With the Election Commission announcing bypolls to 15 of the 17 constituencies that were represented by rebel Janata Dal(S) and the Congress, the winds of change blowing strong across Karnataka politics after the BJP stormed back to power in July toppling a shaky JD(S)-Congress coalition government, could see a further churn as all three major parties-the Congress, the regional JD(S) and the BJP resolves this ‘struggle within’, with generational change on in the BJP, and the Congress, grappling with an internal tussle for dominance. The BJP knows that the ageing B.S. Yediyurappa who has crossed the 75-year-mark, cannot be CM forever and hectic efforts are on to build a second-line leadership. The Congress, which is yet to recover from the drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when it won only one seat, is a rudderless ship with the national leadership in no state to address crucial issues in Karnataka. For the JD(S), the problems are plenty with the regional party facing a trust deficit among its core voters, the Vokkaligas. If a mid-term poll is held, the Congress and JD(S) as much as the BJP could encounter serious problems. Bhaskar Hegde and Shyam Sundar Vattam take a close look at the internal dynamics of the three parties and the direction Karnataka politics is likely to take
Congress faces a crisis of leadership... and a strategy vacuum
Like elsewhere in the country, the Congress which once dominated Karnataka politics is facing an existential crisis after the Parliament elections reduced its tally in the state from a respectable 10 to a shocking 1 seat. A month later, several party MLAs sensing that they did not have much of a future in a coalition with the JD(S), jumped ship bringing down the H.D. Kumaraswamy government with the party yet to recover from this sudden loss of power and the exit of so many legislators.
After Kerala, Karnataka is the only other south Indian state where the Congress can think of coming back to power. Back-to-back defeats in the 2018 assembly polls and the 2019 Parliament elections have exposed fault lines in the state unit. Nor is the Congress in any position to face mid-term polls if they are held is the next six months with the top leadership sharply divided and the party yet to come up with an effective caste combination-so crucial in Karnataka— to win the polls if they are held.
As a senior Congress leader put it, the Karnataka unit is undergoing the same churning the party is facing at the national level after Rahul Gandhi decided to step down as Congress president followed by an exodus of party leaders to the BJP is several states. Many of the SC, ST and OBC voters, once considered a solid support base of the Congress, have started tilting to the BJP, attracted by its Hindutva agenda. As for young voters, the BJP’s unabashed harping on patriotism and national security has proved to be too much of a draw for them. All that the Congress is left with is a section of its traditional voters including the minorities for which it will have to share the pie with the JD(S). The only consolation for the national leadership is that Karnataka is the only south Indian state which went with the BJP narrative in the Lok Sabha polls with Tamil Nadu and Kerala preferring the anti-BJP front and states like Telangana and Andhra Pradesh casting their lot with powerful regional forces turning their bac
k on the BJP.
Congress leaders are resting easy assuming that the assembly elections whenever they come, will throw up trends entirely different from the Parliament polls and that the Modi factor may not work in these elections. But the party faces another formidable task- it will have to work out its equation vis-a-vis the JD(S) with which it had an uneasy relationship during 14 months in government. The BJP is sure to try to wean away traditional Congress voters while tom tomming the fact that the Congress aligned with the Vokkaliga dominated JD (S) and made H.D. Kumaraswamy CM ignoring several other top ranking party leaders. In caste-ridden Karnataka society, this narrative is sure to swing voters in large areas in north Karnataka dominated by the Lingayats who have always had strained ties with the Vokkaligas .
What is also of concern for the Congress is the diminishing popularity of its mascot and former CM Siddaramaiah who could once swing a large section of OBC and SC voters not to mention his own Kuruba community (shepherds) who comprise 6-8 percent of the total population. Siddaramaiah’s painstaking efforts to eat into the JD (S) vote bank in the old Mysuru region have not worked at all with Vokkaligas striking back in the 2018 assembly elections reducing the party to 79 seats from the 120 it won in the 2013 polls. If Siddaramaiah continues his rant against the Deve Gowda family and H.D. Kumaraswamy in particular, he is sure to drive the Vokkaligas further away from the Congress.
