The central leadership of the Congress appears to have finally settled the issue of leadership in the event of the party coming to power in Karnataka by a public declaration from none other than the party president, Rahul Gandhi.
On his maiden campaign tour for the Assembly election, due in May, Gandhi made a direct statement that the legislature party will be headed by Siddaramaiah. This statement was not made once during the four-day tour of the Congress stronghold, the Hyderabad-Karnataka region but several times.
This is what Rahul Gandhi said – “I want to tell the people and particularly the youth. That just as we have run the government (at the Centre) during the last 60 years without discriminating between communities, we shall continue to do so in the future also. In the same way, just as we have done good work in Karnataka, Siddaramaiah and his team will do even better work in the future.”
Many may say that there was never any doubt about Siddaramaiah being the natural choice for chief ministership in the event of the party returning to power. It may even be argued that Siddaramaiah is already the mascot of the party and any leadership worth its salt would not be able to replace him as leader of the legislature party.
He also made his point about Siddaramaiah leading in the future in the presence of all important leaders of the party, all of whom were present on the stage with him. This included leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjuna Kharge, Dr Parameshwara, among others.
Both these factors were very well known to the party leaders and party workers in the state. Yet, as late as a month or two ago, the party’s AICC secretary in-charge of Karnataka, KC Venugopal had to intervene and advise the state party president, G Parameshwara, not to make public statements such as the party had not yet decided who will be the Chief Minister if the party won the elections. Even Siddaramaiah had to revise his statement that the legislature party will decide who will be elected as its leader.
“Everyone knows that the party’s return to power is completely dependent upon Siddaramaiah. There is very little doubt that he is the leader of the masses but there are some leaders who cannot tolerate all the powers being given to him in selection of candidates,” said a senior leader, on condition of anonymity.
It is in this context that Rahul Gandhi’s statement during his tour of Bidar, Gulbarga, Yadgir, Raichur, Koppal and Ballari, which constitute the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, is significant. The central leadership of the Congress would have, obviously, assessed the situation as well before deciding on placing all its eggs in the Siddaramaiah basket. And, even it failed to do so, Rahul Gandhi got this direct message from the people across the districts he visited.
The applause for Siddaramaiah was special. It was evident to any layman and Rahul Gandhi is no more the novice that the BJP has made him out to be. On his part, Rahul Gandhi made it a point to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi at every single meeting. He has done so elsewhere as well and particularly in the recently held elections to the Gujarat Assembly.
But, there was a difference in his approach. He took his battle against Modi and the BJP by comparing the performance of the Siddaramaiah-led Congress party government in Karnataka with the Modi-led BJP government at the Centre. He quoted instance after instance to tell Modi that the Prime Minister needed to learn something about keeping promises from the Congress Chief Minister.
Rahul Gandhi said the only instance when he went to meet Modi in his office was to request him to waive farm loans. “But Modiji did not even utter a word. I raised the same issue with Siddaramaiah and within a week or so, he waived Rs 8500 crore farm loans. I told (Punjab Chief Minister) Captain Amrinder Singh who also waived the farmers’ loans.”
It was, again, the Karnataka example that was quoted to drive home the point that the Congress party’s government, “headed by Siddaramaiah,” that had allocated Rs 27,700 crore for the Scheduled caste/Scheduled tribe sub-plan for Karnataka. This amount was half of the total amount of Rs 55,000 crore that Modiji had allocated for the entire country. “And, he keeps talking about his commitment for the Dalits and Advasis,” jibed Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi’s attack began from the very first meeting he addressed at Hospete where he referred to the way the Modi government had waived loans of Rs 1.5 lakh crores for the benefit of 10-15 corporate houses but had declined to waive farm loans. “During the UPA government, we gave protection to the farmers to increase their income. But the Modi government has taken away that protection. Instead it has imposed note ban and Gabbar Singh Tax,” he said.
Rahul Gandhi did make an impact during his interactions with the farmers in Sindhanoor and professionals at Gulbarga. But it was the response to the speeches as well as the interaction between the farmers and Siddaramaiah that left Rahul Gandhi smiling. No other state leader, with the exception of the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjuna Kharge in some parts of the region, showed the kind of rapport that Siddaramaiah had with the audience.
So will the people vote because Rahul Gandhi sought their support or for Siddaramaiah? The response was mixed in different parts of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, a stronghold of the Congress. This is the region that in 2013 gave the Congress 23 of the 40 seats, with the BJP, including the then KJP of BS Yeddyurappa and the BSRP of B Sriramulu, securing 10 seats, JDS scoring four and the remaining Independents.
To a large extent, Raja Sab Kesarati of Arhala village in Gangavati Assembly segment, summed it up well – “Siddaramaiah is a good man and votes will go to the Congress because of him. We still don’t know enough about Rahul Gandhi. Yes, Modi is a factor that will get votes, but not Yeddyurappa.”