Will Krishna do to Kharge what he did to Dharam?

MATHIHALLI MADAN MOHAN writes from Hubli: It is either a case of the Congress high command getting desperate, or it is a case of the suave S.M. Krishna taking a brave and calculated risk. This is how the Congress’s decision to requisition the services of the former chief minister for the assembly elections can be viewed.

Once the B.S. Yediyurappa-led BJP-JDS coalition government fell, it was clear that the Congress in the State, and at the Centre, was not in favour of early elections, lest it gave an opportunity to the saffron party to cash in on the “sympathy factor” over the summary truncation of its hopes below the Vindhyas.

The instrument the Congress sought to use was the delimitation of constituencies as per the recommendations of the Kuldip Singh commission. Karnataka’s assembly was dissolved last November, five months after the issue of the presidential notification on redefining the parliamentary and assembly constituencies.

When everybody expected the Centre to issue another notification to give effect to the same, in view of the impending polls in Karnataka, the Congress-led UPA government needlessly started dragging its feet and took its own sweet time before issuing the same after a three-month delay in February.

The underlying message was clear. The Congress wanted to buy time in view of the delay entailed in revising the electoral rolls in the circumstances, which has changed after delimitation. And it was looking for the polls to be postponed well beyond May 28, when six months of President’s Rule comes to an end.

Obviously, the Election Commission has not bought this line. The EC, was dutybound to arrange for the free and fair elections under the rules vested in it for the revision of the electoral roles under Rule 24 of the Registration of the Electoral Rolls 1960, and the categorical opinion held out by a five-member Supreme Court bench on a presidential reference made in 2002 , that “man made situation intended to defer the holding of elections should be sternly dealt with and should not be normal ground for deferring elections beyond the six-month period from the date of dissolution”. And that, except in rare cases of the situation created by the act of God, which make the holding of elections impossible, the elections should not be delayed.

So the EC, which had undertaken a similar exercise in 1973-74 in holding elections to the Uttar Pradesh and Orissa assembly in the precomputer age, went ahead to act under the mandate to hold the elections in Karnataka within six months and got the job of revisiting the electoral roll with alacrity.

This stumped the Congress high command. Not only did it now seem likely that it would have to face elections earlier than envisaged but it was also having to deal with a rudderless party. Having faced a series of defeats in the assembly polls, the latest being the Nagaland and Tripura, the Congress was loathe to face some more discomfiture in Karnataka.

It is under these circumstances it took steps to plump for the leadership of Krishna and tried to draw the political mileage though the vote of account budget moved in the parliament.

It doing so, it is acting like a doctor who tries to treat a patient without diagnosing the disease.

Krishna may be the one of the tallest leaders that the Congress has in Karnataka. He proved his worth when he led the party to victory in the 1999 polls. But the fact that he had brought a humiliating defeat to the party in the 2004 elections, albeit under the cloud of successive droughts, cannot be easily forgotten.

How does the Congress expect Krishna to pull the party’s chestnuts out of the fire in circumstances which are vastly different now from the two challenges he faced in 1999 and 2004?

If he has been chosen as a counterfoil to the wily H.D. Deve Gowda to woo back Vokkaligas back to the Congress fold, one cannot but overlook it as a non-issue at the present. Gowda is not even a shade of his previous self. His party JDS is down and out. He should be happy to retain the political relevance rather than challenge the hegemony of his political rivals to come to power, notwithstanding his assertions made in the public pronouncements.

The real challenge that the Congress has to face in the forthcoming poll is to contain the rising tide of anti-Congress mood among the voters, which is finding expression repeatedly in elections across the country and in Karnataka of late. Whether the Congress loses or wins the elections depends on whether the anti-Congress votes get consolidated or get divided. This is the trend noticed in the elections being held from 1989.

What happened in 1999 and the 2004 will give us an idea of what Krishna is up against.

# In the 1999 elections, Congress polled 40.84% (90.77 lakh votes) as against the 44.64% (99.21 lakhs) polled by the three main non-Congress parties namely the BJP (20.69% and 45.98 lakhs); Janata Dal (United) (13.53% and 30.06 lakhs) and Janata Dal (Secular) (10.42% and 23.16 lakhs). The Congress romped home because of the division of the anti-Congress votes.

# In the 2004 elections, the Congress polled 35.37% (88.61 lakhs) of the votes as against the over 51% (128.56 lakhs) polled by the three main opposition parties. The Congress lost not because it had polled 2 lakhs votes less but because of the prevention of fragmentation of the anti-Congress votes.

What happened was that the JDU which had done well in the previous poll was a total wash out. The JDU votes were shared between the BJP and the JDS, which cooked the goose of the Congress. The Congress with its passive mentality has hardly taken any steps since to stem the rising tide of anti-Congress votes.

Krishna, who is known more as a peace-time general than a war commander, is hardly suited to accept the political gauntlet. While he may make some inroads in the Old Mysore area, his chances of regaining lost ground in north Karnataka, the support of which is vital for any party wanting to come to power in Karnataka, are not very bright at all.

Krishna’s record of having let down north Karnataka badly during his tenure of the Chief Minister still remains etched firmly in the people’s memory in the region. Krishna reneged on his promise to implement the D.M. Nanjundappa committee report on the removal of regional imbalance; he came in the way of the early completion of Upper Tunga scheme which was vital for Northern Karnataka; and he dragged his feet on the question of taking up Kalasa Banduri naala designed as a project to meet the drinking water needs of north Karnataka.

What made Krishna to accept the new assignment under these circumstances?

It is not that the leadership has been thrust on him. He has volunteered to so and ran a long campaign of returning to the State politics as early as possible. The manner in which he has entered the fray on the eve of two crucial elections in 1999 and the present has another controversial overtone.

In 1999 his replacing Dharam Singh, a politician of north Karnataka, as the state Congress president, robbed the latter the fruits of office for which he had laboured in the event of the victory. Now it is Mallikarjuna Kharge, also from north Karnataka, who is in a similar position. Kharge, who is eyeing the CM’s chair, finds that he is being replaced by Krishna as the virtual captain of the team, which may cost his the coveted post later in the event of the Congress romping home.

If the Congress succeeds in its gamble, it is known that the High Command would take the credit and the mantle would be Krishna’s to wear. If it fails, it would mean the end of the political road and curtains for Krishna.

Also read: The case for North Karnataka as a separate State

CHURUMURI POLL: Can S.M. Krishna swing it for Congress?