It was well past 9 PM on Saturday when Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president DK Shivakumar arrived at the counting centre in Jayanagar Assembly constituency. It was a special day for the Congress, much of whose victory Shivakumar is believed to have scripted. The party had struck with a vengeance in a state four years after its alliance government with the Janata Dal (Secular) was ousted from power following a series of exits from the Congress.
The Jayanagar constituency was the only seat for which the results were not announced till late evening on May 13, the day the Karnataka election results were announced. A see-saw battle was underway between the Congress and BJP candidates for the seat in Bengaluru. After several rounds of counting and recounting, the seat went to BJP candidate CK Ramamurthy who beat his Congress rival Sowmya Reddy by a slender margin of 16 votes!
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The result, which came as a blow to the Congress which had almost believed that it had won the seat by a little over 250 votes, was inconsequential. The party had already cruised past the majority mark and was all set to form a government. And yet, Shivakumar made it a point to mark his presence and stand by his party candidate as he chose not to go down without a fight.
The character displayed by Shivakumar that night, as he camped outside the counting centre on a plastic chair amidst a sea of BJP supporters, is something that the Congress has lacked nationally for a long time now. It was symbolic of a change in the very demeanour of the Congress — of aggression that it has rarely shown in the 9-odd years it has been out of power.
More importantly, it offers cues for the Congress in crisis management.
A ray of hope for Congress
The Karnataka victory has come as a ray of hope for the Congress. And Shivakumar emerged as its hero! A party, which had been all but written off to obscurity following successive poll losses, is today energised after its mega success in Karnataka against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In one fell swoop, Congress has managed to reassert its presence in people’s minds while depriving the BJP of its halo of invincibility for the second time this year. After Himachal Pradesh, the Congress party’s victory in Karnataka was structured around a campaign that focussed on local issues and kept national issues at bay.
In many ways, Shivakumar has been the architect of this crucial Congress win in Karnataka. He kept his chief ministerial ambitions aside as he set out on a mission to win the state for his party. Yet, it was also personal. Over the past four years or so, he has been hounded, even jailed, over a slew of legal cases by the Income Tax department as well as the Enforcement Directorate. It was a comeback for Congress that gave him a sense of vindication like none other.
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“I promised Sonia Gandhi I will deliver Karnataka to Congress. I am happy I have delivered what I promised,” a choked-up Shivakumar told reporters after the Congress bagged victory in Karnataka.
Shivakumar’s absolute loyalty to Congress and his unwavering hunger for victory, by all means, makes him a leader that the Congress desperately needs more of going into the mother of all elections in 2024.
Different parties, different strategies
But would the BJP have acted differently? Consider the case of Himanta Biswa Sarma as an example. The man known to have played an instrumental role in Tarun Gogoi’s victory in Assam was a huge loss for the Congress. The BJP, which welcomed him with open arms, has not only managed to use Sarma’s influence to gain a foothold in the region, but it has also managed to reward Sarma, an outsider, with chief ministership while keeping his predecessor Sarbananda Sonowal happy. Today, Sarma has not only made Assam a BJP bastion but has also engineered alliances with smaller parties to give BJP a representation in governments across a majority of the northeastern states.
Contrast this with the situation in Rajasthan or even Chhattisgarh for that matter. The Congress has appeared to falter every time it has found two strong leaders from the same state vying for power and importance. Be it in the case of Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan or Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo in Chhattisgarh, the Congress has struggled to accommodate the aspirations of some of its staunchly loyal leaders while leaving the state unit of the party as well as its image in disarray. Opportunities that should have been turned into strengths have turned into recipes for disaster.
Look back at Karnataka now. Besides leading a successful campaign, Shivakumar has also proven his crisis-management skills not just in Karnataka but also in other states. His resourcefulness, especially in financial terms, makes him a key man any party would not like to disappoint. It was under his watch that the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which many claim was funded by Shivakumar from his own pocket, proved to be immensely successful for the Congress. Of the 20 districts that Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra passed, the BJP drew a blank.
A Vokkaliga by caste, Shivakumar also has the potential to retain 11 per cent of his community’s vote (second only after Lingayats who account for 17 per cent). The Vokkaligas have lent their weight behind the Congress this time. With Shivakumar at the helm, there is a good chance that the Congress will manage to retain its support from this crucial vote base.
Siddaramaiah, on the other hand, has acceptability on his side. He can also side-step the risks that Shivakumar faces due to cases of corruption and the legal sword of disqualification dangling over his head. With a son-of-the-soil image and the acceptability of most of his MLAs as well as the popular support of the masses, he does make for an ideal chief minister. Add to that the reservation mix that the Congress may spring up as a tool in its Lok Sabha campaign and the Siddaramaiah-Mallikarjun Kharge combine offers a potent mix.
With Lok Sabha elections less than a year away, Shivakumar’s prowess to deliver elections will be put to the test once again. With an opponent which will be coming all guns blazing, aching for revenge in Karnataka, the Congress needs its Man Friday to step up to the job.
If Congress cannot offer Shivakumar chief ministership, it can perhaps devise a way to reward Shivakumar by elevating him to a larger national role. This will allow the Congress to not just safeguard its position in Karnataka but also ensure that it has just the man it needs to take on the Modi-Shah juggernaut in healthy spirits.
It could be a win-win for all.