Has the Narendra Modi government opened up fissures in the Congress in Karnataka with this week’s raids on properties linked to Energy Minister DK Shivakumar?
Publicly, the Congress has put up a united face and condemned the ongoing raids by the Income Tax department, which started on August 2, as vindictive politics. But all is not well in the party. Shivakumar’s supporters are wondering why he was not alerted by the state intelligence about the searches, presuming that Income Tax officials would have informed the state authorities before carrying out the raids.
The first salvo was fired by Shivakumar’s mother Gowramma on Thursday. “They are jealous of my son, they want to harm him. Siddaramaiah makes use of my son and repeatedly betrays him,” she charged, referring to the chief minister.
A leader close to Shivakumar told Scroll.in that their first reaction to the raids was disbelief. “We wondered why the state intelligence did not warn him,” the leader said. As this question grew louder in the Congress, the government felt compelled to write to the Centre, slamming the use of the Central Reserve Police Force for guarding the Income Tax raiding party. In essence, this was a reply to critics within the party: that the government had no clue about the raids as the local police were not informed.
Gowramma’s remarks got the attention of Siddaramaiah’s loyalists, some of whom think they were Shivakumar’s words conveyed through another voice.
With Karnataka set for Assembly election in 2018, the tension between the chief minister and one of his most important ministers has created a sense of disquiet in the Congress ranks.
It is an open secret in the Karnataka Congress that Shivakumar is close to Ahmed Patel, Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary who is contesting the August 8 Rajya Sabha election from Gujarat. No surprisingly then, it was Shivakumar who was given the task of looking after 44 Congress MLAs from Gujarat at his resort near Bengaluru. The legislators were flown in on Monday to keep them from being poached by the BJP. Six Congress legislators in Gujarat quit the party last month and three have since joined the BJP. Patel has accused the BJP of restoring to a witch-hunt to defeat him.
The election is seen as a personal battle between Patel and BJP President Amit Shah. If Patel loses, it would be a major embarrassment for the Congress ahead of the Assembly election later this year. The Gujarat Congress is already reeling from a number of high-profile defections, including that of veteran leader Shankersinh Vaghela last month.
Man in the storm
Born to a farmer in Kanakapura in 1962, Shivakumar joined the Congress early in his life. He rose swiftly through the ranks after becoming general secretary of the Karnataka State Youth Congress in 1983, and building a reputation as an efficient organiser.
A member of the powerful Vokkaliga community that dominates South Karnataka, Shivakumar grabbed headlines in 2013 when he declared assets worth Rs 251 crore in his affidavit for the Assembly election. With Karnataka going through a power crisis, he was given charge of the energy ministry, not least because of his reputation as a leader who gets things done.
However, his proximity to Patel, and thereby to the Congress’s central leadership, has been a matter of concern for his rivals. Within the Congress, he is also seen as an aggressive, even arrogant, man who makes unilateral decisions. Shivakumar does not take criticism lightly. In 2016, a small trader was sent to jail for criticising electricity shortage in the state and demanding a solution to frequent power cuts from Shivakumar.
Things came to a head earlier this year when the Congress started searching for a new chief for its Karnataka unit. Until March, almost all media reports suggested that Shivakumar was the front runner. The post was crucial as the new president would see the party through the 2018 election. However, the leadership chose to go with G Parameshwara. Shivakumar’s camp saw it as the handiwork of Siddaramaiah, apparently because he felt a threat to his position from Shivakumar. Indeed, Shivakumar has in the past openly stated that he has chief ministerial ambitions.
Congress leaders alleged that the BJP is using the Income Tax department to target key organisers of the party in order to cripple it ahead of the election. “We in the party need to understand this and not fight among ourselves,” a senior party leader said, requesting anonymity.
Meanwhile, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told the Parliament on Thursday that the raids had nothing to do with the Gujarat legislators and that Shivakumar had been on the Income Tax department’s radar for a long time.