The Congress party, which earlier seemed divided over Siddarmaiah’s upcoming birthday gala, appears to have fallen in line behind the former Chief Minister. What’s more, DK Shivakumar and his brother D K Suresh, who had openly aired their insecurities about the 75th birthday celebrations scheduled for August 3, have also been forced to support the event. Shivakumar, who is also the party’s state president, went as far as to suggest that it should be made a Congress event. The birthday party, which was earlier called Siddaramotsava (Siddaramaiah festival), has now been rebranded as the slightly more hubble-sounding, ‘Siddaramaiah Amruta Mahotsava’. Either way, it is a clearest indication so far that the party’s CM face for the upcoming elections is Siddarmaiah.
As the event has polarised an already fractured Congress, it is being seen as a test of loyalty for the Congress leaders and legislators. While announcing the party’s backing for the Mahotsava, Shivakumar said that along with other party leaders, he too will be in attendance at the event. But even the optics around the event has cornered the DK brothers – Shivakumar and Suresh – within the Congress party, say insiders.
The Siddaramaiah-75 Amrutha Mahotsava committee has 62 members, most of them Congress leaders. Several senior leaders including former ministers RV Deshpande, HC Mahadevappa, KN Rajanna, Krishna Byregowda, UT Khader, Priyank Kharge are part of the committee. While Siddaramaiah’s supporters insist that it is an apolitical event, with Rahul Gandhi too expected to attend, it is all but a show of political strength. Boxed into a corner, the DK brothers who had initially been reluctant about the large-scale celebrations, will now take part in the event.
The event is a mega show of strength and the committee members say that they hope at least four to five lakh people would be in attendance. The event will be centred around the Siddaramaiah government’s achievements between 2013 and 2018. Insiders say it would have special focus on welfare schemes run by the Congress government for people from marginalised communities. A video on Siddaramaiah as the mass leader of the AHINDA community too is expected to be screened. AHINDA is a Kannada language acronym for Alpasankhyataru or minorities, Hindulidavaru or backward classes, and Dalitaru or Dalits.
“Almost everybody in the party is supporting this event,” says Basavaraj Rayareddy, general secretary of the ‘Siddaramaiah 75 Amruthamohtsava committee’.
“There are so many admirers and legislators who are funding the event. The logistics are being taken care of by the local MLAs and leaders. For food and other such things, a few legislators have pitched in. For the main stage and other arrangements, legislators from elsewhere have contributed,” he says. Rayareddy, however, says there is no need to project Siddaramaiah as the party’s CM candidate. “He is the Leader of Opposition, he has been a CM for five years. He has no need to project himself as the CM face,” he said. But the event is clearly designed to send a political signal.
The birthday rally is expected to not just showcase Siddaramaiah’s strength politically but also to project him as an AHINDA leader. The term is believed to have been originally coined by former Karnataka CM Devraj Urs and Siddaramaiah has used the platform since mid-2000s to consolidate all the communities under one umbrella. All the caste/community groups under AHINDA cumulatively are believed to make up over 55% of the state’s population.
Siddaramaiah plans to use the AHINDA platform to counter BJP’s Hindutva politics.
“Our political message is against the corrupt and communal politics of BJP and bring in social reforms. So using this platform, we want to give a message,” Basavaraj Rayareddy told TNM.
The AHINDA movement had propelled Siddaramaiah as the CM in 2013 and many of his supporters are hoping this time around too, it will yield similar results.
Even as the Amrutha Mahotsava has made headlines for many wrong reasons including highlighting the fissures in the state Congress leadership, if executed well, the event can bolster the Congress party in the state and be politically beneficial. Senior leaders within the party feel that ahead of the state visit of PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to kick-off the BJP’s election campaign, the event will help Congress set the political narrative. “The BJP’s game is headline management. They set the discourse and we try to play catch-up,” said a Congress leader, who is part of the organising committee. “This way, we get to make headlines before BJP does,” he added.
For the last one year, communal incidents have dominated the political landscape. The Congress aims to sidestep the communal agenda set by the BJP by making AHINDA a talking point and it hopes to consolidate all communities.
“The BJP booth-level workers and party workers are always active but that is not the case with Congress. So we are hoping that this will rejuvenate the party and activate the workers,” the Congress leader added.
While the Congress concedes that it cannot convince traditional BJP voters to vote for the Congress, they aim to woo some of the fence sitters with this grand celebration.
“The Congress does not have a culture of announcing CM candidates before elections. The tradition is for the high command to consult the elected MLAs and then take a call. So now we have a situation where everybody is a CM aspirant,” said a Congress leader. He was referring to Zameer Ahmed Khan, a known loyalist of Siddaramaiah saying he too is a CM aspirant but no leader can become CM with just the support of one community. He had also added that Muslims outnumber Vokkaligas in the state, earning the ire of Vokkaliga groups.
Khan’s statement came in the backdrop of growing hostility between him and Shivakumar. Shivakumar, wanting to assert his position to be made the CM if Congress wins, had called for Vokkaligas to rally behind him. Stating that a leader from the community has been made party president after a gap of 20 years, Shivakumar said the support of the community is important if he has to become the CM. Vokkaligas are seen as a numerically dominant caste and second only to Lingayats in terms of political influence.
Another Congress leader, MB Patil who hails from the Lingayat community too is being propped by a few as a possible candidate to be the CM face of the Congress party.
Siddaramaiah’s birthday bash has also brought to the fore the caste wars within the Congress party.
Sources say that it is not just Congress leaders but a few who are currently in BJP and a small section of JD(S) leaders too are invested in the event. “Siddaramaiah still has friends in JD(S) from where he came and in the BJP too. Many owe their political careers to him so they feel obliged to support his bid to be the CM. Moreover, this could be the last Assembly election he may contest. So there is an emotional reason too because of which leaders from other parties are lending their support tacitly,” a source close to Siddaramaiah told TNM.
Rayareddy too confirmed this and said that the event is not under the Congress banner, so anybody including other party leaders can and have contributed.
“I don’t want any utsava, I want only Congress Utsava. The day I took charge as KPCC president, I said we should worship the party and not individuals,” DK Shivakumar had said, when the preparations for the Amrutha Mahotsava had started. Over the next few weeks, there were several attempts by him to convince the Congress high command that such an event could be counter-productive to the party. Sources say that the meeting Rahul Gandhi held with both DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah too featured the Mahotsava and its possible impact on the party. But at the end of it, the green signal was given for the event. A clear message too was given to both the leaders that they will project a united front. But by then, the rift in the party had become evident, by just looking at the number of leaders who supported the event and those who did not. DK brothers found very few leaders supporting them, clearly revealing which way the state unit weighs ahead of the Assembly elections.