Karnataka bye-elections: Candidate choice increases rift between Cong’s top two leaders

Siddaramaiah, D K Shivakumar (R)

The bypolls to 15 Assembly seats in Karnataka is seen as causing a strain in the Congress’s state leadership, with two of its tallest leaders, former CM Siddaramaiah and former minister D K Shivakumar, ostensibly pulling in different directions on the choice of candidates, especially for Belagavi region.

Siddaramaiah, popular among Congress MLAs, is said to be pitching for some of his old associates in constituencies in Belagavi region, while Shivakumar, who enjoys trust of the party high command, is keen to field BJP rebels in what is also seen as a personal battle for Shivakumar against former Congress leader from the region Ramesh Jharkiholi — once a Siddaramaiah associate who has since switched sides and led to the Congress-JD(S) government’s fall last year.

Since his bail in an Enforcement Directorate case last month, Shivakumar, who was visited in jail by senior Congress leaders, including party chief Sonia Gandhi, is seen as emerging as a counterweight to Siddaramaiah in state Congress.

At a meeting held in state party office on Monday to decide on candidates for the December 5 bypolls, the two senior leaders are reported to have had sharp exchange of words over the choice of candidates for Belagavi constituencies. For the Gokak constituency, a family fiefdom of the Jharkiholi brothers, Siddaramaiah is said to be backing the candidature of Lakhan Jharkiholi to take on his brother Ramesh, expected to be fielded by the BJP, while Shivakumar is learnt to have pitched for Ashok Poojari, the BJP candidate who lost the 2018 polls from Gokak.

In Kagwad, Shivakumar has reportedly pitched for Raju Kage, the BJP candidate in 2018 who lost to then Congressman Shrimanth Patil, who has also switched sides and is likely to be fielded by the ruling party if the Supreme Court decides in favour of the rebel Congress-JD(S) legislators in its verdict scheduled on Wednesday.

Shivakumar’s ostensible move to support candidature of BJP rebels in two Belagavi constituencies is seen as having kept Siddaramaiah’s close associate from Belagavi region, Satish Jharkiholi, away from Monday’s party meeting.

State Congress chief Dinesh Gundu Rao said that the meeting will be reconvened on Wednesday, after the Supreme Court verdict.

Siddaramaiah on Tuesday said, “We are gathering information from all leaders for constituencies where candidates have not been picked. We will consult the party high command and decide the final list. Our aim is to win at least 12 of the 15 seats.”

The Congress has already chosen eight out of the 15 candidates.

Although Shivakumar was instrumental in bringing Siddaramaiah, a Backward Class leader, from JD(S) to the Congress in 2006, the two have had a frosty relationship from the time the latter became the chief minister in 2013. Shivakumar was initially kept out of the state ministry, and was included after nearly a year into Siddaramaiah’s tenure.

In 2016, when Shivakumar fell out with the Jharkiholi brothers, Siddaramaiah’s associates, over multiple issues, including Shivakumar’s attempt to take political control of Belagavi region, the Congress directed him to stay out of Belagavi affairs.

After the Congress failed to win enough seats to return on its own in 2018, under Siddaramaiah’s leadership, Shivakumar forged a close alliance with JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy, until then a fierce rival for electoral attention of their dominant Vokkaliga community. Kumaraswamy subsequently became the CM.