Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka cheif minister HD Kumaraswamy
Five months into office, the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress government in Karnataka is muddling through. Increasingly, there’s a growing sense of unease among senior Congress leaders that the JD(S) is taking advantage of the coalition arrangement.
Differences in the coalition have surfaced early on, with even reports of dissent in the Congress over the allotment of ministerial berths. The October 6 announcement of by-elections to two assembly and three Lok Sabha seats by the Election Commission of India (EC) has put a temporary halt to this. But the leaders are beset with other worries as the JD(S) is trying to consolidate its position at the cost of the Congress.
With a hung assembly after the May state elections, the Congress had no option but to align with the JD(S) to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power. With the 2019 general elections around the corner, the Congress was keen to send a message to non-BJP parties to come together to dislodge the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
Thus, it is important for the Congress that the coalition in Karnataka continues, so much so that Congress President Rahul Gandhi has often gone out of the way to rein in state leaders who are critical of Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy’s style of functioning.
The bypolls to the two assembly seats — of the Ramanagaram seat vacated by Kumaraswamy who contested from two seats, and Jamkhandi seat where the Congress MLA died shortly after the results — were expected.
However, the EC’s decision to hold bypolls to the three Lok Sabha seats (Shivamogga, Bellary and Mandya) has surprised every political party. Even though the candidate who wins will have less than six months in office given that the general elections will likely be held early next year, every party will take the polls seriously in order to maintain the morale of the cadre.
The Lok Sabha bypolls are important for the JD(S) which is desperate to increase its tally of two seats out of the 28 in Karnataka. To achieve this, the party is banking on its coalition with the Congress and has asked for 8-10 seats in the 2019 polls, much to the chagrin of local Congress leaders.
What’s also interesting is that 85-year-old Deve Gowda, who had earlier announced his retirement from active politics, is most likely to contest the 2019 polls. This could be with the aim that in the event of a hung House, he could be the consensus prime ministerial candidate.
In 1996, Deve Gowda became the surprise choice of the United Front alliance, though his party had only 16 MPs. His government lasted barely 11 months before the Congress, extending outside support, pulled it down.
Now, of course, it is a much weaker Congress which is trying to stitch together the regional parties to form a Mahagathbandhan to take on the might of the BJP. The Congress’ regional satraps are, however, worried that the party might be ceding more ground than necessary to regional outfits.
In a clear indication that the JD(S) is already using the Congress to grow stronger, it has persuaded Rahul Gandhi to leave Shivamogga to its candidate, though historically Shivamogga is a Congress bastion, until Yeddyurappa emerged as a strong leader in this Malnad region.
In the latest development, with Deve Gowda and Siddaramaiah burying their old rivalry and shaking hands after a gap of 12 years — at the instance of the Congress high command — it is a huge challenge for the BJP to repeat its impressive performances in the Lok Sabha elections.
As far as Karnataka is concerned, if the JD(S)-Congress combine manages to do reasonably well in the five by-elections currently being held, there is every possibility that with just 37 MLAs by his side, Kumaraswamy’s dream run will continue well into 2019.(Ramakrishna Upadhya is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)