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Bouncing back

Print edition : Sep 24, 2010 T+T-
CONGRESS SUPPORTERS REACH Bellary on August 9, the 16th day of the Bangalore-to-Bellary padayatra.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

CONGRESS SUPPORTERS REACH Bellary on August 9, the 16th day of the Bangalore-to-Bellary padayatra.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Karnataka: The success of the Bellary chalo' agitation has come as a shot in the arm for the Congress in the State.

THE Congress party in Karnataka seems to be in a resurgent mood after the success of its 320-kilometre padayatra (march) from Bangalore to Bellary. Two things have resulted from the padayatra, which was taken up as a challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). One, the might of the Reddy brothers, who face the charge of illegal mining and looting of natural resources, has been challenged in their stronghold, and two, the Congress has managed to galvanise its rank and file and project a semblance of unity. Siddaramaiah, the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, has emerged as one of the strongest leaders of the Congress, with attention diverted from the outsider tag that he had been wearing ever since he joined the party in 2006 after resigning from the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2005.

While the Congress is jubilant about the overwhelming success of the padayatra, which commenced in Bangalore on July 25 under the banner Bellary chalo, it must thank the Reddy brothers Tourism Minister G. Janardhana Reddy and Revenue Minister G. Karunakara Reddy for giving it a chance to reorganise itself as a strong political force. Congress leaders accepted the challenge thrown by the two brothers and their close associate and another Minister B. Sriramulu in the State Assembly on July 9, daring them to step into their home district.

On that day, the Assembly witnessed ugly scenes during a debate on charges of illegal mining activities and corruption involving the Reddy brothers in the mineral-rich Bellary district. In the melee, Janardhana Reddy reportedly dared Congress leaders to take the issue to Bellary and threatened that they would be taught a lesson there if they did so. Siddaramaiah promptly accepted the challenge. At one point, even Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa joined the brawl but promptly apologised. This was followed by a sit-in protest in the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the Karnataka government, by Congress and JD(S) legislators, which was televised.

The Congress MLAs had been demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into illegal extraction of iron ore in the State. Yeddyurappa, while rejecting the demand, assured them that a probe would be conducted by the Lokayukta (ombudsman), N. Santosh Hegde, whose powers were expanded after a series of events that were provoked by the aggrieved Lokayukta's resignation. Hegde had resigned after the government showed little respect for his intervention and efforts to check the export of illegally mined ore. He, however, withdrew his resignation at the intervention of the senior BJP leader L.K. Advani ( Frontline, August 13).

Several Congress leaders, including Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivkumar, walked the entire stretch from Bangalore to Bellary. The 16-day march concluded on August 9 at a stadium in Bellary where lakhs of supporters donning Gandhi caps and waving the party flags had been waiting since morning for the arrival of the marchers. The response to the rally far exceeded the expectations of the party leaders.

In a show of strength, Union Ministers belonging to Karnataka, S.M. Krishna, M. Mallikarjun Kharge, M. Veerappa Moily and K.H. Muniyappa, participated in the rally and spoke out against the issue of illegal mining. Ghulam Nabi Azad, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare and Central Congress leader in charge of party affairs in Karnataka, attacked the Reddy brothers and questioned the helplessness of the Chief Minister in reining them in. Bellary was for several decades a Congress support base, but the party lost its hold over the district after the emergence of the Reddy brothers.

The padayatra provided the Congress, which felt the absence of a strong leader in the past few years, the much-needed boost. The political fortunes of the party had been on the decline ever since the BJP managed to retain its slight majority in the legislature, which it secured in the elections of 2008. In the byelections that took place subsequently, the Congress managed to sink without a whimper and was never able to present a strong challenge to the ruling party.

When the Lokayukta submitted its report on illegal mining in 2009, the Congress failed to capitalise on the BJP government's failure to act on its recommendations. It also did not help the Congress' case that some of its own leaders, including Dharam Singh, a former Chief Minister, were among those named in the report as having committed irregularities.

Siddaramaiah was guarded in his response to the padayatra. He told Frontline: The padayatra itself cannot be seen as showing a resurgence of the Congress, but it definitely generated a lot of enthusiasm among party workers. For a long time the party had not taken a stand, and this issue came in handy. The BJP has been behaving badly and defending the corruption of the Reddy brothers and their illegal activities, so we demonstrated the people's power against this.

