The Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president, D K Shivakumar, often uses the analogies of chess and football to frame political scenes. In 2017, when he was not the state Congress chief, Shivakumar had said he could not land this job because he had been playing football, an essentially physical sport, rather than playing chess, a mind game.
“I know how to play chess,” Shivakumar had said ahead of the collapse of the then Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government in Karnataka in 2019.
By putting his chief ministerial aspiration out in public this week, the KPCC chief made a remarkable move on the political chessboard ahead of the state Assembly polls due in May 2023.
“Time has come for the Vokkaliga community (the dominant South Karnataka community to which he belongs) to elect a community leader after a gap of 18 years,” Shivakumar said at a press event in Mysuru last Tuesday. “I have come to a certain stage. The chief minister is elected if the Congress wins a majority. I have told my community that they should rally behind me,” he said. “Am I a sanyasi?” he replied when pressed on his CM ambition.
While hedging his personal ambition of becoming the CM with the interest of the Congress’s return to power, Shivakumar has attempted to rally the support of Vokkaligas for the grand old party like they did in 1999 when S M Krishna, Shivakumar’s political guru, was the KPCC president. He has thus also sent out a clear signal to his rivals within the Congress that he will be in the CM race if the party wins a majority in the coming polls.
The Vokkaliga community, which accounts for about 15 per cent population of Karnataka, is known to be a key support base of former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda and his son H D Kumaraswamy of the JD(S). There seems to be a growing sense in state political circles that
the community could back the Congress if it sees the possibility of a Vokkaliga leader like Shivakumar becoming the next CM.
Shivakumar’s public declaration came at a time when the supporters of his arch Congress rival and Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, Siddaramaiah, are going all out to make preparations to celebrate the latter’s 75th birthday on August 3, showcasing his achievements as the CM during 2013-2018. Positioning himself to emerge as the party’s CM face, Siddaramaiah, who belongs to the backward class Kuruba community, has been reaching out to the Congress’s traditional vote bases comprising the backward classes, Dalits and minorities.
Both Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah have publicly maintained that the decision about the Congress CM to be taken by party leadership and MLAs will only come into play after the party’s victory in the polls. The two Congress satraps are however known to be capable of undercutting each other on the ground level, which is a spectre haunting the party as it gears up for the polls.
In Mysuru Shivakumar referred to the Krishna case to drive the point that “the time has come after 18 years to elect a Vokkaliga leader from the Congress as the CM”.
A day later, he sought to temper his remarks, saying anybody can become CM in the Congress. “Sonia Gandhi has made me KPCC president. After 20 years, a Vokkaliga leader has got the responsibility. What is wrong in asking the community people for support. The community people will also have self respect. Now Dalits are demanding a Dalit CM for Karnataka, what is wrong in that,” he said.
A source from the Shivakumar camp pointed out that he made these statements in the backdrop of Siddaramaiah’s supporters projecting the latter as a CM face. The Shivakumar team decided that the KPCC chief needed to project himself as a CM aspirant in public lest he would face the risk of losing out in the race with other contenders outpacing him.
On his part, Siddaramaiah has made it clear that his 75th birthday bash would be as much about politics as about celebrating his life’s achievements. “There will certainly be a political message (from the event), are we sanyasis? Is Rahul Gandhi or Shivakumar a sanyasi? It will be there. Isn’t listing out our achievements during our five years of tenure politics? Isn’t recalling my political journey a politics? It is there, nothing can be done without politics,” he said recently.
Soon after Shivakumar played the Vokkaliga card, Kumaraswamy, who also belongs to the same community, reacted saying it is “impossible” for the former to become the CM from the Congress. “Is Siddaramaiah celebrating his birthday to make Shivakumar the CM? There were a lot of people in Congress who sacrificed for the party but did not get a chance to become CM because of Siddaramaiah. As he (Siddaramaiah) was previously with our party, I know him very well,” he said.
Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Basavaraj Bommai said Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar are “poles apart”. “Shivakumar has been nursing the dream of becoming the CM. The Congress leaders are not allowing him to function even as KPCC president. We have been watching the happenings in Congress,” he said.
The Karnataka Congress, which has got a slew of prominent leaders from various communities, has been aiming to return to power in the state in the 2023 polls.
Dalit leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, who turned 80 Thursday, would also be in the reckoning for the CM’s post. Kharge has asked his followers not to celebrate his birthday or commemorate his 50 years in politics. There has been a long-standing demand in Karnataka for a Dalit CM, which has however not fructified so far.