A month from now, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah completes three years in office as the Chief Minister of Karnataka. Given the cut and thrust of politics in the state, many within the Congress party would see the end of the three years in government as not so much an occasion to celebrate but as a time for introspection.
With summer setting in and the temperature soaring, the political climate in the state also seems to be `hotting up'. It has often been argued that in Karnataka, the strongest adversary that a Congress government has consistently faced is the Congress party itself. In elections, no one defeats the Congress - the Congress vanquishes itself. Portends of this trend are today patently evident.
In a linked development, the BJP has anointed its former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa as its state party chief. This has been done in spite of the stiff opposition from a few state level leaders in the party. The battle lines for the 2018 Assembly elections are being clearly drawn. Over the last three years in power, the Congress government has had its fair share of factionalism. Given the fact that Siddaramaiah was a recent entrant into the Congress party, it was felt that one of the first steps that the Chief Minister would take would be to carry all factions with him.
Thirty six months in power has shown very little proof of such an effort. The senior ministers in government are rarely seen coming to the rescue of the Chief Minister and the government when important controversies break out or serious allegations are made against the government. A group of loyalists around the Chief Minister is left with the task of defending the government.
While a review of the performance of Ministers has been frequently promised at regular intervals, a reshuffle of the Council of Minister has been put off from time to time, citing a range of excuses. The sense of disquiet among Ministers, elected legislators and party workers is palpably visible. A number of factors and forces account for this drift within the government and the ruling party. When the Congress came to power in Karnataka in 2013, it secured a majority, riding a strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling BJP. The emergence of Siddaramaiah as the Chief Ministerial choice of the Congress High Command, side-stepping the claims of Congress veterans like Mallikarjun Kharge indicated the strong support he enjoyed at Delhi. Having joined the Congress party less than five years prior to becoming Chief Minister, especially in a party wherein the ‘loyalty test’ is critical, it was vital that the leadership took all segments of the party along rather than remaining a mere factional leader. Little proof was demonstrated of the same and the defeat in the Lok Sabha elections was an important warning bell. Factionalism reared its ugly head with frequent regularity and Ministers paid more attention to defending themselves and their limited personal political turf rather than project a positive image of the government.
One gets the impression that the Congress political leadership at the state level has adopted an approach of indifference towards strengthening the party in the state. The prevailing attitude appears to be one of “carrying on” as long as possible, exit when inevitable and let the future of the party be decided by those taking responsibility at that stage.
With the BJP now deciding to hand over the reins of leadership to Yeddyurappa, it clearly indicates that the party is making a serious and concerted bid to win the support of the electorate in the next round of Assembly polls. In the Congress, the gulf between the party and the government is huge.
Ever since the state Congress President was brought into the Cabinet as Home Minister, the focus on party building is on the back-burner. One has always noticed that whenever the state party head joins the government, it is imperative that a new leader be chosen to head the party so that adequate attention is given to addressing the issues and concerns in the ruling party. The growing dissidence in Karnataka among ruling party MLAs is a reflection of this trend. Even though the Congress is in power in the state, the mood among its elected representatives in the legislature is that a “small coterie” of leaders wield power and influence. This has also assumed a caste colour.
Prior to becoming chief minister, Siddaramaiah led the “AHINDA” movement that sought to bring together a segment of the non-dominant backward castes, minorities and dalits. After coming to power, it was hoped that he would broaden his base of political support. On the contrary many believed that it shrank further with only a few groups within the AHINDA movement having access to power and benefits.
A majority of the legislators in all Legislative Assemblies in Karnataka have hailed from the dominant castes (Lingayat and Vokkaliga). Today, there seems to be a strong sentiment among legislators from the dominant castes that these social groups are drifting away from the party. It is in this context the efforts of the BJP to appoint a senior leader from one of the dominant castes - the Lingayats - as party president needs to be seen. This community was strongly behind the BJP when it was in power but moved away from it during the 2013 elections, only to sway back towards the party in the Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress rode to power in Karnataka on a strong public sentiment against the alleged acts of corruption associated with the previous BJP government. One of the first assurances of Siddaramaiah as Chief Minister was to profess his government's commitment to a corruption free administration. The manner in which the government image has taken a beating on the Lok Ayukta fiasco is yet another sad commentary on drift in governance. Karnataka was credited with being one of the early states to have a strong and visible Lok Ayukta.
As a Minister in the Ramakrishna Hegde government, the present Chief Minister had been in the forefront of the movement for the creation of this “Citizen Grievance” Ombudsman. The fate that this institution has suffered in the recent past years, is ample testimony to the indecisive approach of the government. The government dragged its feet on taking action against a Lok Ayukta who did not deserve to hold the office and preferred to wait for him to finally resign. Though he resigned several months ago, the government has been unable to fill the vacancy. Further, the ruling party has got mired in controversies involving the Upa Lokayuktas in the state. To add fuel to the fire, the move of the Government to place the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) in the forefront has strengthened the public perception that the government wants to sideline the office of the Lok Ayukta.
It would be interesting to see how the BJP takes it campaign forward and wipes out the bitter memories of its performance of a ruling party between 2008 and 2013. The factionalism which the party witnessed continues to exist below the surface and has every potential of rearing its head as Yeddyurappa rakes over the party leadership at the state level.
Three years down the line, the ruling Congress government and party seems to be taking a path that seems all too familiar. The SM Krishna Government (1999-2004) witnessed a similar directionless drift half-way down its term. The earlier Congress governments (1989-2004) led by three different Chief Ministers saw the frittering away of the biggest ever mandate. The BJP on the other hand would like to wipe out all memories of its past acts of political indiscretion and present before the public a reformed face. Beyond doubt, they would try to focus on the track record of the Siddaramaiah government.
Will history repeat itself? Karnataka has seen the defeat of the ruling party in every election since the late 1980s. Or will the party in power and its government seriously attempts to refurbish its reputation and image over the next two years? Can the BJP project a picture of unity and make amends for the political indiscretion of its past by turning the focus on the track record of the Siddaramaiah government, is something that only time will tell. Two years and counting.....
The views in this article are personal.