Last week, at a party event in Bengaluru, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi heaped praise on Siddaramaiah’s tenure as Karnataka chief minister. “If we run a state it must be the Congress way. I am proud to say that Siddaramaiah with his focus on poor people, with his ability to listen to people is running a Congress government in the state,” Rahul told Congress leaders.
Four years into his tenure and a decade after he quit the JD(S) to join the Congress, Siddaramaiah is being seen as the main power centre in the state unit with a huge say in its electoral strategies. This is despite the Congress high command putting in place a poll panel comprising an umbrella of leaders from the caste spectrum. Rather than appoint a state party president of Siddaramaiah’s choice to lead the party into the 2018 elections, the high command has preferred to go with incumbent Dr G Parameshwara, a Dalit community member.
It has become increasingly clear, however, that Siddaramaiah, a backward classes leader who has positioned himself as a champion of the causes of Dalits, minorities and the rural masses, will call the shots in terms of strategy and choice of candidates for the 2018 polls. Although the extended run given to Parameshwara led to some speculation whether the Congress is looking at projecting an alternative, party workers and most sitting legislators are clear that they will be fighting the polls under Siddaramaiah’s leadership. “The party high command has made it clear that we will be fighting the elections under the leadership of Siddaramaiah. No other leader can deliver a second term for the party,” a Congress legislator said. “It is Siddaramaiah who will have a major say in deciding the choice of candidates,” another said.
Party insiders say no state unit leader has ever matched the kind of confidence that Siddaramaiah, 68, currently enjoys with the Congress president and vice president. In the run-up to the 2013 polls, party chief Parameshwara, now 65, was tipped to be the chief minister if the Congress won. However, Parameshwara lost in his own constituency — a defeat his camp followers blamed on Siddaramaiah’s supporters — even as the Congress won the polls and the majority of the Congress legislators voted for newcomer Siddaramaiah to be the chief minister.
The Congress has not yet declared its chief ministerial candidate unlike the opposition BJP and the JD(S) that have respectively named former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa and H D Kumaraswamy. The Congress has preferred to set up a leadership panel comprising a rainbow of leaders from major castes — S R Patil, a Lingayat, is in charge of the northern districts, D K Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, is the campaign committee chairman, Dinesh Gundu Rao, a Brahmin, is in charge of southern districts — alongside Siddaramaiah and Parameshwara.
Though Siddaramaiah is understood to have pushed for S R Patil as state Congress chief to win the support of Lingayats who are mostly aligned with the BJP’s Yeddyurappa, the Congress national leadership preferred to continue with Parameshwara to avoid sending wrong signals to the Dalit community who are believed to be aligned with the party despite overtures from the BJP and the JDS. Vokkaliga leader Shivakumar too was seen as a candidate for party chief but was not chosen as it could have shut the doors on prospective alliances with the JD(S) of former PM H D Deve Gowda — a Vokkaliga strongman and Siddaramaiah’s mentor.
“Siddaramaiah, Parameshwara and Shivakumar will all try to get tickets for as many of their own supporters as possible since MLAs will pick the next chief minister. The chief minister has the upper hand now but Venugopal and central leaders such as Mallikarjun Kharge and Oscar Fernandes too will have a say in the final choice of candidates,’’ a state Congress functionary said.
“I will lead the Congress to victory in the next polls too,” Siddaramaiah said recently. He insists, however, that it will be the Congress legislators who will pick the chief minister. “It is irrelevant to discuss the possibility of a Dalit CM. The task is to bring the party back to power. From the feedback we have got. we are confident of crossing the 120-seat mark [out of 224 seats],” Parameshwara said.
“This is the first time the Congress has started preparations for an election in the state nearly 12 months in advance. In the past the party would always wait till the end to identify candidates. Now surveys are being conducted — like in the BJP — to identify the right candidates,” a party legislator said.
“The Congress is desperate to retain power in Karnataka, the last major state in its control. The party knows it will be in the doldrums for 10 years if it loses Karnataka. Some preliminary surveys done for the party indicate that it has a good chance of winning a second term if it prepares well and fights unitedly,” a Congress office-bearer said.
One such survey has shown that policies like demonetisation of the BJP government at the Centre have had an effect on people in rural areas and this could benefit the Congress if used tactically, sources familiar with the survey said. New Congress general secretary-in-charge of Karnataka K C Venugopal alluded to the findings of a survey of Congress prospects during a recent meeting of the state Congress Legislature Party.