Southern Handicap

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Eyes wide shut Sections of the state Congress blame CM Siddaramaiah for the party’s debacle, Photo: KPN
Eyes wide shut Sections of the state Congress blame CM Siddaramaiah for the party’s debacle. Photo: KPN

It is telling when just a year after recapturing power in a state, a party manages to lose half the Lok Sabha seats there. The Congress had formed the government in Karnataka less than a year ago, owing to the electorate’s frustration with the corruption-ridden BJP regime that preceded it. A mining scam worth over Rs 15,000 crore, several alleged land scams, massive infighting and caste wars within the party had resulted in the BJP losing the only state in south India where it was in power.

BS Yeddyurappa, the saffron party’s tallest leader in Karnataka, was an embarrassment to the party, which was fighting a pitched battle with the Congress on the issue of corruption at the Centre. Despite having ruined its own reputation in the state, the BJP managed to make an incredible comeback in this year’s General Election and bagged a whopping 17 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state. So, how did it happen? The answers lie more in the Congress camp than in the BJP’s.

Ever since it got a drubbing in the Lok Sabha election, a storm has been brewing in the Karnataka unit of the Congress party, with many junior ministers and legislators raising the banner of revolt against the senior ministers and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

The junior ministers are livid with their seniors in the party for blaming them for the poor performance in the Lok Sabha election, where the party won just nine seats. The juniors contend that Siddaramaiah was complacent when questions were raised on the poll strategy during the Congress Legislature Party meetings. Instead of taking action, the chief minister had merely cautioned the senior ministers.

Many in the party feel that Siddaramaiah’s casual remark on a sugarcane farmer of the state who committed suicide contributed to alienating the farmers ahead of the polls. Moreover, the state government did nothing to address the grievances of the sugarcane farmers. This led to the party drawing a blank in the sugarcane belt in the state, comprising areas such as Belgaum, Bagalkot, Bidar, Davangere, Mandya and Mysore.

Siddaramaiah’s detractors also allege that by focussing on the AHINDA vote bank (a Kannada acronym for Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and minorities), the CM effectively managed to move the state’s two dominant caste groups — the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas — away from the party. They also hold him responsible for neglecting the urban voters, especially in Bengaluru.

The dissension within the party is evident with many of the candidates who lost the election now blaming their own partymen for the debacle. For instance, AH Vishwanath, who lost from the Mysore constituency, and Saleem Ahmed, who was defeated in Haveri, have held senior state Congress leaders responsible for their loss. Ahmed blamed state Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister HK Patil for his defeat. “The minister failed to establish greater coordination with the MLAs of the constituency and to evolve a political strategy. That led to my defeat. Had he worked a little hard and engaged himself in campaigning a little more, the result would have been different,” said a bitter Ahmed at a press conference, even as hundreds of his supporters protested in front of the party office in Bengaluru.

Sugar baron and Horticulture Minister Shamanur Shivashankarappa, who represents the Davanagere South constituency in the Karnataka Assembly, told TEHELKA that if the party held him responsible for his son Mallikarjun’s defeat, “he was ready to leave and move on”. Indeed, many senior party leaders may be secretly hoping to move on.

“Right up to the election, we took the rural and Muslim voters for granted,” admitted a senior Congress functionary. “This is where the leaders have faltered. They were cut off from the reality on the ground.” Some party members also blame Siddaramaiah for undermining the Dalits by not appointing state party president G Parameshwara as the deputy chief minister. Since the poll debacle, Parameshwara’s supporters have been demanding that he should be given that post now. This, in turn, has led to tensions simmering between the chief minister and the party chief.

Not surprisingly, Siddaramaiah is the target of the rebellion brewing in the party. The scabs are wide open for everyone to see. A section of the old guard of the Congress, led by Vokkaliga leader and Energy Minister DK Shiva Kumar, has been demanding Siddaramaiah’s removal from the chief minister’s post. So far, the party high command has paid little heed to these demands. But the dissenters are hopeful that it will be forced to do so in the days ahead.

In New Delhi, a senior Congress leader speaking to TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity, was candid about the infighting that has erupted within various state units of the party and the disastrous strategies that led to the historic debacle. “We fought nine seats just to lose. There was a wilful ignorance of the caste equations on the party’s part. Why did we give Nandan Nilekani, a Gowd Saraswat Brahmin, the ticket from a seat where the Brahmins form only 1 percent of the electorate?” he asks.

The Congress leader goes on to list constituencies like Belgaum, Shimoga and Mangalore where the party could have won if only the candidates had been selected carefully. “Mangalore was a classic case of the failure of our primaries system. The members voted according to their fealty and Janardhana Poojary won, though it was clear that we should have had a younger candidate. In Shimoga, we pitted a Bunt candidate against Yeddyurappa, though there are very few Bunts in that constituency, which is dominated by the Edigas, Vokkaligas, Lingayats and Muslims. In Koppal, we fielded a backward-caste Kuruba candidate (Basavaraj Hitnal), whereas we should have chosen a Lingayat,” adds the Congress leader.

Curiously, even as the Congress is busy licking its wounds, the BJP’s senior leaders have received a rather ambitious instruction from their top leadership. Referring to the BJP’s plans for Karnataka and south India in general, a senior leader of the party from the state revealed, “Our mission is clear: ‘Congress-mukt Karnataka’. We do not really have to do much to ensure that. The Congress is breaking apart from within. We will deliver the blows when it is required. There are some good leaders in the Congress too. We need to keep them in mind. But otherwise, we will be wiping out the Congress in the state.”

The BJP leader also went on to talk about the importance of making inroads into other states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where the party has done surprisingly well in this election. The saffron party, if the leader is to be believed, will be setting aside plenty of resources to infiltrate into zones where they are yet to register their presence.

In Karnataka, Yeddyurappa has stopped sulking over not getting a Cabinet berth at the Centre for himself or his close aides, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi having given him the charge to “work for the party”.

Meanwhile, on 26 May, a celebratory rally in Bijapur by BJP cadres turned into a riot with alleged attacks on members of a minority community. B Patil Yatnal, the MP from Bijapur, who was a Union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government, was subsequently arrested on non-bailable sections for leading and inciting a mob, along with 26 other BJP members.

The state is no stranger to the politics of Hindutva and a dilapidated Congress could yet again pave the way for making it a citadel of the saffron party.

imran@tehelka.com | vishnu@tehelka.com

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