In the early sixties, when the socialist movement under the leadership of Shantaveri Gopal Gowda and Ram Manohar Lohia gripped Karnataka, young people flocked to their side. Among them, a star emerged – Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna, better known as SM Krishna – who had just returned from the US after completing his law degree on a Fulbright scholarship.

Instead of enrolling himself as a lawyer, Krishna chose to enter politics and in his first election, won the Maddur Assembly seat in the 1962 elections for the Praja Socialist Party, defeating the popular Congress.

The astute politician that Krishna was, he soon realised the Praja Socialist Party’s limitations in Indian politics. He joined the Indira Gandhi-led Congress (I) and contested the 1971 parliamentary elections. Since then, the grand old party has only seen him as an asset and a solid leader – he served as a minister in the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi cabinets in the eighties.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in particular, encouraged him and picked him for key positions. He was Karnataka’s chief minister from 1999 to 2004. When the Congress lost the 2004 Assembly elections in the state, Krishna did not fall out of favour with the Congress high command. He was made the governor of Maharashtra from 2004 to 2008, and remained so until he joined the Manmohan Singh cabinet as external affairs minister in 2009.

Down but not out

Krishna announced his resignation from the Congress on January 29. Party insiders said that the Congress leadership had rejected his re-nomination to the Rajya Sabha when his term ended in 2015.

After over 40 years with the Congress, Krishna wrote to Sonia Gandhi, stating that “elders in the party are being neglected at both the state and central levels and this kind of ill treatment of elders who have contributed to the party will not augur well with their stature in public and politics.”

He, however, told the media that he would remain in active politics, saying. The statement set tongues wagging in the southern state.

Congress leaders in Karnataka are worried that Krishna’s decision to quit the party at a time when they are gearing up to go head-to-head with a resurgent BJP in the 2018 Assembly elections, would demoralise workers.

They do put on a brave front though.

“Why should Congress bother about Krishna when he has ditched the party after enjoying all positions of power?” asked senior Congress leader AH Vishwanath. “With the exception of the prime minister and president’s post he has got all positions whether it be chief minister or governor or a key ministry like external affairs.”

But BJP leaders, particularly those from the Vokkaliga community to which Krishna belongs, are buoyed by speculation that the former Congress leader may join the saffron party especially after its Karnataka president BS Yeddyurappa recently indicated as much.

Vokkaligas are the third dominant community in Karnataka after Lingayats and Dalits.

Although no one really believes that Krishna’s entry into the BJP will bring the party a substantial number of votes, they are of the opinion that they can take advantage of Krishna’s clean image in politics.

“No votes may be added to BJP, but Krishna’s image of being a sober politician and his allegation of being neglected in Congress will give a psychological advantage to BJP candidates in the Vokkaliga belt,” said a state BJP leader who is attempting to persuade Krishna to join the party. “[This is] where Vokkaligas are in fewer numbers.”

Krishna in two minds?

But an unofficial BJP rule instituted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that bars leaders above the age of 75 from active politics could deter Krishna from joining the saffron party.

Krishna is 84. With the BJP having sidelined veterans like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi on account of this rule, Krishna stands little chance of holding any important position of power either within the BJP or in government if the party wins next year’s Assembly elections.

While Krishna was unavailable for comment, people close to him said that he too is in “two minds” due to the issue of age.

A BJP leader on condition of anonymity told this reporter that Krishna would be given a Constitutional post at the Centre, and his followers would be accommodated with party tickets to contest the 2018 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“A clear picture on this score will emerge only after the UP [Uttar Pradesh] elections,” he said.

The Congress’ loss and the BJP’s possible gain has come as a blessing in disguise for the Janata Dal (Secular), the third player in state politics. Its leaders, whose key votebank is the Vokkaliga community, are elated because they believe that Krishna’s decision to quit the Congress will rally the community solidly behind their party.