WITH THE Congress pushing the BJP far behind in the urban bodies’ polls in Karnataka, the stage is set for the big contest: the Assembly polls in April-May. Five years after the BJP came to power for the first time in a southern state, the Congress is confident it can win back Karnataka. Opinion polls and now the urban electorate’s mood would suggest that. Former CM BS Yeddyurappa’s rebellion has hurt the BJP. As the urban polls showed, his Karnataka Janata Paksha has the potential to cripple the BJP even if it wins very little itself.
Typical of the Congress, premature jockeying for positions has begun. The party is a house divided in Karnataka, as it is in many other states. There are several potential CM candidates. Added to this is the fear the party may not do well in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In this situation, many senior Congress leaders from Karnataka would be looking for a safe berth in Bengaluru, to insulate them from a possible national shock in 2014. So intense is the factionalism that there are concerns the Congress may end up damaging itself and not optimising the opportunity in Karnataka.
The Congress has a large Karnataka representation in New Delhi. This includes former external affairs minister SM Krishna, Petroleum Minister M Veerappa Moily, Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, Minority Affairs Minister K Rehman Khan and Minister of State for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises KH Muniyappa. Also, former CM N Dharam Singh is a Lok Sabha MP. BK Hariprasad and Oscar Fernandes are both Congress general secretaries. Potentially, all of these people see themselves as CM material.
The Congress’ problems intensified in October 2012 when Krishna, who turns 81 in May 2013, was dropped from the Union Cabinet. He was assured he would be given a key role in planning elections and in campaigning in Karnataka. When two months passed and there was no movement on that front, Krishna made his unease apparent. He attended the Winter Session of Parliament only minimally. He skipped the Chintan Shivir altogether, preferring to visit Melbourne for the Australian Open.
The Congress leadership was caught in a conundrum. It did not want to upset either Krishna or the other leaders in the state who were hassled by his arrival. Recently, both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi met Krishna and sought to assuage him. For the moment, an uneasy calm prevails. The issue is will Krishna be allowed to select party candidates, especially in the Vokkaliga stronghold in the Greater Bangalore and Old Mysore areas? As a senior Vokkaliga, these regions could give Krishna an advantage in a post-election phase.
Another leader who is unhappy with the Congress is CK Jaffer Sharief. Railway minister in the early 1990s, Sharief will turn 80 this year. Nevertheless, he feels he hasn’t got his due. As the top minority face of the Congress in Karnataka — though Rehman Khan would probably dispute that — Sharief can play a spoiler. A criminal case against him going back to his Rail Bhavan days continues and involves charges that he took four members of his personal staff on a foreign visit without authorisation. Sharief is angry the matter hasn’t been sorted out despite the UPA being in office for nine years. He suspects this is part of a conspiracy by his in – house rivals.
Sharief had been expecting a job in the government or the party hierarchy. This hasn’t materialised and he has refused to seek a meeting with top leaders unless they call him. In the absence of that phone call from 10 Janpath, he continues to sulk.
A third Karnataka veteran who is out of active politics but is hoping for a comeback is Margaret Alva, who celebrates her 71st birthday in April. She is now the governor of Rajasthan and is sending feelers to the party leadership that she is inclined towards a political role. The Congress has an old history of reincarnating governors as CMs. Could Alva be the latest?
In the 2008 Assembly polls, Alva had spoken out against faulty ticket distribution. She had also alleged her son and Sharief’s son were unfairly denied nominations. In response, the Congress leadership had shunted her out, removing her from party posts and committees. Nevertheless, five years have passed. She is a smart and suave politician, who could appeal to the urban voter and position herself in Bengaluru as Sheila Dikshit has in Delhi. That apart, Alva is a minority face, and has long been a favourite of Sonia’s. What goes against her is her long absence from state politics. Even so, should the party win and should Sonia be asked to nominate the next CM, Alva may just be the dark horse.
vice-president. The BJP’s suicide in the state offers the Congress a golden chance the national leadership would not want to lose. Having said that, the election remains a test of how Rahul can balance the competing ambitions of powerful state leaders, all of whom want a major say in ticket distribution. Even though the election is less than two months away, the Congress is yet to announce the Campaign Committee and the Screening Committee, which will shortlist candidate options for the party’s Central Election Committee.
Within the Congress, there are two schools of thought. Younger leaders want the CM candidate to be announced before the polls. The reasoning is times have changed and today’s voter wants to know who s/he is voting for, party as well as personality. Party elders would prefer to err on the side of caution by not announcing a CM candidate, as this could lead to revolts.
Rahul is scheduled to meet party MPs from Karnataka later in March. The Congress vice-president is also expected to visit the state soon, having spent a lot of time and energy galvanising the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India. Krishna Byre Gowda, Rahul’s aide and a young, American – educated Congress MLA, has emerged as a key adviser on Karnataka affairs.
Karnataka is emerging as one of the most important polls for the Congress in recent times. It has been 10 years since the party was in power on its own in Bengaluru and it is desperate to win back the state. The defeat of the BJP, especially before the November-December round of four state polls — Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — where the two national parties are locked in a direct contest will be a huge boost. Of course, Karnataka is also critical for many leaders hoping for one final shot at office. They may be past 70 or even 80, but hope springs eternal.