Sunday’s reshuffle of the Karnataka cabinet by Chief Minister S Siddaramaiah seems to have come as a blessing in disguise for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and Janata Dal (Secular). This is particularly so for the JD(S), which suffered severe reverses in the Rajya Sabha and legislative council elections where its candidates lost to the ruling Congress party. What was more embarrassing was that eight of the 40 MLAs of the JD(S) cross-voted in favour of the ruling Congress’ candidates in the Rajya Sabha.
Siddaramaiah dropped 14 of 34 ministers to bring in 13 new faces into his cabinet. One berth appears to have been kept vacant to tackle any possible political fallout of the move.
The first fallout was in the form of violent protests by supporters of aspiring legislators as well as those who were dropped. In Kalaburgi, the pocket borough of the Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, supporters of the dropped minister Qamrul Islam, a strongman in the Muslim community, ransacked the Congress office. Police resorted to baton charge to disperse violent protestors.
Mysuru, Chamarajanagar and Mandya districts saw similar incidents where supporters of Dalit leader V Srinivasa Prasad and actor-turned-politician AH Ambarish blocked roads to protest against their leaders being dropped from the state cabinet.
“Sunday’s cabinet reshuffle was a (case of) match fixing between Siddaramaiah and Kharge,” said V Srinivasa Prasad, senior Dalit leader and a former union minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee cabinet. Kharge had allowed Siddaramaiah to resort to “mindless pruning and trimming of the state cabinet”, Prasad alleged, so as to ensure his son and first time legislator from Chitapur was accommodated.
“I am not upset over my being dropped from the cabinet, what has upset me is that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Kharge, who came to me with a begging bowl on the eve of Assembly elections in 2008 asking me to join Congress, have now exhibited their opportunism. They never took me into confidence on the issue of sacking me from the cabinet,” he said. “I may not contest the next elections, but I will remain in active politics and see that the Congress is defeated in the state,” he threatened. He added that Siddaramaiah and Kharge themselves were facilitating the “Congress-mukt Bharat” [Congress-free India] plan of the BJP.
AH Ambarish, who has his own mass following in the Vokkaliga heartland dominated by the JD(S), also announced his decision to quit the Assembly seat. “In my life I have not gone to anybody begging for a position or seat in politics,” he said. “I know how to teach a lesson or two to my detractors in politics who conspired to see my exit from the state cabinet.” He said he would take a decision on his future political career after consulting with the people of his district.
Local JD(S) leaders such as GT Devegowda and Mandya MP CS Puttaraju were quick to approach the disgruntled Congressmen. The JD(S) chief and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda reportedly even suggested that these legislators keep their option of joining the JD(S) open. “Mine is the only secular and alternative outfit for secular-minded leaders like Srinivasa Prasad, Qamrul Islam and Ambarish, especially with Congress being in the doldrums and its support base dwindling on a daily basis,” he was quoted by party insiders as saying to the miffed Congress MLAs. He is supposed to have counselled these MLAs not to resign their seats until the state Assembly polls due in May 2018.
Dissent from within the Congress is likely to benefit the JD(S) more than the BJP in Karnataka. Of the three leaders who have so far threatened to quit the Congress, Srinivasa Prasad and Ambarish hail from the Vokkaliga heartland, a stronghold of JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda. Any combination and consolidation of Dalit and Vokkaliga voters will add much needed muscle to the sagging image of the JD(S).
The third legislator, Qamrul Islam, was instrumental in getting Muslim votes for Kharge in 2009 Lok Sabha election, which he won by a narrow margin of over 14,000 votes. If these leaders decide to join the JD(S), the party would likely consolidate its position in the Vokkaliga heartland as well as in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, where a sizeable Muslim population resides. The BJP’s presence in these regions is meagre, which means the JD(S) would be the better option if the three Congress legislators intend to jump ship.
The BJP stands to gain ground to some extent in Chamarajnagar constituency where Dalits, traditional supporters of Prasad, would join Lingayats whose votes would now be with the BJP, as prominent Lingayat leader BS Yeddyurappa is back at the top.
More in store
Sunday’s reshuffle has brought to the fore all the heartburn prevailing among various leaders on Siddaramaiah’s alleged autocratic style of functioning and turned the spotlight on his failure in delivering on various schemes. “There is no need for Modi to come and canvass for “Congress-mukt Karnataka” in 2018 Assembly elections, it is Siddaramaiah himself who will achieve this task,” a senior Congress leader from North Karnataka who aspired for a ministerial berth said.
Meanwhile, former MP and Congress leader AH Vishwanath has written to party president Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi on Monday, asking them to intervene. Vishwanath, also a Kuruba leader like Siddaramaiah, wrote that if the situation so demands the high command should not hesitate to remove Siddaramaiah from the post to set the Congress house in order. He appealed to all the bickering leaders, including Siddaramaiah, to remain silent and stop criticising the party. “The party is of utmost importance to us and everybody should abide by the party discipline,” he said.
The Gandhis are going to have to move with speed to quell the mutiny within the Karnataka Congress. As of now, however, Rahul Gandhi seems to have something else on his mind.