Cong factionalism peaks in Karnataka
The Congress party’s latest headache now comes from Karnataka, the biggest Congress-ruled state, after it tasted rebellion from Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Uttarakhand, and Puducherry in recent times.
Karnataka is heading towards a political crisis after the Chief Minister Siddharamaiah dropped 14 of his ministers last week and inducted 13 new ministers. The major reshuffle came soon after the Rajya Sabha elections after the Congress won three of the four Rajya Sabha seats and four of the seven seats in the state legislative council's biennial elections. These elections saw allegations of blatant corruption and cross voting.
Siddaramaiah has reshuffled his Cabinet for the first time in three years. In the 224-member Assembly, the ruling Congress has 123 MLAs. The Chief Minister, as well as the Congress leadership in Delhi, should have expected this reaction from the ministers who had been dropped. As one former Congress Chief Minister claims, it is easy to add members to the Cabinet but difficult to drop them. Obviously, Siddharamaiah has ruffled the feathers and annoyed senior and well-established leaders like matinee idol Ambareesh, Srinivasaprasad, and others. In fact, he had dropped leaders from various castes on health and other grounds.
Kannada film star Ambareesh, who lost his Cabinet berth, has resigned as MLA and more might follow. Angry followers of Ambareesh, and other senior ministers who lost their job like V Srininivasa Prasad, Quamarulla Islam, and Baburao Chinchansur, have hit the streets in Gulbarga, Mandya, and Mysore. Siddharamaiah is now struggling to deal with the volatile situation, as there is an open war between the senior Congress leaders and the Chief Minister.
The Congress leadership in Delhi failed to assess the situation even after former External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna gave his assessment during his March meeting with the Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Krishna is reported to have conveyed that things are dangerously on the slide in the southern state.
At the root of all this tension is the “outsider” tag of Siddaramaiah, who had come from JD(S). He had done little to assimilate his supporters with the Congress workers. Until Siddaramaiah had joined the Congress in 2005, he had been a staunch anti-Congress politician playing his innings in Janata Dal.
Even after 12 years, the local Congress leaders still regard him as an outsider who does not know the Congress party’s culture. They complain that at least half the Cabinet are old friends of the Chief Minister who had switched sides when he joined the Congress and all his close aides and advisers are also from the Janata Dal background.
His caste politics of tilting towards backward classes has also distanced traditional Lingayats, Vokkaligas, and Scheduled Caste voters from the Congress, his detractors say. The simmering discontent in Karnataka Congress against Siddaramaiah had intensified since March when nearly 50 percent of the party legislators skipped the crucial Congress legislature party (CLP) meeting.
The Congress High Command faces a catch-22 situation. It can neither get rid of Siddharamaiah nor keep him in the saddle. Speculations about Siddharamaiah’s removal have surfaced time and again but the Chief Minister had used his outsider card to beat his detractors.
If he is replaced, Siddharamaiah will exit with his supporters which means the government would collapse. Continuing him would mean continuing the crisis leading to a possible defeat in 2018 polls.
The Congress high command has the difficult task of not only fire fighting but also taking steps to quell the dissidence besides keeping the flock together. This is where the difficulty comes when the party is weak and more and more rebels are surfacing in the Congress-ruled states.
Karnataka has always been known for its factionalism. There are various groups, which do not see eye to eye. The party High Command has to find ways of balancing these factions and find a leader acceptable to all factions.
With the Congress versus Congress fight going on in the ruling party, the BJP is watching the fun. Lacking strong local leadership, the BJP had succeeded in Assam and elsewhere by importing senior leaders from other parties. It had improved its vote share from 18 percent to 43 percent in the 2014 polls in Karnataka.
With former Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa returning as state BJP president, the possibility of the Lingayat strongman wooing the rebels is the reality. He had declared in April when he took over as the state BJP chief that his main aim was to make “Karnataka free from Congress”.
Siddharamaiah has realised that he need not heed the Congress High Command particularly after the party lost the successive polls in important states like Haryana, Maharashtra and now Assam.
The immediate task for the Congress leadership, therefore, is to pacify the rebels. The second is to rein in the Chief Minister.
The third is to pacify the various groups and factions in the state Congress. The fourth is to chalk out a strategy about how to woo the various castes and hold on to the present vote bank. Senior party leaders caution that if the situation is not taken seriously, there is fear of a repeat of the Uttarakhand-type situation.
The Congress needs a course correction to rectify the situation. Karnataka is the only big state it is ruling at present and the party cannot afford to lose the state.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)