Exactly a month ago, on 30 September, former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah announced that he was the “troubleshooter” for the coalition government of Congress and Janata Dal (Secular). He said this with the same nonchalant confidence that James Bond displayed in Moonraker when he promised to save the world from the evil designs of villain Hugo Drax.
The Congress leader gleefully tweeted about his unofficial status in the party as a gallant Knight in Shining Armour who will rescue it from any troubles that may erupt.
I have been made the leader of coordination committee to be the troubleshooter for the coalition govt. I ll nt allow anyone to destabilize the govt. Our govt will complete full 5 yr term. Ppl have very good opinion & farm loan waiver is being appreciated by all.@INCKarnataka
— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) September 30, 2018
But this only drew amused chuckles on local TV channels and in street-corner teashops and sparked a lively debate on whether Siddaramaiah was a troublemaker or a troubleshooter for the coalition government. That was because his announcement followed a sordid saga of troubles that the former chief minister himself had heaped on the coalition, after it was hastily stitched up to rule Karnataka to keep BJP out of power, following the hung result of the May Assembly elections.
The latest ‘trouble’ that needs ‘shooting’ is not of the making of Siddaramaiah but, of course, he is at the forefront to redeem the party. Danger, or the possibility of it, has arrived in the form of five by-elections on 3 November: three to the Lok Sabha and two to the Assembly. These are the first elections that the Congress and JD(S) are fighting together, after fighting each other for long before the Assembly elections and squabbling on sundry issues even after they formed a coalition.
Siddaramaiah is now ensuring the only thing he can: putting up a facade of unity between leaders of the two parties as they campaign in the constituencies of Mandya, Ballari and Shivamogga (Lok Sabha) and Ramanagaram and Jamkhandi (Assembly). The former chief minister even shared a stage with arch-rival and JD(S) leader HD Deve Gowda, whose son HD Kumaraswamy is the coalition chief minister, for the first time in 12 years.
Siddaramaiah and the Gowda family, who haven’t been able to see eye to eye, are now seemingly discovering the virtue of the ancient wisdom that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’.
Rubbing shoulders with Gowda and his son could hardly have been a lovely experience for Siddaramaiah. He was Gowda’s trusted protégé for some 20 years till he left him in 2005. He is miffed that Gowda deprived him of the chief minister’s job twice—in 1996 and 2004—and promoted his own son Kumaraswamy. Even during this year’s Assembly elections, Siddaramaiah and Gowda tried to politically destroy each other.
This newfound love between sworn enemies is a result of the high stakes the elections present for Congress-JD(S) combine, higher than for BJP. A poor performance may not only wreck the alliance in the state but may have the potential of taking the wind out of the sails of Opposition unity across India. Between the two uneasy partners, a defeat can be more crushing for Congress. It will mean that Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who wants to go down in the history as an impresario of Opposition unity to rescue the nation from the monster of BJP’s communalism, will not only lose face but even bargaining power in striking future alliances.
Besides, a dismal showing by Congress in the two seats where it has candidates—Ballari (Lok Sabha) and Jamkhandi (Assembly)—will strengthen the contention within the party that the alliance is doing more harm than good to it. And in case of unexpected victories for BJP, Siddaramaiah doesn’t want to be seen as the man responsible. Or perhaps he has been told to hold fire by Gandhi.
Leaders are united, workers aren’t
But saving the alliance—if it needs saving—isn’t easy. Though the leaders of Congress and JD(S) seem to be united, the workers of the two parties aren’t. The unity forced down their throats is choking a lot of them. There is utter unhappiness in Congress over letting JD(S) contest Ramanagaram Assembly seat and Mandya Lok Sabha in the Old Mysuru region, where the rivalry between the two parties before they joined hands was the fiercest. Historically, both have been relying on the same vote bank of upper-caste Vokkaligas here.
In Mandya on Sunday, for instance, a former Congress minister and a known enemy of Gowda threw the mic in disgust at a joint meeting of the parties. Discontent in other constituencies too is evident, though it is unclear yet as to what extent it will affect the fate of the alliance candidates.
On his part, Siddaramaiah is doing everything he can to rule out any scope for accusing fingers to be pointed at him. But the seriousness of his troubleshooting intentions is suspect in the eyes of many, considering his troublemaking record.
Once Kumaraswamy became the chief minister, Siddaramaiah publicly expressed doubts over how long his government would last, said the new government shouldn’t present a full-fledged budget, questioned the need for the mega loan waiver scheme for farmers, expressed peeve over the dilution of some of his own populist schemes, got himself admitted to a naturopathy clinic from where he allegedly masterminded the release of some mischievous video clips.
Siddaramaiah also created wholesale confusion by declaring he would be the next chief minister without saying how and when, became the rallying point for MLAs unhappy over not being made ministers and, as if all this wasn’t enough, he allegedly encouraged the famous “Jarkiholi brothers” of the Belagavi district to rebel and nearly topple the government.
And then he said he was a troubleshooter.
Siddaramaiah’s troublemaking was always in fits and starts. When he thought his sabre-rattling had made enough newspaper headlines, he would become as peaceful as a dove—till he picked up the next issue to send Kumaraswamy driving up the wall. He alternated between being a provocateur and a peacemaker so fast that it left everybody baffled.
But ever since his 30 September declaration that he would not allow anybody to rock the coalition boat, he has done or said nothing to annoy Kumaraswamy. Both Congress and JD(S) are, however, agog with speculation that Siddaramaiah may once again don the hat of a troublemaker after the results of the by-elections are out on 6 November.
The author tweets @sprasadindia