How many deputies are too many?

The demand for more deputy chief ministers has returned to bother the Congress

January 25, 2024 01:55 am | Updated 08:21 am IST

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar during a press meet at the KPCC office in Bengaluru. File

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar during a press meet at the KPCC office in Bengaluru. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The demand for three more deputy chief ministers in Karnataka, which first came to the fore three months ago, has come back to haunt the Congress government. If it persists, it could turn out to be a headache for the party ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress, which was voted to power in May 2023, had two senior leaders, Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar, vying for the top job. The issue was resolved after the party high command intervened and made Mr. Siddaramaiah Chief Minister and Mr. Shivakumar his deputy. Mr. Shivakumar was given portfolios of his choice and was also allowed to retain the post of State Congress president.

Just as Mr. Shivakumar began to emerge as an alternative power centre within the ruling party, a few ministers loyal to the Chief Minister publicly started demanding three more deputy chief ministers. This ask slowly died down three months ago. But when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appointed two deputy chief ministers in the newly formed governments in three Hindi heartland States last month, the demand resurfaced in Karnataka.

The ministers raising this demand claim that the creation of three more posts of deputy chief minister would help “balance castes” ahead of the Lok Sabha polls and help the party win at least 20 seats compared to the one seat it won in 2019. As Mr. Shivakumar belongs to the Vokkaliga community, the demand is to appoint deputies belonging to the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, minority and Veerashaiva-Lingayat groups to consolidate the party’s position against the BJP-JD(S) alliance.

Cooperation Minister K.N. Rajanna, who first made the demand, cited the appointments of multiple deputy chief ministers in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh by the BJP. Mr. Rajanna’s proposal has been endorsed by Home Minister G. Parameshwara, who earlier served as the Deputy Chief Minister. Some Ministers apparently held a couple of ‘dinner meetings’ to discuss the issue. The first meeting was held at Mr. Parameshwara’s house in October 2023, and attended by the Chief Minister. The second was held in early January 2024 and was attended by Social Welfare Minister H.C. Mahadevappa, Food Minister K.H. Muniyappa, and Mr. Parameshwara, who are all from SC communities; Mr. Rajanna and Minister of Public Works Department Satish Jarkiholi from the Valmiki/Nayak ST community; and Health Minister Dinesh Gundu Rao, a Brahmin. Mr. Siddaramaiah did not attend this meeting but most of the ministers who did are considered to be close to him.

The demand for more deputy chief ministers has obviously not gone down well with Mr. Shivakumar and the party high command. Mr. Shivakumar has maintained that only the high command can take decisions on such matters. “Everyone has to work together to win parliamentary elections, that’s it,” he said.

When All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary in-charge of Karnataka, Randeep Singh Surjewala, visited Bengaluru recently, the ministers placed their demand before him. Both Mr. Surjewala and AICC chief Mallikarjun Kharge have brushed aside the proposal. “There is no proposal to create additional deputy chief ministers before the AICC,” Mr. Kharge said and maintained that raising such demands ahead of the general elections was inappropriate. The AICC chief argued that the government’s focus should be on providing good administration and addressing people’s problems. Mr. Surjewala told the ministers to focus on effective delivery of the five guarantees being implemented by the government, to garner votes. But the ministers do not seem to have entirely given up on their demand.

Though the deputy chief minister’s post has no mention in the Constitution, it is a sought-after post these days as the person holding the post is seen as the second-in-command and therefore a natural successor. Karnataka has had more than one deputy chief minister under both Congress-led and BJP-led governments. Mr. Siddaramaiah too served as the Deputy Chief Minister twice in the past.

For now, the Congress high command seems to be in no mood to concede the demand; doing so would undermine the importance of the party’s “trouble-shooter”, Mr. Shivakumar. But handling the situation before the elections is going to be a challenge for the party.

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