Congress: A Divided House As it seeks to put up united fight in a ‘do-or-die’ battle
Weather in Bengaluru this time of the year was the hottest in the past 15 years though there were light showers on the last day of March. Political climate in Karnataka was no less hot. Things were “literally boiling” in the Congress, which is already dreaming of coming to power in the state. After all, the country’s oldest party believes its time has come in Karnataka, that too coincidentally after a gap of nearly one-and-half decades.
It’s in 1999 that the Congress came to power on its own steam. It lost the elections in 2004 but later had a short-lived coalition with the JD(S) of former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda who actually called the shots during that period.
The party is smelling blood this time. There are plausible reasons for its confidence. Some believe Congress leaders appear over-confident at times, not a happy sign going into the election battle. The police scene looks more fragmented than ever, and multi-cornered contests are a reality, a situation the Congress likes the most.
Former Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa’s breakaway party, Karnataka Janatha Paksha (KJP) has vowed to decimate the ruling BJP, much to the glee of the Congress. Another regional party, BSR Congress floated by former BJP Minister B Sriramulu is also certain to dent the prospects of the BJP further.
There is also talk of BSR Congress entering into seat adjustments with JD(S).
The May five Assembly election is important for the Congress in more ways than one. It’s the first major State to go to polls after Rahul Gandhi became the party Vice-President. So, there’s a lot at stake for the party leading the UPA government at the Centre.
According to party insiders, Rahul is master-minding the party’s strategy in Karnataka, a once party stronghold that has crumbled over the years because of factionalism and infighting among its leaders who sought to undercut each other.
Already, there is a “deep imprint” of the ‘Yuvraj’ in the selection of candidates and strategy. Gone are the times of key State leaders getting a “quota” to be distributed among their followers, a process which was its undoing in the past. Rahul Gandhi ensured that the selection process was more democratic as he made an attempt to gauge local aspirations from the grassroots level.
Karnataka Assembly elections is also seen as an “acid test” for Rahul and a “spring-board” for him as the country heads for Lok Sabha poll in an year’s time. After a string of debacles in a few States, the Congress heir apparent needs a morale-boosting win in this southern State.
Ticket aspirants were highest in the Congress an average of at least ten in each of the State’s 224 Assembly constituencies. Short-listing them was no easy task as action on the final selection shifted to Delhi in quick time. Women and youth contenders pushed hard for their pound of flesh, with finally the party president Sonia Gandhi had to intervene to restore order.
But despite being in an advantageous position, the picture does not appear to be rosy for the Congress. Factional feuds and caste-ridden politics were in full display much to the discomfiture of the party, which is keen to put up a united face. Undermining each other’s influence by key leaders was the bane of the party for long. This time there is clear realisation among them that only unity can bring them to power. But how long this temporary truce will hold is anybody’s guess.
The other worrying factor for the Congress is the fact that two of Chief Ministerial contenders Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President G Parameshwara and Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah, do not see eye-to-eye. Both are pushing hard to accommodate their supporters so that when it comes to crunch in legislature party, in case the party wins poll they have the higher numbers.
There was much speculation on the possible role of former Chief Minister S M Krishna, who resigned as External Affairs Minister last year. It appears that Rahul Gandhi is plumping for younger leaders, and the era of the old guard Krishna, Union Labour and Employment Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge and former Chief Minister Dharam Singh may be coming to an end.
After being largely sidelined, Krishna, in fact, sought to make his presence felt, pressing the central leadership to give tickets to some 50-plus candidates that he listed from the Vokkaliga community, to which he belongs. It’s clear Krishna has not thrown in the towel and has not ruled himself out of the contention in the event of the party coming to power.
Whether or not to take into the Congress fold those of the Ministers of BJP government, including C P Yogeeshwara and Raju Gouda alias Narasimha Naik and some ruling party MLAs who knocked the party doors remained a bone of contention. But there was not much of opposition in welcoming four independents P M Narendraswamy, D Sudhakar, Shivaraj Tangadagi and Venkataramanappa.
But the Congress surely has got momentum in its favour. It put up a sterling performance in the recent elections to urban local bodies, where it demolished the BJP and JD(S). It gave a fair indication that the people are disenchanted with the ruling dispensation, which appears to be saddled with an anti-incumbency factor, at least in urban pockets.
The party now wants to replicate the success in the Assembly poll but it’s no secret that the state-wide elections are a different ball game. The Congress can ill-afford to sit on its laurels. Its task is cut out now.
Stakes are particularly high for Rahul, who seems to have taken on himself as far as strategy aspects are concerned. The party is not expected to release its list of candidates early. It wants to disclose the names as late as possible, in a bid to minimise the rebellion factor and also “donating” leaders who lost out on getting ticket, to other parties such as the KJP, BSR Congress and the JD(S). Finalisation of candidates proved really tricky for the Congress, which moved “heaven-and-earth” to complete the exercise.
The biggest worry for the Congress as of now is prospects of rebels plunging into the fray. The party is working overnight to keep the resentment of a section of leaders at bay. More than its own strength, the Congress is heavily banking on anti-establishment votes. Clearly, there is no doubt that the Congress is the only alternative to the BJP in Karnataka, and is likely to benefit from people’s angst against the BJP government.
There are also rumours of KJP getting into a secret understanding with the Congress. Some KJP leaders have publicly stated that it’s going to be a Congress-KJP coalition government after the Assembly elections. KJP leaders have let it be known that should Congress fall short on majority, it would provide the required numbers. But the Congress has for the record distanced itself from Yeddyurappa’s party.
More than anything else, the Congress needs a united face to pull off victory in Karnataka. While multi-cornered contests have always been to its advantage, the party cannot take things for granted. Though the BJP is currently in disarray, the ruling party is no way “finished” as yet as far as the elections are concerned. As clearly demonstrated in the ULB elections, the BJP has stood its ground, despite the jolt given to it by Yeddyurappa.
Selection of candidates would make a world of difference, and only time would tell if the party made the right choices. That the Congress did not largely succumb to the pressure tactics of top party leaders from the State is seen as a positive development, with the credit going to Rahul.
So, it’s going to be a golden chance for the Congress if it played its card cleverly. Continued factionalism and infighting could easily turn the tide against it. In many ways, it’s a “make-or-break” poll for the party. Congress leaders are upbeat and already see themselves in positions of power and they have reasons to feel so. But in politics, as they say, nothing is certain. Still a month to go for the polls, no one can predict possible developments in the coming days that could influence the poll outcome. On May 8, the counting day, it would be known if Rahul succeeded in his mission.
By Upendra Baliga from Bengaluru