It is therefore not surprising that senior Congress leaders like Dr G. Parameshwar have proposed a ‘collective leadership’ model to revive the party. Though the idea may appeal to many, the collective leadership may not help the party win big in any poll as people may prefer a popular leader from one of the dominant castes to lead the pack. With politics increasing becoming individual centric which became so evident from the ‘Modi mania’ which gripped the nation ahead of the parliament polls, most political analysts contend that voters have always preferred a leader from a powerful caste with strong decision making skills and unbeatable charisma. Such a leader will also draw votes of the smaller communities which has been proven many a time in the past.
But will that choice be Siddaramaiah again after he failed to keep the flock together during the coalition crisis? The possibility looks remote and all that the Congress can pray for is hara-kiri by the BJP like it happened during 2008-13 when internal bickering and the illegal mining scam ensured the saffron party was routed in the 2013 polls after a stint in power. Anti-incumbency can no doubt come to the aid of the Congress when the polls are due in 2023 but this is not just enough. The party will have to engage in serious brainstorming to come up with an effective strategy to regain its foothold in Karnataka before it’s too late.
For BJP, BSY okay for now but what about the future?
At the Kalyana Karnataka liberation day celebrations held on Wednesday in Kalaburagi, the Veerashaiva-Lingayat pontiffs virtually gave a ‘guard of honour’ to Chief Minister, B.S. Yediyurappa for becoming CM again and for showering funds on the community. They also promised to ensure that he did not face any threat from forces both within his party and outside to unseat him.
A few days ago, the rival Vokkaliga community had held a massive rally to express solidarity with their beleaguered leader and former Congress minister D.K. Shivakumar with their speeches making no secret of their dislike for a BJP government led by a Lingayat leader.
But more than this caste divide, what is of concern for the BJP is that Yediyurappa is ageing fast and it may not be too long before the party may have to look for a strong alternative Perhaps sensing that the BJP may prefer mid-term polls soon to the prospect of continuing with Yediyurappa as CM, the Lingayat pontiffs may have decided to back him to the hilt and send out a subtle warning, say sources.
In fact the BJP central leadership had toyed with the idea of President’s rule, following the fall of the coalition government in July rather than install Yediyurappa again as CM so that it could hold snap polls after six months and ensure a comfortable majority in the assembly. But Yediyurappa, who had been waiting in the wings for six years to become CM again, was in no mood to let the chance go and went to the extent of promising rebel Congress and JD (S) MLAs, key posts if they switched sides.
The strategy succeeded and the BJP top brass could not afford to sideline Yediyurappa however much it would have liked to.
It’s no doubt a Catch-22 situation for the saffron party-it cannot afford to dump Yediyurappa for fear of antagonising the Lingayats reminding one of the situation in Rajasthan where Vasundhara Raje became so powerful that the party could not even think of replacing her ahead of the assembly polls which it ultimately lost.
All that the BJP can do right now is put in place a set of curbs and conditions to make sure the CM does not go overboard in his bid to appease his Lingayat community leaving others feeling neglected. There is no visible successor to Yediyurappa in the Lingayat community either though the BJP did make a half-hearted attempt to prop up Laxman Savadi, a fellow Lingayat, by making him Deputy CM though he had lost the assembly polls.
Attempts to groom leaders like Jagadish Shettar, a Limgayat, and leaders from other communities like C.T. Ravi, Aravind Limbavali and Shobha Karandlaje have not worked either. In fact a BJP leader went to the extent of remarking that the RSS has sadly not been able to nurture many leaders of calibre who can lead the party from the front.
With the dumping of R.Ashok and K.S. Eshwarappa who were Dy CMs in 2013 and the induction of leaders like Govind Karjol and Dr Ashwathnarayana besides Savadi as Deputy CMs, there is no doubt that the BJP is looking to groom one of them as a future CM. “We want to see if any of them will fit the bill and mature into a future CM. As of now, there is none who can match the stature of Yediyurappa. If these Deputy CMs fail to perform as desired, we will have to scout for talent elsewhere,” a leader says.