AHINDA VOTE BANK

The Congress' long-term strategy (with the 2013 elections in mind) is to target the large bloc of Backward Classes in the State. This may be possible with Siddaramaiah in the Congress fold. Siddaramaiah's political career has its origins in the socialist movement. He is credited with implementing beneficial schemes for the Backward Classes and minorities during his tenure as State Finance Minister between 1994 and 1999.

The abbreviation in Kannada for this section of the population is Ahinda which is a combination of minorities (mainly Muslims) and Backward Classes, which include the Kuruba (the caste to which Siddaramaiah belongs), Idiga, Baliya and Beda castes, and the entire population of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. The way the Congress and Siddaramaiah understand this is in its negative sense as anyone who does not belong to the upper castes (mainly Brahmins) or the politically empowered castes (Vokkaligas and Lingayats). The Vokkaligas and the Lingayats are consolidated politically with the number of legislators elected from both castes far exceeding their share in the population.

While estimates vary about the Ahinda population as a bloc, it is undeniable that its share in the total population is between 60 and 70 per cent.

The Ahinda bloc of voters were staunch Congress supporters before the 1980s, when the State itself was politically stable under Congress rule. Until the 1970s, Ahinda voters were content under the leadership of politically empowered communities such as the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats. The crisis in the national leadership of the Congress in the late 1960s caused the party to split in 1969. The effects of this were felt in various States, including Karnataka, with Veerendra Patil, the then Chief Minister, staying with the Congress (Organisation) and the leadership of the Congress (Requisition) going to D. Devaraj Urs, who was loyal to Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi's socialist slogans attracted the Ahinda bloc, and Urs took advantage of this.

The political scientist S.H. Patil, formerly with Karnatak University in Dharwad, writes in the book Karnataka: Government and Politics: The upper strata of the Lingayat community and Vokkaliga caste remained with the Congress (O) while the lower strata of both communities and other weaker castes were attracted by radical slogans and programmes of Indira Gandhi, the leader of the Congress (R) and Prime Minister of the country. Devaraj Urs, who was a second-line and dependent leader in State politics, started mobilising the backward castes and minorities in favour of the Congress (R). With the support of these weaker sections and minorities, he wanted to break the political domination of the Lingayats in particular and of Vokkaligas in general.

Urs' socio-political engineering was a great success, and the hold of the two dominant communities in Karnataka as managers of vote banks was broken. Urs became the Chief Minister in 1972 and gave a bigger representation to this weaker bloc in positions of power, bringing them into the direct network of political patronage that until then had been vicariously managed for them.

The Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Act of 1973 led to a more equitable distribution of land and the appointment of the Karnataka Backward Classes Commission in August 1972 helped strengthen the Congress (R)'s appeal among the Backward Classes. After Urs' tenure and his subsequent demise, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas moved towards the Janata Party during the leadership of two Brahmin Chief Ministers in the 1980s, R. Gundu Rao of the Congress and Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party.

The 1990s saw a resurgence of the Congress with the consolidation of all its traditional vote banks both upper castes and the Backward Classes, which had leaders such as Veerappa Moily and S. Bangarappa.

But the factional politics of the Congress paved the way for the resurgence of the Janata Dal. The cumulative effect of these three decades of political ferment was felt in the first decade of this millennium with the rise of the BJP in the State.

There has also been a visible democratisation of power with several groups becoming politically aware. The BJP's rise is also attributed to the strong support that the party has secured from the Lingayat (particularly dominant in north Karnataka) and Brahmin voters and its general appeal in urban centres.

The most significant event in the recent years was the refusal of the Janata Dal (S) to hand over the chief ministership to the BJP in 2007, in violation of the power-sharing agreement between the two parties, which had brought the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led government to power. This treacherous behaviour of the JD(S) is cited as the primary reason for the BJP gaining sympathy votes in the 2008 elections.

Although the State has had Chief Ministers from the Ahinda bloc in the past, the bloc as a whole has felt marginalised in the political process for several decades. The Congress will certainly benefit from consolidating this group. This is where Siddaramaiah counts as a leader. Whether the Congress will cash in on the fervour generated by the padayatra will be tested when the byelections for two Assembly constituencies take place in September.

It is also good news for the Congress that the response to the counter-padayatra launched by B. Sriramulu got only limited support. It is no secret that the Chief Minister and the Reddy brothers have a tenuous relationship, and even on this occasion the brothers went ahead with their padayatra even though Yeddyurappa was opposed to it.