CM face divide may hamper K'taka Cong's poll prospects

CM face divide threatens to dwindle poll dividend for Congress in Karnataka

Over the past week, several Congress legislators have been openly promoting Siddaramaiah as the next chief minister

Siddaramaiah (L) and D K Shivakumar. Credit: PTI Photos

It is anybody’s guess how one-upmanship between two tall leaders from the same party will play out in politics.

For the Congress, Karnataka’s principal opposition party, the palpable rift between the leader of the Opposition Siddaramaiah and its state president D K Shivakumar has divided the party, with less than two years remaining for the next assembly elections.

Over the past week, several Congress legislators have been openly promoting Siddaramaiah as the next chief minister, a wish whose fruition depends on the party winning the next election. Siddaramaiah’s projection comes much to the chagrin of Shivakumar, who is also nursing chief ministerial ambitions.

A recent tweet by the official Karnataka Congress handle supporting Shivakumar’s chief ministerial candidature is believed to be the latest trigger, irking the supporters of Siddaramaiah, leading them to assert his standing in the party.

Read more: Siddaramaiah vs D K Shivakumar: Factionalism within Karnataka Congress over CM face comes to the fore

After all, Siddaramaiah is Congress’ tallest mass leader right now. He became the first CM in 40 years to complete the full term (2013-2018).

The latest rift has not gone down well with leaders in the party.

Expressing disappointment, a senior leader said the controversy was completely “untimely”. The Congress hopes to turn the infighting within BJP into its favour ahead of the next elections. But dissidence within its own ranks has dampened these efforts.

The situation is not unfamiliar for Congress. Its prospects in the 2018 elections were dented and the Congress-JD(S) coalition government collapsed in 2019 because of factional rifts.

“The party has not been faring well for quite some time now. We won in 2013 only because B S Yediyurappa split from BJP and floated KJP. In the 2018 elections, the party suffered because of derogatory statements that were made (by Siddaramaiah) against leaders from the Vokkaliga, Lingayat and Nayaka communities - H D Kumaraswamy, Yediyurappa and Sriramulu,” a Congress MLA explains.

“Voters from these communities deserted us. Except for Dalits and Muslims, the Congress is hard-pressed to find its voter base today.” 

A strong sentiment against “outsiders” in the Congress also ensues with one section of leaders believing that Siddaramaiah and a few others who migrated from Janata Dal cannot relate to efforts that have gone into building the Congress. 

According to political analyst Muzaffar Assadi, those projecting Siddarmaiah as the next CM face are overreading the anti-incumbency trend in Karnataka.

“An anti-incumbency trend is slowly developing, but it can swing either way ahead of the elections. Overemphasizing it now could be political suicide. Projecting one CM face will lead to leaders from different communities staking the claim. It will divide the voter base,” he pointed out.

Nonetheless, Siddaramaiah is crucial to Congress. While Shivakumar is known for his electoral strategy and organizational skills, Siddaramaiah has a mass appeal.

“Mass appeal is not something that anyone can cultivate. Siddaramaiah’s public appeal cannot be matched by Shivakumar,” another legislator says, adding that unless the high command figures out a way to accommodate both of them equally, this conflict will work against the party.

Traditionally, the KPCC president automatically enters the race for the CM’s post. As president, this is the closest Shivakumar will come to becoming the CM, if the Congress wins in 2023.

However, Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar have much work to do.

Sources say Siddaramaiah is scouting for a “safe seat” to contest from in the next election as Badami, where he won by a thin margin, will be risky.

Shivakumar has the task of holding the cadre together and consolidating the voter base while refurbishing his own public image.

There is also speculation that the demand for a Dalit to be made the CM, which has haunted the Congress in the past, will gain momentum again. That will certainly throw a wedge into many chief ministerial machinations.  

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