Council polls: Own goal by Congress?


The Congress and the JD(S) have entered into a pre-poll tie-up for the forthcoming elections to the Karnataka legislative Council from various local authorities constituencies. Of the 25 seats, the Congress contests 17 and the JD(S) 6. Both parties have agreed on a ‘friendly contest’ in the remaining two. The rationale behind this alliance is presumably to keep the secular vote together and present a united front against the BJP. It is questionable, however, whether the Congress will benefit from this alliance.

With this tie-up, the Congress has implicitly admitted that it is not confident of winning a good number of seats without the JD(S) support. This is inspite of the fact that BJP’s public image has taken a beating following serious internal dissidence and the continuing lack of unity within that party. The memory of BJP legislators sitting in resorts in Goa and Hyderabad, while parts of Karnataka were affected by floods, is still fresh. The Congress is perhaps still wary after the August byelections to the state assembly, in which it managed to win only one of the five seats. However, a lot has changed since then and the Congress leadership needs to recognise this.

In dilemma

By going back and forth in the last few years on whether to contest elections independently or to tie-up with the JD(S), the state Congress is signalling its lack of a coherent strategy to regain its position as dominant party in state politics. Since 2004, parts of Karnataka, such as Bellary, that were traditional Congress strongholds have been slowly ceded to the BJP. The current tie-up with the JD(S) therefore sends the wrong message — that Karnataka is now a three party state where the Congress will struggle to do well on its own.

The question also needs to be asked — is the JD(S) really ‘secular’? JD(S) president H D Deve Gowda characterises himself and his party as part of the secular front in state and national politics. However, his son, H D Kumaraswamy, has taken a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to the issue of being in the secular camp.

It is common knowledge that Kumaraswamy had established contact with Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa during the recent crisis in the BJP. The intention was apparently to see whether the JD(S) and the BJP could again come to an understanding to rule the state together. Such an arrangement would have significantly reduced the bargaining power of the Reddy brothers as the MLAs they control would not have mattered as much. The JD(S) was also happy to rule in coalition with the BJP from February 2006 to October 2007. And if in the future, it is beneficial for the JD(S) to align with the BJP at the state-level, one doubts if its ‘secular principles’ will stand in its way.

The present alliance shows that lessons from the 2004 alliance between the parties, where the JD(S) was not a reliable partner, have not been learnt. That alliance is remembered for the government’s slow reaction to events on the ground. The Congress could have used these Council elections to show that it had reflected on its previous turns in power and was offering something different from the JD(S) and the BJP.

Compulsions

The alliance has meant that aspiring contestants within the Congress, for those seats eventually given to the JD(S), have not been given the opportunity to contest. And until they are made to feel they are not being ignored, they may not feel compelled to campaign for the Congress in this and future elections.

If this alliance continues, denial of tickets in the BBMP elections to 60-70 Congress workers in favour of JD(S) will cause serious heartburn in the party. Exposing (de facto) Congress gram panchayat members — since gram panchayat elections are partyless — to campaign for alliance candidates at the grassroots level carries the risk of such members getting into the fold of the other party. Surely, Congress cannot afford to lose active local level leaders, with their own following, in this alliance politics.

Therefore, the Congress is better off contesting elections in the state on its own. The state Congress needs to have strong and dynamic leaders with a clean image in-charge who can unite the party. It needs to effectively highlight the failings of the BJP government (of which there are many), something that has not been happening in the last 18 months. Mere high decibel attack will not impress the people.

Finally, the Congress needs to show that it is in touch with the changing needs of the people in both rural and urban Karnataka. If it can do these things, it will do well on its own.

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