A state won, but has the problem only begun?

Comeback The Congress won by a handsome margin in Karnataka
Comeback The Congress won by a handsome margin in Karnataka, Photo: AFP
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THE ASSEMBLY election result in Karnataka has given hope to the dwindling fortunes of the Congress at the Centre. In what can only be described as a thumping victory, the party trounced the BJP in its southern bastion by winning 121 of the 223 Assembly seats. The BJP came a distant second with 40 seats, the same number that fell in the JD(S)’ kitty.

On 8 May, a beaming Sonia Gandhi told reporters in Parliament: “I am very happy with the victory in Karnataka. It was a joint effort.” The smiles were all around. Coming on a day when the Supreme Court censured the UPA government over the coal blocks allocation scam, the Karnataka outcome gave it the horse it needed to hitch its wagon to the next stop.

But does victory in Karnataka mean a reversal of fortunes? Not quite.

For the comfortable win it had in the state, the Congress now faces the task of selecting its chief minister and government formation? And it won’t be easy given the caste and political equations in the state.

While the newly elected MLAs will choose the Congress Legislature Party leader, the final nod on who gets to become the chief minister has to come from party president Sonia Gandhi.

As things stand, the three contenders for the chief minister’s post are Union Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily, and K Siddaramaiah, the Congress Legislative Party leader of the outgoing Assembly.

Kharge is an old Congress hand, who became an MLA for the first time in 1972. The 70-year-old has missed out becoming the chief minister twice, once to SM Krishna (former Union External Affairs Minister) and the second time to Moily. A nine-term MLA, Kharge has held the all-important home portfolio in the state in 1999 under Krishna as chief minister. His was an eventful tenure, marked as it was by the Cauvery riots of 1991 and the kidnapping of filmstar Rajkumar by forest brigand and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan in 2000.

As president of the Karnataka Congress, Kharge has been actively involved in all matters within the party organisation. What works in his favour is his unblemished track record and the influence he has over the backward castes. Coming from a Dalit background, Kharge is perhaps the most acceptable face among the various communities in the state. “If they think I am fit for the post, I will abide by the decision the High Command takes,” said Kharge in a practised politically correct response.

In his 40-year political career, there has not been a single allegation of corruption against Kharge. As Union Labour Minister in 2009, he was instrumental in promoting the flagship programmes of the UPA government, including the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana scheme, which gave medical insurance to people below the poverty line. This raised his stakes in the eyes of the Congress president, something that is bound to hold him in good stead when the time comes to take a final call.

Another reason why Kharge could probably beat the others to the finishing line is the future electoral gains that could accrue to the party. If he is elevated, Kharge would become the first Dalit chief minister of Karnataka. With the 2014 General Election looming on the horizon, this fact would not be lost on the party.

IN VEERAPPA Moily, Kharge has a serious contender for the top job. At 73 years, Moily is a a seasoned player and has been at the helm of various ministries both in the state as well as at the Centre. Like Kharge, Moily too began his career in 1972 as an MLA from Karakala in south Karnataka. He handled several portfolios in the state government before being elevated to the coveted post of chief minister in 1992 when S Bangarappa resigned from the post.

However, that stint did not last long, as the infamous 1984 “cash-for-defection” case came back to haunt him, so much so that he earned the moniker of “oily Moily”.

Forced to take a hiatus from active political life, Moily did not, however, go into oblivion. Instead, as chairman of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, he made a name for himself by implementing the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, which raised the salaries of Central government employees considerably. As chief minister of Karnataka, he was also responsible for starting the Common Entrance Test.

It is populist measures such as these that have made the lawyer-turned-politician a valuable cog in the Congress’ wheel. But, the ride has not been smooth all the way.

Moily was not very pleased when he was removed from the law ministry and assigned the corporate affairs ministry in 2011. However, his sulking days lasted for just over a year. In 2012, he was handed the reins of the power ministry after Sushil Kumar Shinde was made Union Home Minister, giving ample evidence of his importance in the party ranks. As a member of the Congress Working Committee and general secretary of the party, Moily occupies an important spot in the top echelons of the Congress.

