Karnataka: Congress’ reliance on turncoats reflects failure to hone winnable talent

What makes its largesse stand out is how it subverts what its high command has long preached but rarely practised

Karnataka Congress
Rahul Gandhi (centre) has for long criticised party-jumping. What explains the Congress giving election tickets to former BJP leaders Jagadish Shettar (left) and Laxman Savadi?

Palpable anti-incumbency against the Basavaraj Bommai government coupled with disaffection within the ruling BJP’s ranks and the exit of some of its leaders have, arguably, stacked the odds of a victory in favour of the Congress in Karnataka. That a number of BJP heavyweights have defected to the Congress and over half a dozen, including Lingayat strongmen such as former Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar and former Deputy Chief Minister Laxman Savadi, were promptly fielded as candidates also buttresses the perception of an imminent Congress win.

Such an eventuality would bring much cheer to the Congress at a time when it’s also gearing up for bipolar contests against the BJP due in major states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh later this year as well as the all-important Lok Sabha polls next year.

Also read: After Lingayats, restive Dalit voters in Karnataka turn against BJP

Yet, what may seem ironic is that despite its current buoyancy in Karnataka, the Congress has, through its candidate selection process, exposed its vulnerabilities with regard to honing reliable, loyal and winnable talent within its organisation. It continues to be a party that volubly eschews a rampant culture among political outfits, including itself, of rewarding turncoats with tickets in elections while doing exactly the same when it deems endorsing such candidature politically expedient.

Besides Shettar in Hubbali-Dharwad Central and Savadi in Athani, HD Thammaiah (Chikkamagaluru), VS Patil (Yellapur), NY Gopalkrishna (Molakalmuru) and Baburao Chinchansur (Gurumitkal) are among the other prominent leaders who recently quit the BJP to join the Congress.

Shettar and Savadi

Shettar, who served as CM between July 2012 and May 2013, has served six terms as an MLA and was among the BJP’s frontline leaders, perhaps next only to former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, from the electorally formidable Lingayat community.

Also read: Though fiercely wooed by BJP and Congress, Panchamasalis find no cause to cheer

Savadi, a Yediyurappa acolyte and another prominent Lingayat leader, had been elected MLA for three consecutive terms between 2004 and 2013 before losing his Athani seat narrowly to Congress’s Mahesh Kumathalli in 2018, who is now pitted against him as the BJP’s candidate. Savadi also has the notorious distinction of being one of two MLAs who, in 2012, were caught on TV cameras watching a pornographic video in the Karnataka Assembly while it was in session. Gopalkrishna and Chinchansur have served as MLAs for six and five terms, respectively.

It is common knowledge that these leaders hopped on to the Congress bandwagon after being denied a ticket by the BJP. For Shettar, Savadi – being projected by the Congress as a major catch due to their hold over the Lingayat community in the Bombay-Karnataka region where the GOP has had little success in breaking the BJP’s electoral hegemony – and Thammaiah, this is their first rodeo with the Congress. They spent a lifetime in the saffron party and owe their political grounding to the RSS.

‘Ghar wapsi’ for some 

The candidature of Patil, Gopalkrishna and Chinchansur marks a ghar-wapsi. They had quit the Congress in 2018, upset over being denied a ticket to contest the state polls, and joined the BJP, which they have now left on largely the same grounds.

The Congress has justified these inductions and the decision to award them with tickets variously to their long years of political service, their winnability or their ability to sway votes of their respective communities beyond their constituencies.

Watch: ‘Modi can’t undo misdeeds of BJP govt in Karnataka’

Given how every political outfit has normalised this culture of party hopping for immediate electoral gains, the Congress doing the same is neither unprecedented nor, per prevailing electoral practices, unethical. If anything, the Congress’s move may even be passed off as pragmatic politics.

Congress preaches what it cannot practise 

What makes the Congress’s largesse stand out though is how it subverts, yet again, what its high command – particularly former party chief Rahul Gandhi – has long preached but rarely been able to practise.

In January 2013, when he was elevated as Congress vice president at the Jaipur Session of the Congress, Rahul had received the loudest applause from his colleagues when he unequivocally repudiated his party’s practice of awarding election tickets to “parachute candidates” who “fly in and fly out” of the party during each poll season. Over the past decade, Rahul made this assertion repeatedly, sharpening it along the way to say that his party’s doors shall remain shut to those who belong to the ideology of the RSS-BJP combine.

