Mallikarjun Kharge, DK Shivakumar, Siddaramaiah, Congress in Karnataka
Congress leaders in Karnataka, Mallikarjuna Kharge, DK Shivakumar, G Parameshwar and Siddaramaiah are at loggerheads with each other

75th birthday bash for Siddaramaiah leaves Karnataka Congress divided

Siddaramaiah’s 75th birthday celebration has become a bone of contention among Congress leaders and has riled many in the party, including the DKS camp, and factions led by M Mallikarjuna Kharge and G Parameshwar

To achieve ‘Mission Dakshin’, recently announced by the BJP national general secretary CT Ravi, Karnataka is to be the gateway into the South for the BJP. On the one hand, the BJP, as the ruling party, has made more inroads into the state than in any other southern state. Yet, the Congress also has a strong base in Karnataka, and can possibly thwart the BJP’s grand mission in the coming 2023 Assembly elections.

However, the cold war and factional infighting between Congress leaders in the state, mainly between former Chief Minister and current Opposition leader Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president DK Shivakumar (DKS), are likely to prevent the party from wresting power from the BJP.

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The Congress, nevertheless, remains hopeful due to some disarray in the BJP camp as well. One, the ruling BJP is also plagued by internal politics. Two, it faces a threat from the powerful Lingayat sub-castes Veerashaivas and Panchamashalis, who are unhappy with the BJP for not meeting their demands. Three, ‘government’ scandals, such as the police sub-inspector recruitment scam, which led to the arrest of an ADGP,  have impacted the administration. Most importantly, the change in leadership midway, from BS Yediyurappa to Basavaraj Bommai, has put a brake on governance. 

Panchamasali sect factor in Congress favour

Besides the sidelining of the Lingayat icon Yeddyurappa, the BJP has to tackle the leaders of the influential Panchamasali sect within the Lingayat/Veerashaiva community, who are bitter about being denied the CM or other prominent posts. So, this time, the Panchamasali sub-caste among Lingayats is the real threat to the BJP, which depends mainly on the Lingayat vote bank. The Panchamasalis are influential in around 68 Assembly constituencies in Karnataka with an average vote share of 20 per cent.

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The Panchamasali Lingayats are demanding that the BJP government in Karnataka decide on the community’s demand for reservations under the Other Backward Class (OBC) category for government jobs and education. The Bommai government, however, is not in a position to satisfy them. The Congress is hoping that the community may support it the next time round. 

Moreover, the Congress is betting on the consolidation of Vokkaliga votes because of DKS, who may well emerge as the CM candidate if the party wins. It also expects to bag the votes of the AHINDA (Minorities, Backward Classes and Dalits) groups. 

Congress – a divided house

Despite these advantages, internal rivalries in the Congress have created an extremely divided house. The party’s tallest leader in the state, Siddaramaiah’s proposed 75th birthday celebration has become a bone of contention among leaders and has riled many in the party, including the KPCC chief DKS’ camp, and the factions led by another key leader M Mallikarjuna Kharge and by former deputy chief minister G Parameshwar.

Rahul Gandhi has said that the party has decided that we will face the election (assembly) under a collective leadership. I’m saying it as the party president.

DK Shivakumar, KPCC president

Kharge’s followers are in fact trying to hold celebrations to mark the leader’s 50 years in electoral politics by the end of this month. But, they feel Siddaramaiah’s birthday bash may upstage their celebrations and Kharge, the Dalit leader, who has missed several chances of becoming CM of Karnataka, may be out in the cold again.

Siddaramaiah’s supporters have already formed ‘Siddaramaiah-75 Amrita Mahotsav’ under the chairmanship of former minister RV Deshpande. Party leader Rahul Gandhi has agreed to attend the Siddarama Amritotsav to be held in Bengaluru on August 3, before the leader’s actual birthday on August 12.

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Siddaramaiah, too, categorically stated that though he does not celebrate his birthdays, he plans to do it in a big way this time. It is his way of showing his mass base strength to his political opponents. Ironically, his opponents have plans of their own. 

Some leaders in the state Congress are worried about Siddaramaiah’s move. They fear that it would further deepen the rivalry between him and DKS in particular and also with the Kharge and Parameshwar camps. This may eventually dent the party’s chances of coming back to power. 

The Parameshwar camp’s claim

Parameshwar, a Dalit leader, has always been openly staking his claim to become CM.  He has been anti-Siddaramaiah since he views him as a threat to his chances of being nominated as CM candidate after the elections.

Siddaramaiah is crossing the 75th benchmark and it’s an important event in any leader’s life; there is nothing wrong in arranging a programme to celebrate.

G Parameshwara, former Deputy CM

The Parameshwar camp believes that DKS’ chances of becoming CM are less because he has  CBI and ED cases against him. So, Parameshwar intends to play down the Siddaramaiah event and make it a Congress show rather than any individual’s birthday celebration. At the same time, he is preparing the ground to conduct a Dalit Samavesha (rally) in September. 

It is a way to counter Siddaramaiah championing the cause of AHINDAs by driving home the message that Parmeshwar is the Dalit leader.

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The Kharge factor

Another factor that is more worrying for the Congress is that its tallest leader Mallikarjun Kharge too seems to be nurturing political ambitions of his own. His camp is planning to celebrate his 50 years in electoral politics (which started in 1972, after which he has been elected nine consecutive times to the state legislative assembly and served as Opposition leader of Lok Sabha and Opposition leader of Rajya Sabha).

Kharge turns 80 on July 21 and his followers are planning to celebrate both milestones. As he is a loyal Congressman, party workers and leaders cannot afford to cold shoulder the event.

At the same time, the DKS camp is planning to have Vokkaliga and Lingayat rallies separately to attract the communities. Sources told The Federal that his main idea is to project himself as a Vokkaliga leader not only in the party but in that community as well. He is planning to hold these rallies in the coming months to attract the communities. This is seen as a strategy to slow down Siddaramaiah’s efforts to strengthen his hold on the party.

Congress High Command in a fix?

The Congress high command, and Rahul Gandhi, are in a fix over these factional fights. Rahul has to attend Siddaramaiah–75 Amrit Utsav because it is a party function and it is being held to celebrate a key leader’s 75th birthday. If he fails to attend the event, it may send a wrong message down the ranks. But, several senior leaders are trying to pressurise him to play down the event.

“I will be turning 75 in August. My friends and well-wishers feel that this is a special occasion and want to celebrate it publicly. I have not celebrated my birthday in the past and do not intend to do so in the future as well… It is not going to be a festival or a show of strength against anyone.

Siddaramaiah, Opposition Leader in the Legislative Assembly

The high command, meanwhile, is trying to convince all the Congress leaders to participate in Siddaramaiah’s birthday celebration, in Kharge’s birthday plans and the rallies mooted by DKS to convince the general public of their unity.

However, the cold war between Siddaramaiah and DKS has created tensions within the party and if the confusion continues until the elections, it will probably lead to a fractured mandate in the state. It will be a repeat of the 2018 legislative assembly elections, said a senior Congress leader. This situation will help the JD(S) to come into the picture or another Operation Lotus to divide the Opposition for the BJP to ride to power.

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