There have been subtle attempts by Yediyurappa to push his elder son, B.Y. Vijayendra to the front but the BJP leadership and more so the RSS are in no mood to accept this knowing that it will surely trigger huge dissent in the party. To sum it up, the BJP may be sitting pretty for now with Karnataka firmly in its grasp but it will have to resolve the leadership riddle over the next one year and also ensure that Yediyurappa is suitably ‘accommodated’ elsewhere.
In disarray, JD(S) fast losing its presence
Of the three parties, it is the JD(S) no doubt which is at the crossroads with party supremo H.D. Deve Gowda now 86 and his heir apparent and son H.D. Kumaraswamy finding it difficult to fit into the shoes of the irrepressible former PM. That the JD(S) was virtually forced to team up with the Congress to share the spoils of power after the 2018 polls is enough to prove that Deve Gowda and his men are fighting a grim battle for existence with the Congress and BJP leaving no doubt in anyone`s mind that they would love to see the last remnant of the Janata parivar in the state disappear forever.
The party still has its presence in a few pockets in the Old Mysuru region but is a poor shadow of the Janata parivar in the 1980s and 1990s when it had tall leaders like Ramakrishna Hegde, S.R. Bommai, B Rachaiah, M.P. Prakash, M.C. Nanaiah and J.H. Patel not to mention Siddaramaiah himself. The good governance the Janata Dal led governments provided than too did the party a lot of good but the scene changed entirely after internal bickering, the hunger for power and most of all casteism became intense and the JD(S) lost its sheen.
The expulsion of Hegde from the Janata Dal was the last straw and the party went into the hands of a few individuals with its pan-Karnataka image too taking a beating after it became restricted to a few districts in Old Mysuru.
Cardinal mistakes too contributed to the JD(S) decline-like the formation of a coalition government with its traditional rival, the Congress in 2004 much against the wishes of committed Janata Parivar leaders. Then in 2006, the JD(S) severed its ties with the Congress and formed a coalition government with the BJP only to invite the wrath of the dominant Lingayat community by not transferring power to the BJP as per a power sharing agreement in 2007.
The BJP swept back to power in 2008 and powerful JD(S) leaders like C.M. Udasi and Basavaraj Bommai deserted to join the saffron party.
Former minister and senior MLC Basavaraj Horatti blames his party`s current predicament on the historic blunder of not handing over power to the BJP in 2007.
Had the party done this it would have remained in the good books of the Lingayats even while retaining the support of the Vokkaligas and could have stopped the exit of several prominent leaders, he says.
The party has now been reduced to a fiefdom of the Deve Gowda family with no scope whatsoever for a collective leadership. It’s the Vokkaligas who dominate at all rungs with no proper representation for any other community. “I feel a revival is not possible at this juncture as the JD(S) revolves around one family. There is no second line leadership to steer the party in the days ahead. The days are not far when the MLAs we have now, may consider the prospect of crossing over to the BJP or the Congress to ensure their political survival,” says a saddened Horatti.
Three MLAs have already quit the party and another eight to ten are waiting for the right time to join the other two parties. Taking advantage of the situation, senior Congress leader and former CM Siddaramaiah is reportedly wooing Vokkaliga JD(S) legislators to join the Congress, especially those in Mysuru, Chamarajanagar and Mandya districts. If he is successful in this operation, the JD(S) may be left with hardly 15-20 MLAs in its kitty.
Discounting this theory, former political secretary of ex- CM H.D. Kumaraswamy, N.H. Konareddy says the party may be passing through a tough phase but it will definitely rise like a phoenix. The JD(S) still has a dedicated band of workers who are ready to toil to regain its glory, he asserts.
Will H.D. Kumaraswamy who has made no secret of his frail health, and his brother Revanna be able to match the political acumen and guile of their father who could even outwit brilliant brains like Ramakrishna Hedge? Or will the JD(S) like many other regional parties across the country, slowly fade from the political landscape paying the price for its family centric politics with no second line leadership in sight? It will be interesting to see if the party top brass realises the disastrous situation it is facing and makes an earnest effort to build a second line leadership which can give new meaning to the socialist-secular platform in the Karnataka context-a space the BJP or even Congress can hardly aspire for....