Cabinet reshuffle and dissent

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s Cabinet reshuffle on June 19—in which he dropped 14 Ministers and inducted 13 new faces in his 33-member Ministry—resulted in an unprecedented backlash from supporters of leaders who were dropped and of those who failed to get in. Many even questioned Siddaramaiah’s right to drop them and joined the chorus of those who wanted the Congress high command to replace him.

All this left many in and outside the party to wonder if the exercise that has been a long time coming would damage the Congress’ chances in the May 2018 Assembly election. Siddaramaiah said to his Cabinet colleagues that the reshuffle was in the “interest of the party” and was “needed if there was to be an effective Cabinet”.

Speaking to Frontline, senior colleagues of Siddaramaiah said that since there was no scope for any expansion (the Cabinet already had the maximum permissible number of Ministers) the Chief Minister had no option but to drop some Ministers to accommodate new ones. They were angry that he neither consulted any of the them (senior Ministers) nor took those who were being dropped into confidence. Said a senior Minister: “Siddaramaiah forgot that in a democracy there is collective leadership. He is the first among equals. He did not even have the courtesy to inform those who were dropped. Instead, he sent the resignations directly to the Raj Bhavan and then went about inducting new faces. He probably misjudged the fact that even the most inefficient of his Ministers had their bastions of political support, both in their communities and in their constituencies.” Added another Minister: “Increasingly, he is not bothered about democracy and does what he wants. He is trying to curb dissidence through money power and offers of postings…. He is paving the way for the exit of the Congress from Karnataka.”

The aftermath of the latest reshuffle, which has also seen the elevation of a few from Minister of State to Cabinet rank, dampened the euphoria following the Congress’ unexpected gain of a third seat in the Rajya Sabha elections with the help of rebel Janata Dal (Secular) members. The reshuffle was meant to prepare the party for the May 2018 Assembly election by removing non-perfoming Ministers and appeasing caste, sectarian and political considerations.

Siddaramaiah, a backward class leader from Karnataka’s deep south, himself made it to the top post by virtue of the fact that none of the newly elected Congress legislators in May 2013 matched his political stature, experience and popularity. It was a job he coveted since 2005 when he left the Janata Dal (Secular) and migrated to the Congress a year later. Many old Congressmen, among them mainly former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, still doubt his Congress credentials to be Chief Minister.

Said a former Minister: “He never mingles with party workers and is always surrounded by his own henchmen and sycophants most of whom are ‘friends’ who joined the Congress along with him. He has no ‘Congress culture’ or commitment to the party. It is well known that he came to the Congress only to become the Chief Minister.”

Many Congressmen are also critical of the Chief Minister for promoting the interests of his Kuruba (shepherd) caste (which has been given an extra berth in the reshuffle) over all others and propagating a personality cult. Besides this is his perceived arbitrariness in decision-making and in promoting himself through his pet “Alpa Sankhyata, Hindulida, and Dalit”, or Ahinda (an acronym for a federation of Dalits, backward castes, and minorities), coalition he helped launch in July 2006.

This penchant for Ahinda, his critics say, has landed the Congress in trouble, with non-Ahinda communities, mainly the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas (the two most politically and economically powerful communities in the State), deserting the Congress for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They point to this as the reason for the BJP winning a sizeable number of seats in Mysuru and Chamarajanagar districts.

The recast team has sought to highlight the Congress’ commitment to be the messiah of Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) even while promoting the interests of the Lingayats. The Congress projection of Siddaramaiah in the State and Mallikarjuna Kharge (a Dalit) at the Centre resonates this philosophy, as does Siddaramaiah’s reshuffle, which reflects the altered caste and community equations; there are now nine OBCs, five Dalits and seven Lingayats in the Ministry. The major loser is the State’s other dominant community, the Vokkaligas, which now has just five representatives after the dropping of the former Kannada film star M.H. Ambareesh and Kimmane Ratnakar.

For any political party seeking to come to power in Karnataka, the support of the politically influential Lingayats and the Vokkaligas is crucial. The Lingayats are largely in the districts of northern Karnataka and the Vokkaligas are concentrated in the old Mysore region and the southern districts. Alienating either could be political hara kiri. But the Congress is probably going by the recently leaked Karnataka Backward Classes Commission’s Caste Census figures, according to which the Scheduled Castes constitute 17 per cent of the State’s 6.1 crore population. Lingayats are said to be 9.8 per cent, Muslims 12.5 per cent, Vokkaligas 8.16 per cent, Kurubas 7.1 per cent, the Scheduled Tribes 7 per cent and Brahmins 2.1 per cent. These figures are yet to be released officially by the Commission. These data disprove a long-held belief that Lingayats constituted more than 17 per cent of the State’s population, followed by the Vokkaligas, who are estimated to be around 12 per cent. With most of the 121 Congress MLAs not wanting to rock the boat, the dissidents might find it difficult to convince the party high command to effect a change in the State leadership. But the dissidents, who have sought to make S.M. Krishna their rallying point, are determined to keep the issue alive.

Ravi Sharma