With a resumé that includes, among others, the post of Petroleum Minister (a position he currently enjoys) and Chairman of the Congress Media Committee in the 2009 General Election, Moily has both the past and the present on his side to catapult him to the chair of the Karnataka CM for a second time. But, will he be able to pull it off again? It will all depend on who he is up against.

AS THE third and the strongest contender for the CM’s post, K Siddaramaiah is the dark horse who could win based on his political and administrative acumen alone. The 65-year-old comes with 40 years of political experience and the distinction of having been deputy chief minister twice — in 1996 under JH Patel and in 2004 under the Dharam Singh-led Congress-JD(S) combine government. As finance minister in the HD Deve Gowda-led JD(S) government in 1994, Siddaramaiah was highly appreciated for the fiscal measures he introduced.

Contenders all (From left) Veerappa Moily, Mallikarjun Kharge and Siddaramaiah
Contenders all (From left) Veerappa Moily, Mallikarjun Kharge and Siddaramaiah, Photos: Ankit Agrawal, KPN

As a Kuruba — the third largest community in Karnataka — Siddaramaiah has been credited for bringing the backward classes and minorities together with his AHINDA movement (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits)— to mobilise marginalised classes for political identity and assertion — after his exit from the JD(S) in 2006. Besides his hold over the backward and minority communities, what works in Siddaramaiah’s favour is that he successfully led a Congress padyatra in 2010 to Bellary, a response to a challenge by mining barons and former BJP ministers, the Reddy brothers, daring the Congress to step into the mining bastion. This is something the High Command is likely to factor in when it decides the chief ministerial candidate.

The one thing that could spoil his chances is the “outsider” tag he has to wear. Internally, the old Congress guard in the state does not care much for Siddaramaiah or his leadership. Barring the old Mysore region, he does not have much influence over Congress workers.

Added to that is the upfront manner in which he has openly proclaimed his chief ministerial ambitions. This is quite a departure from the Congress norm and, as insiders put it, “goes against the party culture”. It does not help that most of his close friends in the party are those who followed him when he shifted loyalties from the JD(S) to the Congress in 2006.

Siddaramaiah himself is quite optimistic of his chances, as he believes the Congress High Command will favour him. As part of his campaign, he even promised to deliver a clean and stable government.

Such then are the equations before the Congress as it returns to power in Karnataka with an absolute majority after a gap of 14 years. Having beaten the BJP in virtually all its strongholds in the state, gives the Congress a much needed boost to counter the slide at the Centre.

With only nine months to go for 2014, the new CM will have his task cut out: not only will he have to ensure a stable government in the state, he will also be expected to play his part in raising finances for the elections. In the current scenario, that won’t be easy. The JD(S), out of power for 10 years now, will be looking for ways to rock the boat. And if Siddaramaiah, a former JD(S) man is made the CM, the efforts will only intensify.


Failed Hindutva & Lost Mines

Mangalore gave rightwing hooliganism the boot, while Bellary gave mining barons a thumbs-up

ONE STATE, two districts, two reactions. This is what comes closest to explaining the elections in Mangalore and Bellary districts.

Considered the saffron brigade’s strongest hold in the south, Mangalore all but out-voted the BJP. In the past five years, this scenic coastal city had turned into a Hindutva lab. Communal statements, moral policing, attacks on prayer halls and infamous incidents like the 2008 Amnesia pub attack and the 2011 Homestay attacks scarred the region. In what turned out to be an emphatic rejection of militant Hinduism, Mangalore voted the party out of power in seven of the eight constituencies of the district. Surprisingly, four of the seven seats that went to the Congress in the district, were all won by candidates from the minority community.

In sharp contrast, corruption, it seems, has hardly anything to do with who wins in Bellary. Even after the 2010 Lokayukta report exposed the rampant illegal mining in the region, the people of Bellary have given a thumbs-up to the mining barons once again.

Anil Lad, winner from Bellary City and Anand Singh, winner from Vijayanagara constituency, were among those mine owners whose leases were cancelled by the Supreme Court. While Lad was fielded by the Congress, Singh contested under the BJP flag, the only member of the party to win from the region. Sriramulu, close associate of Janardhana Reddy and a former BJP member, won from Bellary (Rural), though his party, the BSR Congress, could manage only two seats.




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