A day after Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the Congress Party, AICC chief Sonia Gandhi appointed ‘troubleshooter’ D.K. Shivakumar the Karnataka party chief. “Sonia Gandhi has granted the wish of the party activists by appointing me as the party chief. I have held many big positions in the party. But I will always be a party worker and a voice of the ordinary, even as I serve the state and the party,” said Shivakumar.
Factional feuds within the Congress triggered the collapse of the JDS-Congress coalition in July 2019. The Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) entered a phase of total disarray. Dinesh Gundu Rao resigned as state chief in December 2019, following the bypoll debacle.
Intense lobbying for the KPCC chief’s post and the demand for bifurcation of the CLP and LOP posts exposed the muliple factions in the party. The frontrunners for the top posts were D.K. Shivakumar, the Vokkaliga leader from Bengaluru, and M.B. Patil, the Lingayat leader from north Karnataka.
While former chief minister Siddaramaiah insisted that Patil be made the chief, Shivakumar had the support of other veterans in the party, who identified themselves as the “original” Congressmen. The party high command thought it wise to keep the appointment on hold so as to not upset any of the factions. On Wednesday, even as the political crisis in Madhya Pradesh deepened, the party swung into salvage mode and chose Shivakumar to lead the party in Karnataka. Three working presidents—Eshwar Khandre (Lingayat), Satish Jarkiholi (ST-Valmiki) and Saleem Ahmed (Muslim) were appointed as working presidents in a bid to balance the caste equations.frying pan
Shivakumar, who has kept a very low-profile ever since he spent 50 days in jail over a money laundering case, was spotted meeting his party leaders with zeal. According to sources, the state leaders had little inkling about the “big announcement” amid the Madhya Pradesh crisis. Shivakumar got a call from AICC general secretary K.C. Venugopal informing him about the appointment.
On the day Scindia became the face of the rebellion in Madhya Pradesh Congress by quitting the party (though party has expelled him), and 22 MLAs tendered their resignation, the Karnataka Congress watched the developments with a sense of deja vu. Shivakumar, who remained calm, only said he had conveyed the “message” given to him by the “rebels” to the party high command. “No one can destroy Congress. Leaders may come, leaders may go, that doesn’t make any difference. All the MLAs [Madhya Pradesh] who are here don’t want to lose their membership. I am sure they will understand, go back and save the government,” he said.
The Madhya Pradesh Congress too maintained that 18 out of 22 rebel MLAs would return to the party as they had been “misled” and were not in favour of joining the BJP. The new chief has his hands full as the party is yet to gain its fighting spirit following a series of poll debacles. The party’s image too has taken a beating after it joined hands with its arch rival JD(S) and also parted with the chief minister’s post to a party that stood third with only 37 (out of 224) seats. However, dealing with the divisions within the party will be the biggest challenge for Shivakumar, who has earned a reputation of a master strategist.
A few months back, when asked about rivals within the party, Shivakumar had quoted Voltaire, “Lord, protect me from my friends. I will take care of my enemies.” But, today, the seven-time MLA and former minister, while acknowledging that the party is facing factional wars, says, “I will take the veterans and the young leaders along. I have always worshipped the party and not any individual.”
Shivakumar’s phenomenal rise in politics, his reputation as the Congress’s go-to man and his arrest by Enforcement Directorate in a money laundering case, painted him as a daring yet emotional leader. Shivakumar, a youth Congress leader who took on JD(S) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda in 1985 assembly elections and lost as a debutante, now has a stranglehold over his constituency Kanakapura. He became a first-time minister in the S. Bangarappa cabinet in 1991 and served in S.M. Krishna, Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswamy cabinets, handling major portfolios like urban development, energy, water resources and medical education. Shivakumar, who is one of the richest MLAs in the state, with declared assets of Rs 840 crore.
In August 2017, the Income Tax department raided the resort where Shivakumar was hosting 44 Congress MLAs from Gujarat. There were fears they would be poached by the BJP ahead of the crucial Rajya Sabha elections in which Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, was seeking re-election.
In 1991, Shivakumar, then the urban development minister in S.M. Krishna cabinet, had saved Vilas Rao Deshmukh’s government in Maharashtra by hosting his party legislators. In May 2018, he helped the JD(S)-Congress coalition government led by H.D. Kumaraswamy remain afloat till it finally crumbled in July. Shivakumar cosying up to fellow Vokkaliga, and chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, was scorned at by his own party members.
In the race for the KPCC chief’s post, Shivakumar has had to fight many hurdles. First, he is an accused under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002, and is out on bail. Unlike Patil, who holds sway in the north Karnataka region, especially after he challenged fellow Lingayat and Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa by spearheading the Lingayat movement to demand a separate religion status for the community, Shivakumar cannot boast of a similar hold on his community. The Vokkaliga community continues to patronise the Deve Gowda family and the JD(S). The Congress party’s dismal performance in the Lok Sabha (though Shivakumar’s younger brother D.K. Suresh managed to retain his seat) and the Congress rout in the bypolls reflected poorly on Shivakumar’s ability to help his party win elections in the Old Mysore region.
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