In 2018, ahead of the assembly polls in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh that the party was contesting under his presidency, Rahul had addressed a string of conventions of Congress workers asserting that, henceforth, “not a single parachute candidate will be given a ticket… I will cut the strings of the parachute”.

Watch: Why KS Eshwarappa is upbeat about BJP’s prospects in Karnataka election

Rahul’s rationale for saying so was that people who hop between parties during each election have no ideological or organisational loyalty and that by rewarding them with tickets the Congress was “insulting dedicated workers who have stayed with us irrespective of victories or defeats”.

In January this year, amid speculations over his cousin and BJP MP Varun Gandhi’s possible entry into the Congress, Rahul had said, “he and I don’t share a common ideology… Varun, at one point and perhaps even today, accepted the RSS ideology; that is something I can never accept”.

Each time there have been rumours about the likelihood of a Congress leader jumping ship, Rahul’s response has been that “cowards” who lack the stomach for a fight against the BJP or those who have skeletons in their cupboards are “free to join the BJP and RSS” and that they would never be welcomed back into the Grand Old Party.

Rahul is no longer the Congress president nor does he presently hold any post within the party. However, it is widely known that incumbent Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, who belongs to poll-bound Karnataka, defers to Rahul’s advice on all crucial organisational matters. Besides, as member of the party’s election committee, Rahul was involved in the process of vetting candidates for the Karnataka polls.

Rahul’s inability to stand his ground                           

As such, it is hard to reconcile the party’s decision to field Shettar, Savadi, Thammaiah and the like with Rahul’s posturing – both in public and at party forums – on rewarding loyalty and ideological commitment. The move reflects poorly on Rahul’s ability to stand his ground on subjects he has repeatedly articulated his stand on – that neither those who ever subscribed to the RSS ideology nor others who ditched the Congress for the BJP would be welcomed into the GOP; let alone be rewarded instantly with tickets to contest polls. It shows him as a leader who lacks courage of his convictions and is rather willing to barter them away for fickle electoral gains.

Watch: Will Shettar’s exit prove risky for BJP in Hindutva stronghold Hubballi?

If these candidates were fielded without Rahul’s concurrence, the implication is worse – that the Nehru-Gandhi scion who the party hopes to see as India’s Prime Minister sooner than later doesn’t even carry the weight to anchor his party to a vision he has so often shared publicly.

The blame doesn’t rest entirely on Rahul and must be shared by the Congress organisation too – especially by the worthies, including Kharge, who have held important party positions in the Karnataka unit.

Congress’ Lingayat leaders

As mentioned earlier, one rationale offered by senior Karnataka Congress leaders such as DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah as well as the party’s in-charge of the state, Randeep Surjewala, for accommodating Shettar and Savadi is the clout this duo has over the Lingayat community in north Karnataka and the fact that they are electoral warhorses.

The Congress has been working overtime to highlight how the BJP’s treatment of Shettar and Savadi – and even Yediyurappa, who was practically forced by Modi and Amit Shah to make way for Bommai as chief minister – was an affront to the Lingayat community and, hence, its members must vote for the GOP to exact revenge.

Also read: Shettar ire opens up Brahmin-Lingayat fault line in Karnataka BJP

The Lingayat community has been a formidable voting bloc in Karnataka for as long as one can recall. If the Congress has been unable to revive its electoral relationship with the community or to nurture and develop a strong Lingayat leader in the vein of Shettar or Savadi, if not Yediyurappa, and has to bank on ideologically incompatible imports to bring in these votes; there’s obviously something very skewed about the GOP’s public outreach in Karnataka.

The ease with which the Congress was able to nominate the new inductees as candidates without any notable protest from long-standing loyal workers in their constituencies also betrays an organisational weakness. Shettar, for instance, had been a BJP MLA from Hubbali-Dharwad for six consecutive terms. Why the Congress failed, for this entire period, to develop a leader within its ranks who could be a better alternative to Shettar at the hustings must be asked of the party’s Karnataka leadership.

Last, but alas, not the least, given how smoothly disaffected leaders walk in and out of their parties, often destabilising incumbent governments – a phenomenon of which the Congress has been a perennial sufferer in Karnataka and elsewhere – what guarantees that these celebrated ‘newcomers’ will stick with the Grand Old Party in the event of its political fortunes not panning out as hoped when votes are counted on May 13?

Worse, if the Congress does manage to form a government but with a slender majority that is both vulnerable to competing aspirations of its MLAs as well as predictable attempts at horse trading by the BJP, would these much-feted inductees – of course, subject to their individual victories – stick to their new political home or return to base?

 (With inputs from Naveen Ammembala)