Newsmaker: Meet Cong leader D K Shivakumar, the 'crisis man' in Karnataka

Illustration: Binay Sinha
Despite the flurry of activity on a rain-battered evening on Wednesday when the Janata Dal (S)-Congress coalition government took the oath of office, one must-do on Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s list was a one-on-one meeting with D K Shivakumar. 

The reasons are obvious. After being bypassed for the post of deputy chief minister in the new government, the Vokkaliga strongman was sulking – messages about his dejection were being conveyed to the party through his confidants, though he maintained a stoic front in public. During the meeting, Gandhi is understood to have assured Shivakumar that the party high command was well aware of his contribution and “will not let you down”.

Political analysts say a couple of factors worked against Shivakumar’s appointment as deputy chief minister. First, both Shivakumar and new chief minister H D Kumaraswamy belong to the Vokkaliga community. Having the chief minister and his deputy from the same caste would have upset caste equations at a time when the powerful Lingayat community, which supported the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in this election, is feeling alienated, having been denied the prizes of political office. 

Besides, both Vokkaliga stalwarts have their political base in Ramanagara district – Kumaraswamy won the Assembly election from Ramanagara constituency, Shivakumar belongs to neighbouring Kanakapura – representing a concentration of regional power as well.  

All the same, the Congress high command can scarcely ignore Shivakumar’s contribution to the party not just in the state but at the national level. Sources say the stage is all set to make him the president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) as well as give him a berth in the state Cabinet with the same energy portfolio he was handling earlier.

One of the richest politicians in the state (he disclosed assets of Rs 7.3 billion), the seven-time MLA from a constituency on Bengaluru’s outskirts is perceived as Congress’s answer to the marauding opposition, especially the BJP, which still enjoys the support of the powerful mining barons G Janardhana Reddy and his brothers. 

This election was not the only time Shivakumar, 56, has bailed the party out of the crisis by insulating party MLAs from the BJP’s aggressive poaching. After the 2001 Maharashtra Assembly election, it was Shivakumar who ensured that the party MLAs were kept in a “safe harbour” when the BJP-Shiv Sena combine was looking at every opportunity to steal a few to shore up their numbers. 

In August 2017 when BJP went all-out to ensure the defeat of Rajya Sabha candidate Ahmed Patel banking on cross-voting, it was Shivakumar who sequestered the 44 party MLAs from Gujarat in a Bengaluru hotel to stop horse-trading, ensuring Patel’s victory. His reward was income tax raids on him and properties belonging to his relatives on charges of amassing disproportionate income. Shivakumar alleged that the raids were conducted at the BJP’s behest. 

Even though he has several corruption, forgery and criminal cases against him, the one thing that differentiates Shivakumar from the rest is his wide support base, which makes him a formidable politician. He first grabbed the headlines when he contested community strongman H D Deve Gowda in the 1985 Assembly election. He lost but has won from the same Assembly constituency seven times since then. It was his support that played a huge role in ensuring the defeat of Deve Gowda from the Kanakapura Lok Sabha (now Bengaluru Rural) constituency by then little-known journalist-turned-politician Tejaswini Ramesh by a huge margin of 1,22,000 votes during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections (Deve Gowda also won the election from his traditional stronghold Hassan then). The Congress retained the Bengaluru Rural seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when Shivakumar’s younger brother D K Suresh won by an 80,000 vote margin.  

Shivakumar’s relationship with former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah cannot be described as good, nor was he popular with certain other senior leaders who were apprehensive of his growing influence in the party. However, he certainly enjoys a great equation with United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Political analysts believe that he will be the man of the moment for the Congress during the 2019 elections. “He is one example of politicians in Karnataka who started on a humble note and became very powerful. Age is in his favour; he has a good support system and he is a good organiser,” said Asha Krishnaswamy, a political commentator. Her caveat, though, may be prophetic: “The one thing that may pose a challenge for him, in the long run, is his acceptability within the party”.