A private conversation between two Congress functionaries in Karnataka, which was picked up by microphones ahead of a press conference in Bengaluru on October 12, has thrown the spotlight on a simmering political feud between the two top leaders of the party in the state — KPCC chief D K Shivakumar and Leader of the Opposition Siddaramaiah.
The private conversation between a Congress media co-ordinator M A Saleem and a former MP and party spokesperson V S Ugrappa dwelled on the shortcomings of Shivakumar as state party president and seemed to indicate greater confidence in the leadership of Siddaramaiah.
The conversation took place ahead of a Congress press conference, being held to question the ruling BJP in the state on its silence over the Income Tax raids on properties of an official working in the Karnataka Chief Minister’s Office, who is closely linked to former BJP CM B S Yediyurappa.
The press meet was incidentally addressed by second-rung Congress leaders since mainline leaders did not want to make a political issue of the IT raids on an official in the CMO, Congress sources said.
Despite a semblance of unity on the surface among its main leaders in Karnataka, the Congress is known to be suffering from deep divisions in the state – on the lines of the divide seen in Punjab – on account of a power struggle between Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah.
While Shivakumar has attempted to inject new energy into the party since taking over as president in July 2020 amid the Covid-19 crisis, the core of the 68 Congress MLAs in the state Assembly are known to be more aligned with Siddaramaiah.
Shivakumar was appointed the state Congress chief in 2020 despite being arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in September 2019 over charges of money laundering that surfaced following an Income Tax investigation into alleged tax evasions that took place between 2017 and 2018.
Shivakumar is one of the most wealthy legislators in Karnataka, with assets close to Rs 850 crore declared ahead of the 2018 state Assembly elections.
Since taking over as the party president, Shivakumar has tried to loosen the grasp that Siddaramaiah held over the state unit of the Congress by easing out old functionaries and bringing in his own loyalists, even as Siddaramaiah has tried to maintain control by ensuring that Shivakumar does not have unilateral control over the party but is assisted by as many as four working presidents.
The duo seemed to have buried the hatchet during a recent legislature session where they jointly participated in protests against the BJP government in the state and at the Centre over the rise in prices of fuel and essential items. However, there was palpable tension in their body language, with visible jousting for holding the reins of a bullock cart they rode on as part of protests on one day.
A visit to New Delhi a few days ago, first by Shivakumar and later by Siddaramaiah, at the instance of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has resulted in speculation that the party leadership has asked Siddaramaiah to turn his attention to national politics by taking up a role in the All India Congress Committee. Siddaramaiah has denied the reports of him being asked by Gandhi to enter national politics.
“The subject of national politics did not arise during the recent meeting with AICC president Sonia Gandhi. I have not been invited to national politics. Despite denials, there is continuing speculation over this in a section of the media,” Siddaramaiah said this week.
“There is no information with us over Siddaramaiah being asked to join national politics. It is just speculation,” Shivakumar said.
According to sources familiar with the development, Siddaramaiah was summoned to Delhi by the party leadership to assure the former CM that the Congress party is not in disarray due to factions emerging at the national level, and that the leadership is invested in taking the party forward. “There are some concerns that due to the crisis in the party, some leaders may go their own way. The meeting was held to provide assurances,” Congress sources in Karnataka said.
There has been speculation that Siddaramaiah and former BJP CM Yediyurappa may forge an alliance if pushed to a corner by their respective parties. Former CM and Janata Dal Secular leader H D Kumaraswamy has claimed that Siddaramaiah and Yediyurappa have held secret meetings, but this has been denied by the two leaders.
While many young legislators in the Congress were initially enthused by the fresh leadership of Shivakumar, there is some disgruntlement at present over the KPCC chief not taking on the BJP on issues, or taking stands on matters like reservations, communalism and even the economy. There is a sense among some Congress legislators that the party is pulling its punches on key issues.
“Shivakumar brought fresh ideas and energy after becoming the president. He has been willing to experiment and do things in the party. This is a change from the laid-back attitude seen earlier, where Siddaramaiah would hold discussions without any action,” a young Congress MLA said.
“Many of us who worked to get him appointed as the party president are a little disappointed since he has not lived up to expectations after the initial promise. There is a sense that a lot of adjustments are being made. There is no stand taken on issues that are key to the future of the state, like the recommendations of various commissions and economic issues,” said a senior Congress leader.
“Shivakumar was expected to emerge as a key Vokkaliga leader, but he has not been able to do so. He seems to have ceded ground to Kumaraswamy of the JDS. There is a perception that he approaches politics like a businessman and not a leader,” the senior Congress leader added.
Many Congress MLAs feel that Siddaramaiah is a more versatile and rounded leader who does not carry the baggage of pending cases of corruption or other economic offences against him.
However, within a section of the Congress, there is also a feeling that Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah have their shortcomings as leaders and are not suited to capitalise on the anti-incumbency factor that will come into play in the 2023 state Assembly polls.
“Major communities like Vokkaligas, Lingayats and Nayaks are opposed to Siddaramaiah. He also does not have the capacity to ensure a full mandate for the Congress. In this situation, the JDS will gain if it targets winning an optimum number of seats to be in a coalition,” Congress sources said.
Shivakumar has, on his part, denied the existence of any divisions in the Congress.
“There is no internal dispute in the Congress party and there are no factions. I have not indulged in any factionalism and will not do it as well. For me, the party is important. There is no conspiracy against me in the party, and I am not scared of any conspiracies. I have my own qualities as a person with rural origins,” Shivakumar said after the Congress functionaries were heard assessing him.
“The impact of my work will be assessed by the voters and the people. The impact of leadership or a government will be known only in an election. There is unity in the party,” Shivakumar added.
“Siddaramaiah nurses ambitions of being CM again. Shivakumar sees the 2023 polls as his golden opportunity in politics and will not yield a quarter in efforts at becoming the CM,” sources said.