They have been devised as an experiment to divest control of candidate nominations from the Congress’s Delhi leadership (Rahul Gandhi) by handing it to grassroots-level Congressmen. Of the total 15 US-style primaries across parliamentary constituencies in India in the coming weeks, two are to be held in Karnataka. But, in this state at least, instead of narrowing the field of candidates before an election, as a “primary” is meant to do, the process has caused havoc and led to a face-off between two Congress party heavyweights.
Most of the riveting drama revolves around one primary: the Lok Sabha seat of Mangalore in coastal Karnataka, where the field has been suddenly and tardily thrown wide open. Headbutting each other for the nomination are old Congress hand, Janardhana Poojary, and Harsha Moily, the son of Union Minister Veerappa Moily and a political newbie.
In the shortlist of nominations compiled by the state Congress some weeks ago for each of Karnataka’s 28 Lok Sabha constituencies, Mangalore was one of the exceptions. There, instead of a customary “panel” of candidates prepared for the party high command to choose from, the state party proposed a solitary, undisputed candidate: Poojary. The subsequent announcement of a “primary” in Mangalore and the inclusion of Harsha Moily in the list of contestants has completely fogged up the scenario.
Mangalore is an interesting Lok Sabha segment. It is an urban constituency situated in what is deemed to be a BJP stronghold, the west coast. The Lok Sabha seat was last won by the Congress two-and-a-half decades ago in 1989, when Poojary himself was the victor.
Since then, the BJP has triumphed every single time.
More fascinating are the two main candidates for the Congress’s internal election. Poojary, 76, was a Union minister during the time of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and subsequently a key party functionary in Delhi. His current sidelining is interpreted by some partymen as ageism — Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to clear the party of older, more staid leaders — and by others as Gandhi’s effort to make way for fresh faces.
Poojary’s main opponent, the 42-year old US-educated Harsha Moily, is certainly brand new to politics. The Moily family is from the Dakshina Kannada district, of which Mangalore is a part, and the junior Moily is familiar with the language and geography of the constituency. He is no stranger to grassroots work either, having set up and run MokshaYug Access, an organised retail chain that directly sources milk, vegetables and fruits from rural farmers. MYA is backed, among others, by the venture fund run by the legendary Silicon Valley-based investor, Vinod Khosla.
“I am a candidate in the internal election,” asserted the younger Moily, who said he had been working in the constituency for two months to drum up support. “The Congress has not won Mangalore in 24 years, and party workers are crying for a change,” he said in a phone conversation.
As progressive as the internal election move is, the Moily-Poojary confrontation cannot be any good for the Congress at this critical juncture. Congressmen in Mangalore are conflicted about the showdown. By accommodating Harsha Moily and allowing him to contest the primary in violation of party rules (if he wins, father and son will both contest the Lok Sabha elections, breaking the one-seat-per-family rule), Rahul Gandhi, at least, has already cast his vote in this “primary”.
Equally significantly, the Mangalore episode spotlights the political rise of the Moily family in the Congress party. The trusted and loyal Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily’s star is on the ascendant in the party in Delhi, after he was given additional charge of the environment and forests ministry recently.
When Rahul Gandhi recently demanded that the entitlement of subsidised cooking gas cylinders per household be raised from 9 to 12, Moily responded with alacrity. He announced the increase within hours and, this week, his ministry has ratified the increment. Again, soon after he took over the environment and forests portfolio, Moily has controversially cleared a record 70 projects in less than a month.
Besides father and son, there is a third, less-visible Moily component to the Congress 2014 Lok Sabha fight. That is Anand Adkoli, Moily’s Bangalore-based son-in-law who is backending the analytics and big data moves for Rahul Gandhi’s election strategy. The low-key Adkoli, formerly an employee of a technology multinational in the US, has shied away from interviews so far and is known to fly in to Delhi every weekend to brief Rahul Gandhi on the number crunching.
The Moilys are, by no means, the only family aspiring to set up a political dynasty. The progeny and relatives of several prominent Congressmen, such as Rajasthan Governor Margaret Alva and Karnataka Higher Education Minister R.V. Deshpande, are all vying for Congress tickets. Leaders in the BJP and the Janata Dal are equally greed-stricken. The reality of Indian politics is that, despite the assertions of various parties to the contrary, dynasties will be even tougher to eradicate than polio.