Aditi Phadnis: Karnataka slipping away from Congress

If it is happening, it is happening in Karnataka. Two sedition cases have been filed in Bengaluru in less than a month, which has to be a record. The most benign of all state capitals in India, filing cases against supposed anti-India traitors at the rate of one a fortnight? What is going on?

The fact is, authority is slipping from the hands of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Still trying to come to terms with a terrible personal setback - he lost his 36-year old son last month to liver illness - the chief minister seems overwhelmed by problems coming at him from every direction.

Siddaramaiah is a relatively new entrant to the Congress, having left the Janata Dal -Secular (JD-S) in 2005. His former political mentor, H D Deve Gowda, was extremely fond of this maverick politician and brilliant speaker. While he made him deputy chief minister in the JD-S government, he refused to make him chief minister - not unnaturally, preferring his son for the job.

Siddaramaiah walked out of the JD-S in 2005 to be welcomed into the Congress along with a handful of Assembly members, all of whom had to be accommodated in subsequent elections. It is on the strength of these Assembly members that he claimed the support of the "all 121 members of the Congress legislature party" after the Assembly polls in 2013.

But it wasn't just the 121, who catapulted the Congress to victory. It was also state Congress chief G Parameshwara, who helped his party win but lost his own seat. At one stage, hoping to become chief minister, Parameshwara, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste and is popular, saw his hopes crumble. As there was pronounced, at times public, tension between the two leaders, the Congress high command stepped in and Parameshwara was made minister - but nearly two years after Siddaramaiah.

The decision to make Siddaramaiah chief minister was taken after senior Congress leader A K Antony finished consultations with Assembly members and telephoned Ahmed Patel, seeking the Congress president's opinion. Although a majority of the Assembly members said they did want Siddaramaiah, Antony conveyed to Patel that a large number of them was also apprehensive: that one community should not be pacified at the cost of another. Siddaramaiah is a Kuruba and both Parameshwara and another contender, Mallikarjun Kharge, are Dalits.

The Congress got 28 per cent of the Lingayat votes and 32 per cent of the Vokkaliga votes. The goodwill of these two castes is also important. At 80-something, S M Krishna, a Vokkaliga by caste, is still being told by his supporters that he should be the one to be chief minister. In the wings is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lingayat leader B S Yeddyurappa just waiting to strike.

Anyway, it was Siddaramaiah, who got the job and has been in the saddle since.

It is one matter to reign and quite another to rule. The tension between the "old" and the "new" Congressmen is still simmering. Siddaramaiah has little to report by way of development. Bengaluru is a dug-up mess as the first phase of Namma Metro (Bengaluru Metro) nears completion. Every year, Siddaramaiah dutifully flags the backwardness of North Karnataka (Belgaum or Belagavi as it is now called). In June this year, the Congress was wiped out in the biennial elections to the Karnataka Legislative Council from Graduates' and Teachers' constituencies. It lost all the three seats in the North Karnataka region and one in Karnataka South Graduates constituency to the BJP and the JD-S.

As the principal Opposition, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to make life difficult for Siddaramaiah. It improved its 2013 Assembly election vote share of 18 per cent (40 seats) to 43 per cent (17 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats) in the 2014 general elections. In the mass appeal charts, the July bandh over the sharing of waters of the Mahadayi river saw much of rural Karnataka shut down. After a sweltering summer, people just could not stomach the fact that Karnataka had been defeated in its claim over water to Maharashtra and Goa because of mistakes alleged to have been made by the legal team representing Karnataka.

The latest race the Congress has lost is for mindspace: the BJP has proved it holds the political initiative as the state government has registered a case of sedition against actress Ramya, who contested the last Lok Sabha election as a Congress candidate.

Karnataka is the only big state the Congress has: and it doesn't look good for the party.


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