Politics | 2024: The Countdown
The Problem of Plenty
With too many commitments and contenders, Karnataka’s Congress government has to get its balancing act right
26 May, 2023
DK Shivakumar, Rahul Gandhi and Siddaramaiah before the swearing-in ceremony in Bengaluru, May 20, 2023 (Photo: AFP)
THE NEWLY ELECTED Congress government in Karnataka is faced with twin pressures—fulfilling a long list of pre-poll promises and choosing from an even longer list of aspiring ministers. While Siddaramaiah took oath as chief minister for a second time at an event held at Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium on May 20, DK Shivakumar, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president and the party’s wartime general in the state, had to content himself with the chair of deputy chief minister. The details of the ‘compromise’ between the two leaders, mediated by the Congress high command in New Delhi over the course of three days, are unclear, but what is amply clear is that neither is likely to relinquish his claim to the throne as the months wear on.
Eight cabinet ministers were also sworn in by Governor Thawar Chand Gehlot, their portfolios yet to be announced, in a ceremony attended by the Gandhi family, party president Mallikarjun Kharge and leaders of other parties, including Nitish Kumar, Farooq Abdullah, MK Stalin and Sitaram Yechury. Among those who took oath was G Parameshwara, who had made no secret of his ambitions, even positioning himself as chief minister and deputy chief minister material. The 71-year-old, a prominent Scheduled Caste (SC) face of the party and a former KPCC chief—the longest-serving one—had openly expressed his disappointment that a Dalit was not made deputy chief minister. Crediting Dalits, Lingayats, as well as minorities for the party’s victory in the May 10 Assembly polls, he had noted that Congress won in 35 of 51 reserved seats. “In two general seats the community candidates have won, so it is totally 37. The Dalit votes have made an impact in several other segments,” he had said. Congress won 135 seats in the election to the 224-member Karnataka Assembly, ousting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which got 66 seats, with the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), emerging a distant third with 19.
While the post of deputy chief minister went to a Vokkaliga leader, Congress attempted to strike a balance in its shortlist of appointments with three SC ministers and one from a Scheduled Tribe (ST). Former Union Minister KH Muniyappa, rumoured to be joining BJP ahead of the election, is an SC (left) Madiga leader, while Kharge’s son Priyank, considered a rising star within the party, represents the SC (right) Holeya community. As the party’s Lingayat face, MB Patil, also the campaign committee chief, has been given his due. Congress is expected to entrust him with a weighty portfolio—he had handled irrigation in the Siddaramaiah cabinet of 2013-18—and also accommodate other Lingayats like Eshwar Khandre, Basavaraj Rayareddi, and Shamanur Shivashankarappa in subsequent cabinet expansions. The All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha, which represents the influential community, has written to Kharge demanding cabinet berths “proportionate to the number of MLAs of our community”, citing that 37 (of 48 fielded) of the newly elected Congress MLAs are Lingayats.
New ministers Patil, BZ Zameer Ahmed Khan, and Satish Jarkiholi, Congress’ ST face from Belagavi, are Siddaramaiah loyalists. Two days after the swearing-in, Patil sought to quell reports of a power-sharing agreement between Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah and asserted that the latter would complete five years as chief minister. Other party insiders indicate, however, that Shivakumar is expected to take over after the General Election next year and play a bigger role in future cabinet expansions. The Kanakapura MLA may well emerge a powerful challenger to the throne if antagonised.
The Congress government in Karnataka will need to carefully evaluate how cabinet seats are distributed to empower communities that have contributed to its victory
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Every new government is faced with the claims and imperatives of various communities and regions over the privileges of power. The Congress government in Karnataka, which has come to power thanks to the consolidation of Dalit, backward classes and minority votes, cannot afford to leave anyone behind. The state cabinet can have a maximum of 34 members, including the chief minister, and the grand old party will need to carefully evaluate how these seats are distributed to empower communities that have contributed to its victory. An expansion is also imminent for another reason—to keep senior Congress leaders happy even as unrest within the party grows by the day. Dinesh Gundu Rao, former KPCC president, has made a pitch for a cabinet berth, indicating a preference for Bengaluru City Development, Urban Development and Education. Yashavantraygoud Patil, a three-time MLA from Vijayapura, wants cabinet representation from his district. Once a minister, always an aspirant. Other leaders like Laxman Savadi, Lakshmi Hebbalkar, Shivaraj Tangadagi, TB Jayachandra, Byrathi Suresh, Krishna Byre Gowda, Tanveer Sait, HK Patil and HC Mahadevappa also expect to be inducted.
Congress MLA from Ballari Rural B Nagendra, who beat BJP’s B Sriramulu, Valmiki leader and former minister, said he expects a ministerial berth. “100 per cent,” he told Open. “As you know, SC and ST leaders will have to be given due importance. I have beaten a giant in his preferred home constituency. I think I should be considered for a ministry,” he added. Other MLAs with exceptional electoral feats to their name, such as Vinay Kulkarni who won from Dharwad without ever visiting the constituency—a court had barred him from the district following allegations against him of threatening witnesses in a murder case in which he is an accused—have queued up for a spot in the cabinet. “We do have a problem of plenty,” admitted pro tem Speaker and Congress veteran RV Deshpande. “Everyone feels they should be made ministers, and they are probably right, except that we have an upper limit of 15 per cent of the strength of the House. There are also considerations of seniority, and regional and caste representations. Every MLA who has been asking for a post for himself based on caste should also talk about what he has done for his community,” Deshpande told Open. “We have made a lot of promises to the people. Who will implement them if we fight among ourselves?” he asked, adding, “I have worked with eight chief ministers. The ones who are successful are those that keep their flock together.”
As promised, the Siddaramaiah cabinet, in its first meeting upon taking oath, gave in-principle approval to implement the party’s five ‘guarantees’, including 200 units of free electricity for every home, free bus travel for women, 10 kg rice per Below Poverty Line (BPL) householder, ₹2,000 in monthly payouts to women heads of households, and unemployment allowance for youth. Siddaramaiah said the schemes are expected to cost the exchequer ₹50,000 crore a year and noted that with a budget size of over ₹3.1 lakh crore, the state will find the money required to implement them. “I am confident that without entrapping the state in debts and without pushing the state into financial bankruptcy, we will implement all the guarantee schemes. When we are paying ₹56,000 crore (annually) as interest on our loan, can’t we spend ₹50,000 crore for our people?” he contended.
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