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The ghosts within

As he prepares for 2014,Siddaramaiah must deal with Congress dissidence,apart from a regrouping BJP.

Written by Saritha Rai | Published:October 21, 2013 3:54 am

It is a truth universally acknowledged that,in the customary course of India’s state politics,a chief minister in possession of a comfortable majority must inevitably be tripped up by dissidence. And so,barely five months after the Congress swept the assembly elections in Karnataka,a small but significant section of the party is targeting Siddaramaiah and looking to speedily displace him from the chief ministerial chair. Siddaramaiah has been the only Congress chief minister in recent memory to be elected democratically (ballot paper and all) by his party MLAs,and not foisted by New Delhi.

The twist in the story is the impending Lok Sabha elections,and within both the Congress and the BJP,there is fear that it will go down to the wire. If that is likely,each win and every seat is expected to count,and Karnataka and

its 28 Lok Sabha seats are significant. The Congress simply cannot afford to have its internal bickering spill out in the open and affect its government’s image so close to the elections. The party is counting on Siddaramaiah to hunker down and deliver it 20-plus seats in Karnataka. If he does not,his days may be numbered.

In the background,the BJP,which was thoroughly vanquished in the assembly election not so long ago,is desperately trying to regroup in time for the Lok Sabha polls. Its prime ministerial candidate,Narendra Modi,will arrive in Karnataka in mid-November to launch his campaign. The BJP is trying to ensure thousands of attendees for Modi’s Bangalore rally,which effectively opens his party’s poll promotion in the state.

As if that is not worrying enough for the Congress and Siddaramaiah,there is the possibility that former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa might stage a comeback to Modi’s BJP,despite his repeated assertions to the contrary. For all that is said about Yeddyurappa’s clumsy,corruption-ridden regime in the state,there is no question that he still holds sway with voters in some parts of Karnataka.

As for Siddaramaiah,the charge that the dissidents have brought against him is that he is cosying up only to a set of come-lately colleagues from his Janata Parivar days,and sidelining “true” Congressmen. To support their charge,they point to the dozen ministers in his government who are allies from his political past. Further,they charge Siddaramaiah with not heeding their recommendations in the recent spate of government transfers. The chief minister is swayed by a small coterie that calls all the shots,they say.

Siddaramaiah’s stint so far has had a few controversial highlights. The opposition BJP is demanding that the minister for infrastructure,Santosh Lad,be sacked over his alleged involvement in illegal iron ore mining. Then,after party president G. Parameshwara suggested at a party workshop that minorities could abstain from repaying government loans,the chief minister was left to downplay the insinuation.

The gruff-voiced chief minister has never been known for small talk or niceties. That,in part,could explain the strained relationship between the party and the government,that is,Siddaramaiah and state party chief Parameshwara,which does not bode well for the Congress. The stress,however,is not showing on Siddaramaiah yet.

Political antics apart,the chief minister has barely six months to go before both his popularity and his performance will be put to the test on ballot paper. In urban Karnataka,citizens are crying hoarse over the lack of infrastructure and the pothole-ridden roads. In Bangalore,for instance,residents have taken to online petitions to demand road repair. In the last Lok Sabha election,the Congress lost all three Bangalore urban constituencies to the BJP. Perhaps realising the folly of neglecting the urban electorate,Siddaramaiah suddenly sprang a surprise on Bangalore last week: Rs 908 crore of funding for projects. But voters know better; seeing is believing.

One recent move of Siddaramaiah’s will have endeared him to educated,young voters. The chief minister,who prides himself as a rationalist,tackled the Chamarajanagar jinx head on in a show of defiance. As the story goes,any chief minister or high-level functionary visiting Chamarajanagar has lost office within months of the trip. Nearly half-a-dozen chief ministers are said to have lost their jobs within months of visiting the district in the last couple of decades. After a brief visit to the district town,Siddaramaiah declared,“There are

no ghosts in Chamarajanagar.”

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