The makeshift helipad at a government school ground in Harapanahalli, about three hours from Hubballi, is watered to keep the dust down. But when veteran leader and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s blue chopper rattles down to land, it still kicks up a mini storm. He is here to campaign for Congress candidate, N Kotresh, and address a rally in the town. Siddaramaiah asks us to come to a party worker’s house to meet him after the rally, where he will be going for lunch. “So far the election is looking good. According to my assessment—I have been campaigning for a long time, for the Janata Dal, the Janata Party and for the Congress—I can tell that people this time are with the Congress. They want change; the BJP will not come back to power. They have not projected anyone to be their next leader or the chief minister,” says Siddaramaiah, who at 75, has announced that this will be his last election.
The Congress hasn’t announced its chief ministerial candidate either. Is there a tussle between him and Karnataka Congress chief D K Shivakumar (DKS)? “Yes, he is a contender. The practice is that the Congress has never projected a chief minister, particularly in Karnataka. It goes by a very democratic process. The elected MLAs will decide and will give their opinion. Then the ‘high command’ will take a decision,” he says. Party workers we meet say the fight for the top post between him and DKS will ratchet up if the Congress gets a majority, and whose supporters win more seats. “Siddaramaiah is a more senior leader and he has the experience of running a government. DKS is the challenger. The final decision will be of the ‘high command’, DKS listens to Sonia Gandhi,” says a three-time Congress MLA.
We pass through Varuna, near Mysuru, where Siddaramaiah is contesting. Here, the majority are Lingayats. Some voters say it will not be a cakewalk for him, as his main opponent is BJP’s V. Somanna, who is a Lingayat leader. We meet Siddaramaiah’s son and the present MLA from Varuna, Yathindra Siddaramaiah, a mild-mannered medical doctor, at a wedding hall, where he is addressing Congress party workers. He says he has nurtured the constituency and gave it up for his father this time. “We are in a strong position. But we have to convince the voters to stay with us. Yes, Lingayats are the majority here and our opponent from the BJP is a Lingayat. BJP’s IT cell, which is a factory of lies, is very active. But we have set up a clear narrative,” he says.
The rally at Harapanahalli is well-attended and Siddaramaiah has, so far, lived up to his stature; not making any personal jibes against BJP leaders and talking mostly about the Congress’ promises in the manifesto. But as we reach the shrill end of the campaigning in Karnataka, the question remains: can the Congress hold up to the arsenal stored in the opponent’s camp?
Karnataka Congress state chief and six-time MLA D K Shivakumar (DKS) has waited long enough to make a serious bid for the chief minister’s post. His best chance is now if the Congress comes to power in these elections, though the other contender from the party, the veteran leader and former CM Siddaramiah will be no easy rival. But that’s for later, as of now, all DKS is focused on now is to somehow take the Congress over the line.
Shivakumar’s determination to defeat the BJP in these elections is both political and personal. He still bristles at the humiliation
of spending two months in Tihar jail in Delhi in 2019 on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. He says he was meted out the harshest treatment against the rule book as his arrest was political vendetta, put in a small, dirty cell with a bright light glaring at him and a camera filming him day and night. Tihar turned him into a vegetarian and more religious. But why did it come to that, why couldn’t his lawyers defend him? “More strong, more enemies, less strong, less enemies, no strong, no enemies,” is his coinage.
The BJP apart, Shivakumar has enough rivals within his own party. Former chief minister Siddaramaiah is a tall leader with a huge voter base, whom many party workers consider to be the legitimate chief minister candidate if the Congress wins. “DKS has been saying he is not going to take it lying down anymore. He will go all out for the top post. But Siddaramiah has more stature among party workers. Also, if it is a close verdict, Siddaramiah will be a more acceptable chief minister face to the other political parties. DKS has made too many enemies in the opposition camp,” says a three-time Congress MLA.
Shivakumar says the chief minister will be decided by the newly-elected MLAs, and the ‘high command’, that is the Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi, with whom he has strong ties. “Loyalty pays royalty,” he hurtles. For good measure, he says he has cordial relations with Siddaramiah too, meets him every 2-3 days for party matters. “We have divided the state between us. He will go to north Karnataka to campaign and I will go to the south. Then we will reverse the regions. We are constantly in touch about the party strategy,” he says.
As the polling date nears, DKS warns against voter list manipulation by the BJP. He says thousands of voter names have been missing in many constituencies, most of them minorities. There is also duplication of voter names. “The booth-level voter management will be very important in these elections,” he says. But he dismisses Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaigning in the last days as anything significant, as also other leaders like Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath. “It’s a local election. We don’t need any north Indian faces to run Karnataka,” he says.
Satish Padmanabhan in Bengaluru, Hubballi
(This appeared in the print as 'Congress' Contenders')