The BJP in Karnataka is struggling to get its act together in the run up to the state Assembly elections, just a few months away. For Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s CM candidate, this is a do-or-die election, and a loss could mean a loss of face in front of the leadership in Delhi. Party president Amit Shah and PM Narendra Modi are not going to too happy if Yeddyurappa doesn’t show results, especially since this election will be seen as a prelude to the 2019 General Elections, as far as south India goes.
For the Congress on the other hand, this is an election for survival. Karnataka is one of the few states in India where they still hold power – and the party will be looking to retain the state. So far, Karnataka has been a very cushy state for the Congress – even with the debacle of the Dharam Singh government (2004-2006) being toppled by alliance partner JD(S), who went on to form a coalition with the BJP.
But the party has had a history of following ‘high command culture’, even when they have been criticised roundly for it by the people. Observers and state-in-charges like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Digvijay Singh did more harm than good for the party. In the early 80s and 90s, the ‘Delhi leadership’ wielded more power than the state leadership, which could hardly put forth its problems or perspectives or solutions.
Congress’s Delhi leadership meddled so much with the state once, that they dismissed a Chief Minister – Veerendra Patil – for what was perceived as his defiance of the party diktat. Patil had angered Rajiv Gandhi, who decided to wield his power to send out a message that the high command was the last word in the party. And he chose the worst possible time to do so – Patil had had a stroke, and Karnataka was seeing unprecedented communal riots when Rajiv Gandhi imposed President’s rule in the state and replaced Veerendra Patil with S Bangarappa.
In the subsequent elections, Congress received a severe drubbing in the state and couldn’t even make it to the position of opposition party.
Today, however, the Congress state unit is much more in control of its own fate. The question of its survival firmly rests on the planning and strategy of the Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah – a ‘migrant’ from a socialist background whose home was the JD(S) before he joined the Congress.
With the saffron wave establishing itself across the country by whatever means possible, Siddaramaiah remains the Congress’ only hope to claim its space in south India. Karnataka is a significant state for the party in terms of power. The strategist in Siddaramaiah knows it too well. His socialist roots, and his participation in progressive and farmer movements in the state in the 70s and 80s have given him enough perspective to hold one issue after another against the state BJP, forcing it into tricky decisions.
Whatever the BJP is doing at the national level to the Congress – by building linear and binary narratives – Siddaramaiah is doing to the BJP in Karnataka. The infighting among BJP leaders, such as Eshwarappa, Jagadish Shettar, Union Ministers Ananth Kumar and Anantkumar Hegde, is also working to the CM’s advantage.
In more ways than one, Siddaramaiah has been treating the state unit of the Congress like a regional party entrusted with the power to make decisions at the local level. Whether it was the demand for a separate religion tag for Lingayats, or a flag to uphold Kannada pride, Siddaramaiah has made his moves with the finesse of an astute chess player. Whether these moves will pay dividends or not is a different issue altogether.
The BJP right now is stuck in a tricky situation. Otherwise Twitter-happy, the party decided to nominate businessman Rajeev Chandrashekhar to the Rajya Sabha, despite #RajeevBeda (Don’t want Rajeev) trending on Twitter. The last time they were in such a situation – when Venkaiah Naidu sought an extended Rajya Sabha term from Karnataka – he was mocked with #VenkaiahSakayya (Enough of Venkayya). The BJP paid heed to the public outcry – and then nominated Nirmala Sitharaman, sending an anti-Kannada message and simultaneously exposing the powerlessness of the state unit.
The Karnataka unit of the BJP, which had given the party’s first ever independent government in south India, has been rendered almost spineless.
The Congress government in the state has made decisions and has been able to have its way, notwithstanding ‘high command’ decisions from Delhi. And the culture of the ‘high command’ – which was a Congress staple – has now shifted to the BJP.
For instance, in the recent past, when AICC Chief Rahul Gandhi was keen on suggesting close friends Sam Pitroda and AICC General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi as Rajya Sabha MPs, Siddaramaiah categorically told him it would be ‘unwise to put forth names of non-Kannadigas’ for this coveted post.
But with the BJP overstepping Kannada sentiments time and again with the Lingayat issue, flag design and then with the RS MP candidature, the party seems to be royally ignoring regional identity.
Sources close to Siddaramaiah say the CM wields quite a bit of power with the Congress chief. Even at election rallies, Rahul never takes time to project himself but has been known to put forth Siddaramaiah as the main speaker. And, of course, there is a Kannada translation of the speech in keeping with the sentiments of the people. The Congress state in charge K C Venugopal has also put in more work than ever before in sprucing up the ‘for Kannadigas’ image of the party.
It is only an irony of time, a positive one at that, that the team that brought the first ever BJP government in the south seems to have lost that panache, even after an almost nationwide victory in electoral politics. On the other hand, the national party which once never paid heed to local realities, has come down to work like a regional party.
Views expressed are the author's own.