In Karnataka, Congress on the defensive

But it hopes to shift focus to ‘guarantee schemes’ and the issue of devolution of funds

March 05, 2024 12:36 am | Updated 12:42 pm IST

Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah with his deputy D. K. Shivakumar attend the proceedings of the State Assembly on the last day of Budget Session on February 28, 2024.

Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah with his deputy D. K. Shivakumar attend the proceedings of the State Assembly on the last day of Budget Session on February 28, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

On the heels of the Budget session of the Karnataka Legislature ending on a raucous note, an IED blast at the Rameshwaram Cafe in Bengaluru’s IT hub has set off a predictable narrative ahead of Lok Sabha elections.

During the Budget session, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged that supporters of the Congress’s Rajya Sabha winner Syed Naseer Hussain raised “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans in the corridors of the State Secretariat. On Monday three people were arrested in connection with the case. BJP State party president B.Y. Vijayendra described the blast in the cafe as an “extension” of the incident involving the alleged slogans and blamed the “my brother” policy of the Congress government for both. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union Minister and BJP contestant from Thiruvananthapuram, also said that both were a result of the “appeasement politics” of the Congress. Even as the investigating agencies are yet to make a significant breakthrough in either of the cases — with the forensic science laboratory report on the audio clip awaited in the first and no arrests made yet in the second — there has been political cacophony.

The Opposition has also been talking about the “failure” of the Congress government’s guarantee schemes and mounting allegations of corruption. But the two recent episodes and the manner in which the BJP has seized these opportunities to target the ruling party is an indication of the tenor of its Lok Sabha campaign. Its leaders’ statements are in the party’s comfort zone of Hindutva politics, which is in tune with what is perceived to be the national mood after the inauguration of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. The two incidents have succeeded in putting the Congress on the defensive, yet again compelling it to bend backwards to “prove” that it is not “anti-Hindu.” Effectively countering this narrative and bringing the discussion back to what it was hoping for in the run up to the elections is a challenge for the Congress.

Besides riding on the “success” of its five guarantee schemes, the party gave a fair indication of what it is keen to focus on during its campaign, during the Budget session. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah launched no-holds-barred attacks against the Centre over “stepmotherly treatment” in the devolution of taxes and drought relief. The Congress government went on to even pass a resolution in the Assembly against the Union government. This led to acerbic exchanges, dharnas, and walkouts in the Budget session. Mr. Siddaramaiah’s Budget speech and his reply to the Budget discussion were replete with accusations against the BJP government at the Centre for decreasing the State’s share of devolved taxes, and gradually decreasing the grant-in-aid allocation for centrally sponsored schemes and forcing the State to increase its share. Every time the Opposition brought up the question of drought or funding for works, the Chief Minister laid the blame squarely at the door of the Centre.

In early February, the State government’s leadership, led by Mr. Siddaramaiah, staged a protest in New Delhi, calling it a “movement to protect the interests of Karnataka and Kannadigas” and against the “gross injustice” of the Centre. Mr. Siddaramaiah wrote a letter to all the MPs of the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), the BJP party’s ally for the Lok Sabha polls, asking them to participate in this agitation “in the interest of Kannadigas.”

Devolution of funds has remained a hot issue, with Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar’s brother and Lok Sabha member D.K. Suresh going as far as to argue that “South Indian States may be forced to demand a separate country if the Centre does not provide them with adequate funds.” While this was dubbed “anti-national” by the BJP, the Congress government has continued to make overtures related to federalism and regional identity, also evident in the passage in the Budget session of the Kannada Language Comprehensive Development (Amendment) Bill, 2024, which mandates 60% of text on the name boards of all business and industrial establishments to be in Kannada in the top half. The Congress has made similar attempts in the past, including demanding that the Centre to grant official status to the ‘Kannada flag’.

The Lok Sabha polls are going to be held in summer. Karnataka is reeling under a drinking water crisis and farmers have already lost a large part of their crops. What narrative will cut ice with the voters in a such a situation remains to be seen.

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