After countless rounds of hair-splitting deliberations and negotiations through the past few days, the Congress high command appears to have finally resolved the deadlock over who will lead the party’s newly-minted government in Karnataka.
Former chief minister Siddaramaiah is set to return as the southern state’s top executive with his bitter intra-party rival and Karnataka Congress president, DK Shivakumar, as his deputy. A meeting of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) has been called at 7 PM today (May 18) in Bangalore to endorse the candidature of the two satraps for the post of CM and Deputy CM, while the swearing-in ceremony, earlier scheduled for today, is now expected to take place on May 20 at 12.30 PM.
The breakthrough came well past midnight on May 17 after Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who is also a party stalwart from Karnataka, weighed in on the many points of discussion and debate that came up earlier in the day during multiple one-on-one meetings that he and party leaders Rahul Gandhi, KC Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala had with Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar.
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The Federal had been reporting since Monday (May 15) that the party high command had made up its mind to name Siddaramaiah as Karnataka’s 24th CM as a majority of the Congress’s 135-member CLP favoured him for the job in the secret ballot conducted by party observers Sushil Kumar Shinde, Jitendra Singh and Deepak Babaria on May 14 to ascertain who the newly elected MLAs wanted as the head of the government.
However, much as the Congress leadership wanted the process of swearing in the new CM to be a quick dash, it quickly turned into a steeplechase with appeasing Shivakumar, an equally strong contender for the job owing to his contributions in rebuilding the party in Karnataka over the past three years, becoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Congress sources told The Federal that the KPCC chief and MLA from Kanakapura stunned the party high command with his unyielding stand on the leadership question, which delayed the official announcement of the CM and DyCM nominees.
The stalemate caused the Congress a major embarrassment even before forming the new government with its best mandate in over three decades as preparations for the May 18 swearing-in ceremony that were well underway at Bangalore’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium had to be called off hastily because Shivakumar continued to play hardball.
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Shivakumar, it is learnt, minced no words during discussions with Kharge, former party chief Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s Karnataka in-charge Surjewala and party’s organisation general secretary Venugopal and made his joining the new government conditional upon being named the CM. During multiple rounds of discussions that Kharge, Surjewala and Venugopal had with Shivakumar through Wednesday, a number of offers were reportedly made to him except one that involved making him the CM.
The leadership, sources told The Federal, canvassed before Shivakumar “all the reasons and compulsions for choosing Siddaramaiah as CM” while repeatedly asserting that he was an “invaluable asset to the party” and that the Congress recognises the hard work, personal sacrifices and resources he had put in to revive a moribund organisation after its coalition government with the Janata Dal (Secular) was toppled.
Sources say Shivakumar, at one point, told the central leadership that he would prefer to work as an ordinary Congress worker than join a government headed by Siddaramaiah, who Shivakumar reportedly accused of “plotting against the party” after the fall of the Congress-JD (S) government and of doing precious little to revive the party electorally over the past three years. On its part, the leadership, say sources, went all out to woo Shivakumar. “Barring the CM’s post, he was offered everything… Kharge told him he can be the DyCM and get any combination of portfolios that he wants while also continuing as Karnataka Congress chief but he refused all these and remained adamant on getting the CM’s post, repeatedly asserting that he had earned it,” a leader privy to the discussions told The Federal.
Also read: ‘CM post is not ancestral property to be shared,’ says Shivakumar
How the leadership finally convinced Shivakumar to accept its original offer – that of being made DyCM under CM Siddaramaiah – was not immediately known as discussions on the matter carried on till around 1.30 AM at Kharge’s residence. Clarity on this front is likely to emerge only after the new government is sworn-in and portfolios of the ministers allocated.
It also remains to be seen how other satraps in Karnataka Congress would view the arrangement reached at Kharge’s residence on the leadership roles of Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar. Congress sources had indicated to The Federal earlier in the day that an omnibus offer that gives Shivakumar a pick of any number of portfolios he desires may not ultimately benefit the party and its government as he and the CM are then likely to keep most plum portfolios between themselves. Such an arrangement would then naturally create bad blood among other influential leaders such as Dr. G. Parameshwara, former deputy CM and Koratagere MLA, Babaleshwar MLA MB Patil, Devanahalli MLA KH Muniyappa, Gadag MLA HK Patil, Mangalore MLA UT Khader and Laxman Savadi, the BJP import who won on a Congress ticket from Athani and contributed towards consolidating the party’s electoral footprint among Lingayat dominated seats, among several others.
Each of these leaders and many others are political heavyweights in their own right and are seen as representatives of various crucial caste/community voting bloc who collectively contributed to the Congress’s resounding 135-seat victory in the 224-member Karnataka Assembly polls. The party had initially toyed with the idea of having more than one deputy CMs, perhaps to accommodate a Lingayat, Dalit or Muslim leader in the role. However, this arrangement seems unlikely now given that Shivakumar may not wish for his stature in the government to be shared – and diluted – after having lost the race for the CM’s chair.
The Congress will, thus, need to offer important portfolios to these leaders while its choice for the Assembly Speaker will also have to heavily weigh in on caste and community aspirations. By seemingly settling the acrimonious tug of war for the CM’s post between Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar – it is not known at the moment whether a shared term agreement on a rotational basis has also been agreed upon by the two leaders as was speculated earlier – the Congress has to now prepare for the other tightrope walk of Cabinet formation. If the power play between Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar is any indication, the task ahead won’t be any easier for the party leadership but for now, Congress president Kharge can breathe easy for having finally resolved a gridlock that, for a brief while on Wednesday, appeared to be pushing the Congress’s rare electoral victory run towards derailment.
All eyes will now be on the CLP meeting to be held in Bangalore this evening. The Congress high command would certainly be hoping against any new twist in this already knotty affair.