Reduced by pettiness

Congress in Karnataka

It is more than a month since the JD(S)-Congress coalition government took office in Karnataka and it is time to reflect on the state of affairs in the Congress party, which has ruled the state for all the years since 1947 barring the interregnum between 1983 and 1988 when the Janata Party held power under Ramakrishna Hegde and JH Patel, 2006-7 when a JD(S)-BJP coalition ruled and 2008-13 when the BJP ruled. 

It is appropriate to start this reflection with the way Congress approached the assembly elections in May. The party had done well under the leadership of Siddaramaiah, having come up with significant pro-poor programmes like Anna Bhagya and Ksheera Bhagya schemes, which went a long way towards catering to the basic needs of the poor and under-privileged people and school children.

The Indira Canteen, too, was a novel way of meeting the food needs of the urban poor. It is these schemes that gave the state leadership confidence to claim that it would beat anti-incumbency and romp back to power. What went wrong is worthy of analysis.

To begin with, the distribution of tickets to fight elections merits attention. By all accounts, Siddaramaiah was given a free hand in the selection of candidates which, in hind sight, has not helped the party. Siddaramaiah gave fewer seats to the major communities, the Lingayats and Vokkaligas. The seats distribution among SCs was also faulty, with fewer given to the ‘left’ groups among them than to the ‘right’ groups, apart from displeasing the former group by not implementing the Sadashiva Commission report. Thus, even Dalits were not kept happy, which cost the party significantly. 

The distribution of tickets among OBCs was another travesty as Siddaramaiah gave a large number of seats to candidates from his own Kuruba community, to the disadvantage and dissatisfaction of other OBCs, mainly the Edigas, who are next only to Kurubas in terms of OBC population in the state. This, too, cost the party considerably, when one takes into account the OBC seats won by the party.

The Congress leadership under Rahul Gandhi, with his poor knowledge of the caste arithmetic in the state, by and large endorsed the list submitted by Siddaramaiah, with marginal changes at best. The state party president and other senior leaders were marginal players in decision-making on the issue of distribution of tickets, which  cost the party’s electoral fortunes.

As for the campaign, Siddaramaiah was the main campaigner, though Rahul Gandhi toured  different parts of the state and addressed meetings. Here again, the senior leaders of the party confined themselves to their constituencies and did not campaign for party candidates even in their own districts, leave alone other districts. While campaigning, both Rahul Gandhi and Siddaramaiah referred to the JD(S) as the “B-team of BJP”, hoping that the minority groups would stick to them.

But the results show that in the old Mysore region, it did not yield the expected dividend. The party suffered by not being able to make inroads into the Vokkaliga vote base. In the north, central and coastal regions, Congress lost considerably, bringing down its tally to 78 seats, with the Veerashaiva-Lingayat issue failing to be the game-changer that it was expected to be. 

As for government formation, the central leadership of Congress acted swiftly, announcing unconditional support to the JD(S) to form the government, rather than seeking the latter’s support to form government itself, with the intention of keeping the BJP out. When the governor’s office indicated that it would not swear in the ministry unless it was a coalition government, the party leadership expressed readiness to be part of the government. 

Secondary role

The JD(S)-Congress government has been in power for over a month. Congress, thanks to instructions from the central leadership, has not only accepted a junior role in terms of the portfolios it has accepted, but has also surrendered the initiative to the JD(S). Its reduced status is also due to the infighting within the party, specially the differences between the state party president and Deputy Chief Minister G Parameswara and Siddaramaiah and between Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, even on such issues as Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy wanting to present a new budget.

From all accounts, it is clear that Kumaraswamy has established his own equation with Congress president Rahul Gandhi, ably advised by his father and JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda. So much so that after his recent visit to Delhi, Kumaraswamy felt confident enough to say he would be chief minister for a full five years, in contrast to the statement he had made before the Delhi visit that he was not sure whether he would stay on beyond a year. 

It is time the state Congress leaders sank their differences and worked as a team, asserting their position in government as well as in state politics. That is also the way to boost the morale of the party cadres. Otherwise, it will affect the party’s position in the seat adjustment exercise with the JD(S) during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

A 135-year-old party, which held power for the longest time in the state, should be able to plan its strategies with unity, foresight and party and state interest in mind rather than succumbing to a secondary role either at the behest of its national leadership or due to its own weaknesses at the state level.

(The writer is a retired professor of Political Science, Bangalore University, and presently a Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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Reduced by pettiness

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