In May 2018, surrounded by a jubilant group of MLAs showing victory signs, D K Shivakumar -- Congress' chief troubleshooter in Karnataka -- held and raised H D Kumaraswamy's hand in the air. The duo had just wrested the assembly from Yediyurappa-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after he failed to prove his majority on the floor of the assembly.
Shivakumar emerged the man of the suspense-filled political contest, the challenge many would say he was familiar with. Not only did he guard the Congress flock but also produced a couple of "missing" legislators in the nick of time to save the day for the grand old party.
A year later, in July 2019, it was again a persistent Shivakumar keeping a vigil outside a Mumbai hotel in a last-ditch attempt to woo the dozen or so rebel legislators who had brought the Congress-JD(S) coalition government to the brink of collapse. The effort went in vain but not unnoticed – if anything, it raised Shivakumar’s stock within his party at a time when Congress was rudderless.
Shivakumar’s arrest on Tuesday night by the Enforcement Directorate in a money laundering case brings the focus back on a politician who is often in the news. The 56-year-old, who has risen to prominence in Karnataka over the last couple of decades, is one of the state’s richest legislators. Just ahead of the 2018 assembly polls, Shivakumar had declared assets worth Rs 840 crore.
To the Congress, he’s been a trouble-shooter many a time. “He’s seen as a person who gets things done,” says a Congress leader. In the Lok Sabha elections this May, when the BJP swept Karnataka, winning 25 out of the state’s 28 parliamentary seats, the Congress’ lone victory came in Bangalore Rural where Shivakumar’s brother D K Suresh was the candidate.
The brothers hail from Kanakapura, a town near Bangalore. In 1985, aged 23, Shivakumar contested his first election, though unsuccessfully, against H D Deve Gowda.
Ever since that contest, Shivakumar and the Deve Gowda family had remained arch-rivals -– both belong to the Vokkaliga community, which is politically powerful in southern Karnataka.
Of late, however, Shivakumar grew closer to the Gowdas even though their parties were still rivals. Earlier this week, when the ED was questioning Shivakumar, support came from H D Kumaraswamy: “Gowri Ganesha is an important festival for Hindus. D K Shivakumar had asked for a day to observe the festival. However, ED officials denied him even this. If this is not a vindictive attitude, then what is?”
Besides the pragmatism in Shivakumar’s truce with the Deve Gowda family, political observers also interpret it in the context of his ambitions to emerge as a Vokkaliga leader – since SM Krishna, who’s seen as his mentor, the Congress has not had a leader with a mass following across the community. Shivakumar hasn’t made any secret about his ambition to become Chief Minister either, saying he would wait for his turn. “He’s also learnt to be patient. He’s not seen to be doing something that upsets anybody,” says the Congress leader mentioned earlier.
But his moves to expand his influence within Karnataka have ruffled feathers on-and-off. Even last year, many traced the beginnings of the JD(S)-Congress coalition’s first bout of rebellion in Belgaum to the local strongman Ramesh Jarkiholi’s resentment to D K Shivakumar trespassing his turf.
Shivakumar has faced allegations previously as well, before the 2017 IT raids that led to his current predicament. A land denotification allegation against him -- which also involves B S Yediyurappa, current Karnataka Chief Minister -- is at present before the Supreme Court after it was quashed by the Karnataka High Court a few years ago.
Even many of his rivals respect Shivakumar's pluckiness. In July, as the Karnataka assembly witnessed heated discussions ahead of the trust vote which Kumaraswamy subsequently lost, Shivakumar-- not known for his oratory -- quoted Voltaire when his turn to speak came. “May God defend me from my friends, I can take care of my enemies." "
Of course, at the time, Shivakumar was speaking in the context of the rebel MLAs who had pulled down the JD(S)-Congress coalition government. But now, with ED slapping serious money laundering charges against Shiva Kumar, trouble is mounting on Congress' main man in Karnataka, and he faces perhaps the toughest challenge of his political career.