Mallikarjun Kharge and Siddaramaiah celebrate Congress’ victory in Bengaluru, May 13, 2023 (Photo: Jithendra M)
THE NERVE-WRACKING parleys to settle the tussle for the new chief minister of Karnataka were a cliff-hanger right up to the final whistle when Congress announced Siddaramaiah’s name for the much-coveted post, five frenzied days after the election results were announced on May 13. Amidst the euphoria of a landslide victory, intrigue, suspense, tough posturing, and endless speculation by the media marked the days and nights of high drama to elect the new legislative party leader for Congress following its biggest win in the state in decades. The challenger, the hugely resourceful state party chief DK Shivakumar, who will be deputy chief minister in the newly formed government, had to give in and let his far more popular senior colleague who enjoys a pan-Karnataka appeal lead the government.
The outcome of the days-long internecine wrangling between former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, a wizard at political manoeuvring who was also Congress’ ace in the hole against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the election campaign thanks to his simplicity and earthy charm, and the younger Shivakumar, a generous money bag who had deftly managed funds for the lavish campaign, confirms the Congress high command’s thrust on focusing all energies on the General Election next year. In the previous polls in 2019, it had to be content with just one out of 28 seats. In the polls next year, Congress wants to make the most of the momentum it believes is on its side. As with the logic behind the party’s choices, says Rajeev Gowda, chairman of Congress’ research department and its national spokesperson who is also a former member of Rajya Sabha: “Siddaramaiah has been a chief minister and is a veteran finance minister. He is a steady hand with enormous experience in administration and in implementing welfare schemes. He ensures the swift delivery of the guarantees outlined in our manifesto. For his part, Shivakumar as a minister has proved to be capable of thinking out of the box. He is business-friendly and therefore can attract new investment. His setting up of the Pavagada Solar Park with minimal state expense is proof. He is also an extraordinary go-getter who can help replicate the Karnataka election strategy for Congress across India. Going forward, they will work in tandem, complementing each other’s strengths. Siddaramaiah will lead the state and keep the promises made to our people. Shivakumar will have the bandwidth to help Congress become an election-winning machine nationally, especially in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.”
The inflexible, 75-year-old Siddaramaiah, who cut his teeth in politics in the Janata Parivar and rose through the ranks to occupy key ministerial posts at a young age in his home state and later joined Congress in 2006 briefly after he was expelled from HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), is credited with reviving, to the advantage of the Grand Old Party, the AHINDA formula—a Kannada acronym for Alpasankhyataru (minorities), Hindulidavaru (backward classes), and Dalitaru (Dalits), which was initiated first by the state’s legendary backward leader and former Chief Minister Devaraj Urs in the 1970s. The well-connected and widely networked 61-year-old Shivakumar, the state Congress chief with innate organisational skills, and Siddaramaiah, leader of the Congress legislative party for the past 15 years, proved to be a formidable combination: the former made sure that the campaign wasn’t short of resources, and the latter employed his mass appeal to pull in votes from across sections of people, with the probable exception of the numerically insignificant Brahmins. The result was an emphatic win, with Congress securing 135 of 224 seats and 43 per cent of the votes polled, the largest vote share and seat share secured by any party in Karnataka since 1989. Shortly after Congress announced his name as chief minister and Shivakumar’s as sole deputy chief minister around noon on May 18, Siddaramaiah tweeted, sharing a photo of himself and his deputy flanking the Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge: “Our hands will always be united to protect the welfare of Kannadigas. The Congress party will work as a family to deliver a pro-people, transparent, corruption-free governance and fulfil all our guarantees.”
BEFORE THE DECISION on these positions was taken and immediately after the electoral victory, both war horses had hit the ground running after making public their ambitions to lead the southern state, setting off frenetic parleys involving Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, who hails from Karnataka, and top party leaders Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, as well as others, in both the state and later in New Delhi.
At the end of the marathon meetings held mostly in Delhi, it was decided that the swearing-in of the new chief minister and deputy chief minister would take place at the Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru, along with the oath-taking ceremony of the new government in Karnataka, a state which has often occupied a mind space in national politics disproportionate to the number of members (MPs) it sends to Parliament because of a raft of reasons, including Karnataka being the first major state BJP has so far won in the south. Besides, it has also provided a prime minister and been the home state of top-grade Congress politicians. This poll reversal for BJP has once again brought Karnataka to the national mainstream, hogging headlines.
Again, state capital Bengaluru, known as India’s “Silicon Valley”, is one of the richest cities in the country. It is home to some of India’s best companies that showcase its IT prowess and it is also a city that has immediate name recognition across the world. Besides being a burnished showpiece of Indian IT enterprise, it is also the country’s science capital thanks to figures of the stature of late Nobel laureate CV Raman, civil engineer and statesman Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, highly decorated chemist CNR Rao, all of whom had made it their home, as well as institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and others.
Barely had Congress celebrated its victory in Karnataka when it faced the battle between its topmost leaders, with rival parties calling the development a “circus”. It was as though Congress was unprepared for what happened. A leader concedes, “It is not wrong to say we did not anticipate the ferocity of the fight and the positions that each MLA or state leader would have been forced to take. You had to become a camp follower of either and work towards that end. I would say it was an outcome of the quantum of the win.”
