Surgery on Congress

State of the party

Politics and indiscretions outside marriage go back a long time in history. Groucho Marx even went to the extent of saying, “Behind every successful man is a woman, behind her is his wife.” But this time-tested malady could not have struck the ruling BJP in Karnataka at a more inopportune time. With gram panchayat elections round the corner, the sex expose and exit of Hartalu Halappa, a former Congress leader whom Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa virtually hijacked to his own party and made a first time minister, has come as a real godsend to poll-scarred Congress.

The main opposition Congress’ political hiatus has been marked by consistently poor performance in the many elections held subsequent to the BJP’s May 2008 Assembly election victory. The party’s newest hope is the upcoming gram panchayat election. For the record, this is a partyless election in the sense that political parties cannot use their election symbols. But for the ruling BJP, this is another chance to correct its traditional urban image and demonstrate its toe-hold in rural Karnataka.

As far as Congress is concerned, this could be state unit president R V Deshpande’s last chance to prove his worth. He has also his eyes on the ensuing Rajya Sabha elections. Polls to 55 Rajya Sabha seats, including four in the state — two each held by the Congress and the BJP — are slated for June 17. Deshpande has been waiting in the wings to enter the Upper House of parliament, while sitting members Oscar Fernandes and B K Hari Prasad, whose terms ends on June 30, remain strong contenders. But the Congress, on its own, is capable of retaining only one seat this time round. For the second seat, it will have to enter into an electoral alliance with the JD(S).

The previous poll alliance between the two parties was during the Legislative Council election from local bodies in December 2009. Together they won 15 out of 25 seats. On its own, the Congress performance has gone from bad to worse since the May 2008 assembly elections.

The main opposition party had entertained hopes of doing well enough to win the elections to the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). But the BJP once again got the better of its opponents. For the Congress it was once again the same old story of electoral mismanagement. If many winning candidates were denied tickets, many who got did not win. The bungling is being blamed on some prominent city leaders who drew the final list of candidates without taking city president Alexander into confidence.

In shambles

Following that disastrous assembly polls, the Congress high command had taken nearly four months to put in place a new state leadership as Mallikarjun Kharge had to resign as the state party chief. The appointment of a senior leader like Deshpande, who was state youth Congress president four decades ago, and an aggressive younger leader like D K Shivakumar as the working president, it was hoped, would help the party’s turnaround. The Brahmin-Vokkaliga caste combination that Deshpande and Shivakumar represent was again a calculated move intended to regain the party’s social base.

After all that manoeuvring, the party’s rejuvenation hasn’t happened. At least there has not been any evidence of it in successive elections held since the duo took charge. Even the party unity has been in question. Former deputy chief minister Siddaramaiah, who was in the race for the party top job in the state, fired the first salvo using his supporters to express disappointment over the choice of Deshpande in no uncertain terms. The Congress office in Chitradurga was ransacked by his followers even though Siddaramaiah himself said he was not really unhappy.

The Deshpande-Shivkumar combination has not worked. The partnership has bombed. The Congress organisation is in shambles across Karnataka. The president being the face of the party, he is invited to all critical meetings convened by the Congress high command. The working president is just a figurehead and, hence, devalued in the eyes of the workers. The party has become rudderless in the state, what with no one person willing to own up responsibility for successive reverses.

The Congress’ role as the main opposition in the Assembly is again nothing to write home about. Though Siddaramaiah was made Leader of the Opposition after much thought and consideration, the opposition role is actually being played by the JD(S). Former prime minister H D Deve Gowda has been far more vocal in confronting the ruling party. His two sons — former chief minister Kumaraswamy and Revanna — too have been proactive.

That brings us to the issue of course correction. The Congress needs a major surgery and that too urgently. But how soon would the high command go about performing the surgical operation is anybody’s guess. The leadership in Delhi is not particularly known to taking timing action. But with the party organisational elections currently underway, the party chief Sonia Gandhi gets an opportunity to take advantage of the organizational polls to recast the state Congress.

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