DK Shivakumar arrest: The cost and optics of the Congress leader’s tears

While some BJP leaders fear that his arrest could turn him into a martyr, DK Shivakumar’s supporters hope that this will be a turning point for him.
DK Shivakumar arrest: The cost and optics of the Congress leader’s tears
DK Shivakumar arrest: The cost and optics of the Congress leader’s tears
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Former Karnataka Minister and Congress leader DK Shivakumar’s detractors will insist that he was shedding crocodile tears and that he deserves to be arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). The knives are out as those that were subdued or coerced by him in various situations mockingly quote his own lines back to him: ‘Uppu thinda mele neeru kudibeku,’ a well-known Kannada saying that literally translates to, if you eat salt, you will have to drink water. In this context, it means, you get what you deserve. 

But DK Shivakumar’s legion of fans, followers and staunch supporters are shell-shocked. Not by the arrest, which they, along with all political watchers and the man himself, have been expecting for nearly six months now. They are stunned that the man called ‘Sathnur Huli’, (the tiger of Sathnur, which is his old Assembly constituency) who epitomizes the swaggering machismo of southern Karnataka Vokkaligas actually cried on camera. This because he could not conduct rituals on Ganesha Chaturthi to pay homage to his late father due to the ED’s summons. 

The Vokkaliga community as well as the citizens of Karnataka have frequently seen tears from former Prime Minister HD and JD(S) supremo Deve Gowda, until recently the tallest leader of their community and region. Gowda’s son, former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy is also known to be rather emotional in public. But Shivakumar, who was their archrival until the JD(S) and Congress joined hands in 2018, has always met adversity with a smile and nonchalance. 

While some in the BJP crow with joy at their success in bringing down Shivakumar “to his knees”, as one party member said informally, others are rather puzzled. Shivakumar is known for his strategies, his ‘persuasive’ abilities and his brilliance at gaining public attention and sympathy. Several, even in the BJP, admit that he is the only person who has gained some respect even from BJP President Amit Shah.

Sympathy, tears and a public image

The Congress is floundering in its response, caught unawares both by Shivakumar’s tears and by his arrest by the ED. The party has, however, condemned and protested his arrest. While the emotion did appear real and spontaneous, his detractors point out that it has instantly gained him sympathy from all the people who believe in the importance of traditions, something the BJP in Karnataka is rather uneasily aware of. This could be one reason why Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa had said that he takes no happiness in Shivakumar’s arrest and prays that he comes out of the case. Yediyurappa and Shivakumar were co-accused in a land grab case.

The BJP, however, is aware that there is a strong public perception that Shivakumar is allegedly being penalized by the ED for shielding Gujarat’s Congress MLAs against poaching by the BJP when party leader Ahmed Patel needed to be elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2017. His fans even in the BJP admit that foiling Amit Shah’s designs is a bad idea. The Income Tax Department and the ED have since relentlessly followed up and some allege, foisted, cases on him. 

The tears underscore this point. But along with his genuine grouse that he had to miss the Ganesha pooja at his house due to the ED, Shivakumar also went on to state that he has never lied or grabbed land or done anything illegal, ever. Given the spate of cases against him and the general public perception that he is allegedly part of the real estate mafia in Bengaluru, these statements constitute a misstep that his supporters reluctantly acknowledge. What it does show, however, is that the tears were not planned or orchestrated, as Shivakumar has evidently not thought out how the outburst could have been used to maximum effect instead of merely being a wrapper around inane statements. 

A turning point?

Still, Shivakumar’s fans and detractors see the tears and the subsequent arrest of the man as a sort of turning point in his career. While some political observers are predicting this to be the end of his well-known aspiration of wanting to be Karnataka Chief Minister, others say the arrest could actually help him get sufficient heft and gravitas to lead the Congress in the future, and be a serious contender for the top post. 

Shivakumar’s failing has been that he is seen as a great backroom operator, extremely good at dirty tricks. That image has to change, if he needs to go any further in his career. If, as his fans say, he is able to turn his arrest by the central agency into an act of political vendetta and gain sympathy across caste lines, the situation is ripe for his emergence as a strong political leader. His showmanship, so far, has been the flashy kind that gains admirers and retweets, but not the trust of an electorate across regional and caste groups.

He is a man with friends across parties, including in high places in the BJP. Whether the BJP will turn him into a martyr, around whom all their opponents converge or eliminate him completely as a threat is for now a matter of speculation. If he is to indeed become an anti-BJP force, as some political observers are predicting, something really dramatic needs to happen. Shivakumar needs to change, perhaps, even the tattoo on his arm -that of a furious, raging bull. The tears could just be a mere first step in that direction. 

Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years. Views expressed are author's own.

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