The success of the mega birthday event of the Leader of the Opposition in the State Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah, seems to have, at least for now, convinced the warring factions in the Congress to bury their differences. This comes as a respite in the midst of a running feud between the former Chief Minister and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president D.K. Shivakumar over who the next Chief Minister should be if the party wins the 2023 elections.
Both the leaders, who have attracted public attention with their game of one-upmanship, sought to demonstrate unity by hugging each other in front of massive crowds at Davangere on August 3. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi expressed joy over this demonstration. To drive home the point of collective leadership, Mr. Gandhi showered praises on Mr. Siddaramaiah’s five-year governance as well as Mr. Shivakumar’s organisational skills. He said by targeting the ruling BJP for its “misrule” and “failures” on several issues besides “corruption scandals”, the State Congress would be able to oust it from power.
Mr. Gandhi, who attended the first meeting of the KPCC’s political affairs committee in Hubballi just ahead of the big event, sent out a clear message to the leaders that public utterances on the party’s internal matters and leadership issues would not be tolerated. Apparently chastened, both leaders then rallied support for the ‘Freedom March’ to be held on August 15 and jointly addressed a press conference to mark the anniversary of the Quit India Movement.
There were other signals from the mega event too. Importantly, Mr. Gandhi, accompanied by Mr. Shivakumar, visited the Murugharajendra Mutt in Chitradurga district ahead of the event. In a move to win back the support of the dominant Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, Mr. Gandhi received ‘Ishta Linga Deekshe’ from Shivamurthy Murugha Sharana, pontiff of the Mutt, and evinced interest in learning Basavanna’s teachings. This is seen as politically significant at a time when the Congress is attempting to woo the Lingayats, who are largely seen as loyal to the ruling BJP. Three BJP Chief Ministers have emerged from the community — B.S. Yediyurappa, Jagadish Shettar and Basavaraj Bommai. This outreach gains significance in the aftermath of Lingayat strongman Mr. Yediyurappa’s ouster from the Chief Minister’s post as well his recent announcement that he will be retiring from electoral politics.
The KPCC chief is also learned to have passed on the message to seers at the Mutt that the party will not repeat the “mistakes” it had made in the past. The Siddaramaiah-led government’s decision to secure a separate religion tag for the Lingayats is seen as having divided the community’s leaders and dented their prospects in the 2018 Assembly polls.
The backward Kuruba community, to which the former Chief Minister belongs, is a key community in the AHINDA (minorities, backward classes and Dalits). The Kurubas have a good presence across the State, except in the coastal region, and Mr. Siddaramaiah is banking on the AHINDA communities to swing the fortunes in the Congress’s favour in 2023. On the other hand, Vokkaliga community leader Shivakumar and a few Congress leaders are keen on a balancing act to ensure that the AHINDA agenda does not drive away the Veerashaiva-Lingayats and Vokkaligas from the Congress. The Veerashaiva-Lingayats are dominant in north Karnataka, while the Vokkaligas are dominant in the old Mysuru region. While it is hard to say which way votes will swing, both Mr. Shivakumar and Mr. Siddaramaiah will face a challenge during the distribution of ticket to their loyalists next year. It will be a real test on whether the show of unity between the two leaders will last.