his associate Shobha Karandlaje were both not given tickets. The K-battle did not come across as a “Sidda” versus “Yeddy” fight that was expected.

As in Gujarat, the gauntlet was picked up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has criss-crossed the state in the last ten days, increasing his rallies from the 15 that were planned to 21 by the time he finished. The question uppermost in people’s mind was this: Will Modi be able to make up for the catch-up that the BJP was trying to do at one stage?

As Karnataka polls, which leader will the fence sitters choose to believe? The known entity Siddharamaiah, who may face some anti-incumbency but not the “anger” that might have been forthcoming? Or will they choose to put their faith in Narendra Modi, as they did In Gujarat? Many have not given up on the PM, and may be swayed by him, even though at stakes this time are only elections to a state assembly. There were indications of the BJP picking up momentum in North Karnataka (accounting for 50 seats), and in Hyderabad Karnataka (40 seats) since Modi started to campaign.

FILE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP President Amit Shah waves at crowd in a rally. PTI

FILE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP President Amit Shah waves at crowd in a rally.

There is another leadership at work in Karnataka which will be critical for the May 15 outcome and that is BJP chief Amit Shah. Shah represents a huge and a well oiled poll machinery, massive resources, macro and micro level planning right down to the booth level, the marshalling of the services of thousands of RSS workers who have fanned out in the state, the “panna pramukhs” who have been tasked to get the families, on the electoral roll page assigned to them, to the polling booth on May 12.

“We visit their homes, we persuade them to vote for the BJP. Sometimes, we look at the photographs on their walls to see the people they may revere and if there is a picture of a `guru’, we approach him to use his good offices to get the family to vote for the BJP,” said a BJP worker.
Elections are often won or lost not just by sentiment but also on the ability of parties to deliver their supporters to the polling booths.
While the Congress has shown a staying power in Karnataka, and Rahul Gandhi has been proactive, and the Congress’ social media displays signs of catching up with the BJP’s onslaught (eg “Kaamdar,Naamdar, Inamdar”) , the country’s grand old party does not have a booth level mobilisation of the BJP kind, and this is a handicap it suffers from.

While Siddaramaiah stands tall, he has to contend with factionalism within his party. Sidda is a “new convert” to the Congress and entered the party in 2005, after parting company with the JD(S), and his mentor, and former PM, HD Deve Gowda has not yet forgiven him. He had first launched his own group ABPJD, and made a good showing in local elections.

Bengaluru: AICC President Rahul Gandhi waves at his supporters during a road show ahead of the Karnataka Assembly election in Bengaluru, May 9, 2018. PTI

Bengaluru: AICC President Rahul Gandhi waves at his supporters during a road show ahead of the Karnataka Assembly election in Bengaluru, May 9, 2018.

The stream of “original” Congressmen were not happy with his rise and being made CM in 2013 when the Congress had won 122 seats. Many feel that he has encouraged those who came from the JD(S) like him at the cost of the “real Congressmen and women”. Many within his own party do not want him to become CM again. There are reports—though rebutted by the Congress– that these elements have instructed their workers to vote for the JD(S) instead.

It is hardly a secret that Mallikarjun Kharge, Veerappa Moily, Janardhan Poojary have tried to rein in Siddaramaiah but without success. He was virtually given a free hand in the selection of tickets. At the CM’s instance, tickets were given to the JD(S) MLAs who had quit the JD(S). Andhe himself got two seas to fight from, because Chamundeshwari had at one stage looked tough.

Some Congress Leaders harbour the hope that in the event of a hung assembly in Karnataka, and in the event of the Congress emerging as the single largest party, the JD(S) may agree to do business with the Congress but minus Siddaramaiah, to form a government in Bengaluru, given the antipathy between him and Deve Gowda and son HD Kumaraswamy.

The JD(S) will undoubtedly have a card or two up its sleeve if Karnataka elections throw up a hung assembly. Yet others feel that the more likely scenario, in the event of a hung assembly, will be the coming together of the BJP and the JD(S), no matter what has been the poll rhetoric of their leaders, but it was meant for the benefit of the voters.

(Neerja Chowdhury is senior journalist and a political commentator)