Karnataka’s political future: the power of two

Karnataka’s political future will hinge on how the BJP and Congress deal with factionalism

When elections draw near, rivalries within parties intensify. As Karnataka prepares for next year’s Assembly poll, front-line leaders of the two principal contenders for power, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have begun pressuring their national leaderships for a bigger say in ticket distribution and in the election campaign. In the BJP, the factional fight is between the State unit president and former Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, and senior leader K.S. Eshwarappa. Mr. Yeddyurappa, who managed to extricate himself from the legal tangles that arose out of corruption cases, is the frontrunner for the chief minister’s post in case the BJP wins. But when Mr. Eshwarappa criticises the “unilateral style” of Mr. Yeddyurappa, he strikes a chord with many in the second line of the party. The BJP, which had lost heavily when Mr. Yeddyurappa broke away from the party before the last Assembly election, did well on his return in the Lok Sabha election three years ago. The party is therefore in no mood to jettison the former Chief Minister; Mr. Eshwarappa cannot hope for much more than a prominent role as second fiddle. Mr. Yeddyurappa retained the upper hand during the State executive of the party in Mysuru, even if his rival made a defiant appearance. In the absence of any encouragement from the national leadership, Mr. Eshwarappa has turned more conciliatory. But the fissures run deep and cannot be easily plastered over. Mr. Eshwarappa and his Sangolli Rayanna Brigade, a supposedly apolitical platform of Dalits and Backward Classes, will continue to exercise pressure on the chief ministerial aspirant.

In the Congress too, the leadership issue is more or less settled. Denying Chief Minister Siddaramaiah another shot at power would only weaken the party further. In any case, in the latest round of by-elections he held his own against a marauding BJP. But factional pressures and caste dynamics are in full play as the process of identifying a person for the post of president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee rolls on. After replacing former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh with K.C. Venugopal as the national leader in charge of affairs in Karnataka, the Congress is trying to plug the weakness in the organisational structure and bring together all factions. But there is simply no way to please everybody. Even if Mr. Siddaramaiah’s rivals are willing to reluctantly accept his candidature for chief ministership, they are likely to want someone who could stand up to him as the next KPCC president. The Congress leadership may see a benefit in having two power centres. Karnataka 2018 might turn out to be a fight between Mr. Yeddyurappa and Mr. Siddaramaiah, but the election will be won and lost on how those lower down the hierarchy pull their weight.

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