Miffed at being ignored by the Congress high command, former Karnataka Chief Minister SM Krishna resigned from the party on Saturday. The question now is: will the departure of this dapper, US-educated leader from the Vokkaliga community affect the Congress in next year’s Assembly elections in the state?
Krishna, 82, has been a Congressman for more than 40 years. During this period, he has enjoyed various posts. He has been a Union minister in both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinets, has been Speaker of the legislative Assembly, worked as state Congress president, was Karnataka chief minister, governor of Maharashtra, and was also accommodated in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. While he probably deserved his earlier stints in power, the last two were despite the fact that he sent the Congress party on a downward spiral in the state.
In the 1999 Assembly elections, when Krishna was state Congress president, the party won 132 of the 224 Assembly seats. One of the main reasons for this victory was the disgust that Karnataka voters felt over the factional fighting between leaders of the erstwhile Janata Dal who had split up into the Janata Dal (United) and Janata Dal (Secular). Irate that Janata Dal leaders had frittered away the second chance the people had given them, voters turned back to the Congress. The Congress leadership then chose Krishna as the chief minister.
Krishna’s reign from 1999 to 2004 had two aspects to it. One was the sophisticated politician’s role, which the mainstream media loved. Much to their delight, Krishna gave importance to the information technology and biotechnology sectors and vowed to turn Bengaluru into India’s Singapore. He gave scant attention to rural areas despite the fact that hundreds of farmers committed suicide because of severe drought that plagued the state for three continuous years during his tenure.
The other aspect was his blatant casteism to which the same media turned a blind eye. Krishna’s heart beat only for his community. During his reign, Vokkaliga bureaucrats got plum postings, and his followers from that community were posted to various boards and state undertakings. His sidelining of leaders from other communities caused much heartburn among Lingayats, the other dominant community in Karnataka, as well as among Other Backward Classes and Dalit communities. Krishna’s deliberate insults to Lingayat leaders made that community turn towards BS Yeddyurappa of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Despite the liberal westernised image that Krishna displays, he is conservative at heart. For instance, soon after becoming chief minister, he spent lakhs of rupees from the state exchequer to redesign his official residence according to the traditional Indian architectural system of vaastu shastra.
Krishna perhaps got so carried away by the support he got from the English media (in 2002, India Today magazine even called him “The Best Chief Minister” after a survey) that he decided to call state elections eight months early, along with the Lok Sabha polls, in 2004.
The development model
He seemed to have thought that he would win on the basis of his development model. That was also the year that the first National Democratic Alliance government had promoted its India Shining campaign, and Telugu Desam Party leader Chandrababu Naidu had projected himself as the Chief Executive Officer of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Both were rejected by the electorate, as was the Congress in Karnataka because there was enormous discontent brewing against Krishna’s government and its priorities. Perhaps Krishna sensed this. Because for the first time he deserted his constituency of Maddur – from where he had fought all his previous elections – and shifted to Chamarajpet constituency in Bengaluru city. The reason he gave at that time was that since he was a chief minister, it would be easier for him to campaign in this small constituency.
It was a disastrous election. The Congress slid from 132 seats to a mere 65 in Karnataka. Worse, 31 of the 49 ministers in Krishna’s cabinet bit the dust. The BJP, which had bagged only 44 seats earlier, increased its tally to 79. Even the Janata Dal (Secular), which had only 10 seats in the previous term, won in 58 constituencies.
Krishna’s urban-centric image took a severe beating too. The Congress could bag only 11 of the 32 seats in both Bengaluru Urban and Rural districts. In contrast, the BJP managed to win 20 Bengaluru constituencies.
After the results, Krishna said in an interview that “the people have rejected me in Karnataka”.
Congress makes him governor
His party, however, did not reject him. Despite the abject performance of the Congress in Karnataka under Krishna’s leadership, the party high command handed him a gubernatorial post and moved him to Mumbai. It has been 13 years since Krishna contested in any general election.
When the 2009 Lok Sabha elections came around, the Congress was keen to make him contest against BJP’s Ananth Kumar from Bengaluru South constituency. Perhaps Krishna was not confident of winning because he refused to contest. But that did not stop him from entering the Rajya Sabha and bagging the post of external affairs minister in the second United Progressive Alliance government. His performance as a Central cabinet minister was such a disaster that he was shown the door in 2012.
Upon returning to the state, Krishna publicly claimed: “I am not expecting anything from the party. I have got everything from the party. So this is the time for me to give back to the party whatever I can.”
However, it was clear that he was hoping to be made either Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president or even chief minister once again.
In the 2013 Assembly elections Krishna campaigned in both Mandya and Bengaluru. Perhaps, he was hoping that his Vokkaliga base in Mandya and his polished image in the state capital would propel him to an important position in the Congress. Unfortunately for him, the Congress won only two of the seven seats in Mandya. Rubbing salt into Krishna’s wounds, the two victors were his rival Ambarish and Siddaramaiah groupie Narendra Swamy. In Bengaluru’s constituencies too, though the BJP’s seat count had reduced to 12 from 20 and the Congress’ had increased to 15 from 11, no one credited the success to Krishna. Yet he continued to project himself as a respected and relevant leader of the Congress.
In the run up to the 2014 elections to Parliament some Congressmen from Mandya district urged the party to give a ticket to Krishna instead of to actress-turned-politician Ramya. Once again, Krishna feared taking a risk at the ballot box and refused to contest. Yet, that did not stop him from expecting the high command to usher him into the Rajya Sabha once again.
When the party refused to do so, Krishna tried to organise a revolt against the Congress. But his efforts came to naught. Later, he targeted the Siddaramaiah government and tried to destabilise it. He not only got some disgruntled legislators to complain against the government, he also met Congress President Sonia Gandhi twice to update her about what he saw as the sorry state of affairs under Siddaramaiah. He also got his former protégé and state Congress chief G Parameshwar to demand the post of deputy chief minister. Gandhi did not pay any heed to Krishna’s complaints.
Political circles are now rife with speculation about Krishna’s plans. He might join the BJP, some say, pointing to his consistent silence on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, increasing intolerance, vandalism of churches, attacks on women in pubs, and demonetisation. Both state BJP state president BS Yeddyurappa and Union Minister Sadananda Gowda have openly extended a welcome to Krishna.
Should Krishna join the BJP, it will merely use him as a weapon to beat the Congress with. There is no way that a party that has totally sidelined stalwarts like LK Advani and Arun Shourie will give him any position of importance.
Yes, Siddaramaiah has many challenges before him. The recent demise of Mahadev Prasad has left the Congress with no Lingayat leader of repute. The party’s Dalit vote base has also been dented after veteran state Congress leader Srinivas Prasad quit the party in October and joined the BJP. The preference for Ahinda (the Kannada acronym for minorities, Other Backward Classes and Dalits) has angered Vokkaligas. But Krishna’s departure poses no danger to the Congress since he no longer attracts voters from the urban elite or the Vokkaliga community. In short, SM Krishna is of little relevance in Karnataka today.