The race within the Congress party for declaring Karnataka’s 24th chief minister is now in its final lap.
With the party insistent on going ahead with the swearing-in ceremony of the new chief minister, possibly with one or more deputies, on Thursday (May 18), the Congress high command of president Mallikarjun Kharge and former president Rahul Gandhi are huddled with different groups of party leaders to break the leadership stalemate.
Congress sources privy to the discussions told The Federal that 76-year-old former chief minister Siddaramaiah remains the frontrunner for the post.
Siddaramaiah’s bitter intra-party rival, Karnataka Congress chief DK Shivakumar, who has been credited with the party’s sweep in the state’s Vokkaliga-dominated Old Mysore region, has reportedly told Kharge that if he is to be part of the government. then it must be as the chief minister; else he would prefer to stay out and, if allowed by the high command, continue as the Karnataka Congress chief.
The KPCC chief, who is known to enjoy the confidence of Sonia Gandhi, has been insistent that her views must be sought on the leadership issue.
Shivakumar has reportedly assured Kharge that he would accept whatever decision Sonia Gandhi takes – a pitch that undermines Kharge’s authority as Congress president at a time when the Gandhi family has been going all out to establish that it does not wish to puppeteer decision-making in the party.
Sources say if Shivakumar remains adamant on not joining a Siddaramaiah-led government, options for a “radical decision” are also being weighed, wherein the Congress may rope in two or even three deputy chief ministers from each of the state’s dominant caste/religious/community voting blocs such as the Lingayats (who constitute over 30 of the Congress’s 135-member legislature party), Dalits and Muslims, while Shivakumar continues as KPCC chief.
This formulation is being tipped as one to mollify the anti-Siddaramaiah camp, which wants the party leadership to keep the stalwart from Varuna on a tight leash, while protecting the political interests of his rival satraps.
Shivakumar may also be offered some assurance, perhaps directly by Sonia Gandhi or through Rahul Gandhi and Kharge, of being brought in as chief minister sometime after the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Though a strong section of the party’s senior Karnataka leadership, including former chief minister M Veerappa Moily and veterans such as G. Parameshwara, KH Muniappa and BK Hariprasad, have reservations against Siddaramaiah getting another term as chief minister – they claim the Kuruba leader is an “import from the Janata Dal Secular” and the party must now reward “original and loyal Congressmen” – a number of factors, though not all politically kosher, seem to be working in Siddaramaiah’s favour.
Principal among these is the fear that Siddaramaiah, if not made the chief minister, would sabotage the party ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls – Shivakumar has reportedly told Kharge that several defections from the Congress to the BJP following the fall of the Congress-JDS coalition government in 2018 were engineered by Siddaramaiah – and may even trigger a split.
The party also knows that Siddaramaiah’s political clout outweighs that of Shivakumar as the former, with his AHINDA coalition, has a strong electoral appeal across the state and among communities that the Congress is now aggressively seeking to woo with its new found zest for social justice politics.