Pieces of information wafted out of closed-door meetings, as tensions rose over who would be chief minister and who would not be. As the scene shifted from Bengaluru to Delhi, Congress was understood to have zeroed in on a formula that named Siddaramaiah as chief minister and three deputy chief ministers—MB Patil (Lingayat), G Parameshwara (Scheduled Caste) and UT Khader (Muslim), while Shivakumar was to continue as state party chief. It was all set, with the swearing-in on May 18. The announcement was to be made on May 17 after Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar were to meet the Congress leadership, including Kharge and Rahul Gandhi. As Siddaramaiah’s supporters began revelling, Shivakumar’s held protests. Soon, Shivakumar refused to relent, claiming his slice of the victory pie. And then when nothing came of it and it was certain that he was out of the race for chief minister, proposals being mulled included a chief ministerial rotation so that Shivakumar could get a stint later, according to sources familiar with the reconciliation talks in Delhi. While Siddaramaiah, the sources said, was disinclined to the rotation proposal, Shivakumar was averse to sharing the deputy chief minister’s post with the others. The party was in a bind about making Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, the lone deputy chief minister, given the backing it got this time from Lingayats, Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Muslims. Both Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar stuck to their guns. But in the end, for the Congress leadership, the priority was 2024.
The party leadership factored in the mass appeal of Siddaramaiah, who positioned himself as a leader of the Ahinda social coalition that powered the Congress victory. A strategist known to have performed well in his stint as chief minister, Siddaramaiah is considered crucial for Congress in the 2024 general election
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As the day came to an end on May 17, there was still no sign of an announcement, with the party leadership striving to find an amicable way out of its dilemma about how to assuage Shivakumar who refused to yield. Sources said Shivakumar wanted a meeting with Sonia Gandhi, who was away in Shimla till May 20 but was expected to cut short her visit and return earlier. With uncertainty looming, the timeline for the swearing-in of a new government was stretched by 48-72 hours. Late on the night of May 17, negotiations continued into the wee hours. And then a deal was struck: Siddaramaiah would be chief minister and Shivakumar the deputy chief minister.
SIDDARAMAIAH, THE MONONYMOUS politician, was not always the quintessential Congress functionary that he is now. Yet, about 17 years after joining the party, following a nearly two-decade-long politics of anti-Congressism in the Janata Party, Janata Dal and then JD(S), he is believed to have got the support of 84 of the 135 Congress MLAs in the race for chief ministership, as per a secret ballot held on the night of May 14. Besides his popularity within, the party leadership factored in the mass appeal of Siddaramaiah, who positioned himself as a leader of the AHINDA social coalition that powered the Congress victory. As a leader from the Kuruba community, which belongs to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), he has often gone down memory lane recalling his humble childhood in Siddaramana Hundi, a village near Mysuru, and has placed top priority on the poor as an administrator, or at the very least he has wanted to project himself as pro-poor. A strategist known to have performed well in his stint as chief minister, Siddaramaiah is considered crucial for Congress in the 2024 General Election, according to party sources.
In 2015, as chief minister, Siddaramaiah had famously commissioned a caste and socio-economic status count in the state, where Vokkaligas and Lingayats, seen as dominant castes, together constitute less than a third of the population. He also announced that all government offices in Karnataka would have a portrait of 12th-century reformer and Lingayat seer Basavanna, a move that was seen as targeting BJP leader and former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa’s Lingayat support base. In 2018, however, Congress failed to get a majority though the party’s vote share was more than BJP’s. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP won 25 of the 28 seats, with a 51 per cent vote share against Congress’ 32 per cent.
What gave him the edge, political pundits aver, is that it was Siddaramaiah who represented the social coalition built by Congress, catapulting it to victory this time. Besides, the Congress leadership’s preference for him—after all, he has an untainted image—as chief minister could also have stemmed from the fears that the disproportionate assets case against Shivakumar could haunt its government if he were in the top position, especially ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha polls. Out of the assets declared by Shivakumar in his affidavit in the run-up to the May 10 polls, ₹970 crore is in the form of immovable assets while ₹244 crore is in moveable assets. This was a 44 per cent increase from 2018 when he had declared assets worth ₹840 crore. Again, one of the main planks of the party’s election campaign was the ‘corruption’ of the BJP government under Basavaraj Bommai. On the other hand, however, analysts say upsetting Shivakumar could have posed challenges for Congress on two fronts—the vigour with which he led the campaign in the run-up to the Assembly polls could wane ahead of 2024 and it could risk alienating a leader known for his ability to raise funds along with his supporters.
“Both have a mass base, but different styles. Siddaramaiah has a pro-poor, pro-development image with a grip on governance. Shivakumar is an organisational man who can take everyone along. It will need to be balanced. It is a fragile formula, as has been seen in the past, and will need to be nurtured with a focus on governance,” says analyst and researcher Sandeep Shastri. In his last stint as chief minister, in which he completed his entire term, Siddaramaiah did not have a deputy. In 1999, Congress’ SM Krishna also did not have a deputy chief minister. Siddaramaiah was himself deputy chief minister twice, once in the Janata Dal government under JH Patel, but was sacked after three years, and later in the JD(S) government when Dharam Singh was chief minister in a Congress-JD(S) coalition.
There are still those in the Karnataka Congress who feel Siddaramaiah should have opted out of the race and let Shivakumar take on the mantle. Shivakumar’s brother and lawmaker DK Suresh told reporters, “This decision has been taken in the interest of Karnataka and the party. My brother wanted to become chief minister, but that didn’t happen. I am not very happy with this decision.” Such bitterness and anxieties are not entirely unfounded. After all, the chief minister suddenly looks firmly in the saddle thanks to the blessings of the high command. A shrewd and seasoned politician forged in the crucible of power politics in the state, Siddaramaiah is a leader who knows only too well how to consolidate his gains.