It seems the Karnataka government is going to fall, and fall quite soon. Whispers suggest that Madhya Pradesh will be next, followed by Rajasthan. Invariably the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be blamed and the usual hysterical dirges suitable disguised as ‘op-eds’ rhyming with ‘murder of democracy’ will start. What this does, is hide the fact that the internal churn within the Indian National Congress has more to do with what’s happening than the BJP.
To start, the Congress-Janata Dal(Secular) alliance was never going to work. The bigger partner (the Congress) ceding the chief minister’s post to the smaller partner (JDS) was tactical genius, but a strategic blunder. It was never going to fly for long with ambitious people such as former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. To give one a foreign policy analogy, it was much like Mao Tse Tung, resenting being forced to play second fiddle to Nikita Khrushchev after Stalin’s death, leading invariably to the Sino-Soviet split.
Obviously the Congress lost no opportunity to boss over its ostensible boss HD Kumaraswamy; the lèse-majesté driving the latter to cry in public. Honestly, you can’t make a grown man cry and not expect him to have the daggers out for you.
The abysmal showing in the recent Lok Sabha elections only confirmed what everyone knew: that the Congress’ and JDS’ vote bases were fundamentally incompatible and forming a government together didn’t ensure vote transference from one to the other. All up the government was a stillborn, administratively, politically and more importantly in interpersonal terms in that it set off internal resentment within both parties.
The second issue is how the Congress being an agglomeration of chieftains is seeing fierce intra-party fighting, now exacerbated over scarce resources. In Karnataka this points towards one man — Siddaramaiah, who still hasn’t gotten used to not being Chief Minister.
If bullying Kumaraswamy wasn't enough, Siddaramaiah has been playing a double game, convinced that he can strain the JDS to the point that it cedes the chief minster’s chair to him. To this end he has been alienating party colleagues on the one hand and on the other, many claim in private conversations, that the rebel Congress MLA’s have been instigated by him as part of his strategy of ‘permanent tension’.
DK Shivakumar is the one man who has put the party first but his best efforts have been thwarted by Siddaramaiah’s mischief, who is jealous that Shivakumar may make him redundant. The Congress state president Dinesh Gundurao is by all accounts unable to crack the whip on this one-sided feud.
Indeed the Karnataka infighting pattern rhymes in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In Madhya Pradesh, the differences between Chief Minister Kamal Nath and party leader Jyotiraditya Scindia have come to the fore after the electoral defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. Scindia though is not entirely to blame given that Nath focused all his attention and resources on getting his son elected rather than ensuring a party victory. Rajasthan is no different. Smarting over not being made Chief Minister, Sachin Pilot essentially sat out the elections with many rumours doing the rounds that he asked his loyalists to help the BJP during the Lok Sabha polls. This situation was compounded by Ashok Gehlot (much like Kamal Nath) focusing on his own son’s parliamentary constituency and ignoring the rest of the state.
In all three states — Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — infighting and internal sabotage have played a far greater role than the BJP.
Finally, while intra-state dynamics are important, there’s the national level churn happening affecting what happens in the states. Today, much like in 1977, the vast chunk of Congress MPs come from the south with Kerala being the single biggest block. This has morphed into a North-South divide with the south wanting its share in the national pie, a pie in which it remains almost entirely ignored.
Given their relative importance within the party, southern apparatchiks are manoeuvring for a shift in the balance of power to them within the AICC, away from the North Indian heavyweights. To be fair there is no sense of a “unified south” but rather an agglutination of the desires of individual southern heavyweights. Like all political fights, this involves much backstabbing, betrayal and working to weaken the party in order to increase ones relative strength.
All put, if the Congress governments in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were to fall or see serious threats, then nobody is to be blamed save the Congress itself. ‘Opportunistic’ is an overused word in politics, which is after all the art of opportunity and would be a monumental dereliction of duty on the part of the BJP to not exploit this. As they say, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”, and so with these three states, the shame will entirely be the Congress’.Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.