- Karnataka is the only large state in India still in the grip of the Congress
- Rejig comes as Siddaramaiah, an 'outsider', blamed for corruption, inaction
- Caste arithmetic drives reshuffle but leaves loyalists unhappy
As he sat down for some deep- breathing exercises on Yoga Day, Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah had just completed a long-overdue cabinet reshuffle. Many of the 14 Congress veterans dropped from the cabinet muttered that the party didn’t need any help from the BJP for a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, given that Karnataka is the only big state left with the Congress. Bandh calls, protests, some street violence and not-so-pleasant accusations followed.
“Are we some old pairs of slippers to be discarded like that?” asked M.H. Ambareesh, 63, the actor-politician from Mandya, the Vokkaliga heartland, who resigned as MLA when he was dropped. “I was a cabinet colleague and he (Siddaramaiah) should have shown some dignity. If he had called and asked me to make way for someone else, I would have happily obliged.”
V. Srinivas Prasad, 67, a Dalit leader and a Mysorean like Siddaramaiah, didn’t hide his bitterness either, saying that if any change was warranted, it should have been to the CM’s post. Fellow Mysorean A.H. Vishwanath wasn’t in the cabinet but dashed off a letter to Sonia Gandhi about the reactions the “lopsided” reshuffle had caused. In northern Gulbarga, Qamar-ul-Islam, 68, called his sacking a conspiracy by Mallikarjuna Kharge whose son Priyank, 38, became a minister.
Many analysts, however, reckon Siddaramaiah has gone about the makeover carefully. For instance, the 85-year-old Shamanur Shivashankarappa was replaced by his son; Satish Jharkholi is out but his brother Ramesh is in; and Kharge, probably the strongest threat to Siddaramaiah’s post, has been squared off with his son getting a berth. There are many young faces in the team that, significantly, now has a bigger Lingayat presence, possibly in response to the BJP rallying behind Lingayat strongman B.S. Yediyurappa.
“The selection of ministers conforms to a careful community arithmetic. For the lone vacant berth, they are likely to seek a Vokkaliga to substitute for Ambareesh and Kimmane Ratnakara,” says Chandan Gowda of Azim Premji University. There is also speculation that D.K. Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, will be the next state Congress chief. “Despite its welfarist schemes, discontent against the Congress is widespread. Three years in power, and the sense of a cohesive team presence is yet to set in. New faces could energise the government,” says Gowda.
Commentator Sandeep Shastri calls the rejig a politically adept move as many of those who had a whiff of scandal or controversy or non-performance against them are out. “The intra-party dynamics seem to have changed,” he says, “with state leaders and their followers now more brazen in challenging the party leadership.”
Dinesh Gundu Rao, a former minister who was appointed the working president of the state unit last week, told a television channel: “There is no crisis. And, there are no easy pickings for any opposition party which thinks it can make use of the situation. Yes, there are upset leaders, of course.”
But the biggest grouse of the leaders has been that Siddaramaiah is an “outsider”. Until the recent assembly polls in five states, one heard frequent chatter about a change of guard. Of course, that wasn’t an easy proposition as Siddaramaiah, who hails from an OBC community, was seen to have consolidated the minority, backward castes and Dalits (referred to locally by the acronym AHINDA), though many critics believe his support base hasn’t expanded and could even have shrunk.
Siddaramaiah’s ministry makeover also comes after a run of controversies in the past six months that dented his image. First, he flaunted a Swiss watch worth lakhs of rupees and, then, a firm in which his son was a director bagged a government contract.
Last month, at an event to mark his three years in power, Siddaramaiah rued the fact that his critics kept saying his government hadn’t “taken off” so far. “What do I say to them? They are seeing things with jaundiced eyes,” he said, reeling out the government’s achievements, especially his pet schemes to provide milk and rice to children and poor families. Of the 165 promises in the election manifesto, as many as 120 have been fulfilled, he claimed. Cabinet crew, please stand by for takeoff?
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore