Bengaluru: It’s not often that a state legislature witnesses salvos over humble idlis, vadas and masala dosas. But this Monday, as Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and Leader of the Opposition Siddaramaiah sparred over price rise, their argument turned to how expensive it had become to eat idli and dosa at an eatery that is popular among Karnataka’s politicians.
Former CM Siddaramaiah made some casual yet impactful arguments on the rising prices of items like steel, cement, cooking oil, diesel and food items, and gave the example of the eatery. To counter him, CM Bommai presented the rate card of the same place.
“I too eat at this hotel Siddaramaiah mentioned. After he asked how expensive food at hotels has become, I brought their rate card. Two idlis cost Rs 35 in 2017, and Rs 26 in 2019. Now, they cost Rs 38. One masala dosa costs Rs 90 now; it was Rs 80 last year. This increase in price is common. How is this a big deal? To suggest that the hike is because of us (BJP) is wrong,” Bommai told the assembly.
Siddaramaiah retorted that the masala dosa actually costs Rs 100 and invited Bommai to snack with him. “I will pay the bill, don’t worry,” Siddaramaiah said, cracking up MLAs in the house.
This lighter moment came in the midst of some heated arguments in the ongoing assembly session. Armed with issues like price rise, National Education Policy, Covid, law and order and the Kalyana Karnataka Board, the Congress is presenting a united front against the BJP government, despite issues between different camps in the party continuing to simmer.
Divided by camps, united by issues
On the first day of the legislative session, on 13 September, Congress leaders arrived at the Vidhana Soudha in bullock carts. When they returned this Monday, 20 September, they cycled to the secretariat.
Both these protests weren’t just aimed at grabbing headlines and public attention — they were attempts to embarrass the government over the fuel price hike and inflation.
The Congress in Karnataka seems to be able to counter the government better than the party manages in other places where it is in the opposition, say political analysts, and it has to do with the state’s unique politics.
“The efforts of the state leaders of the party are more effective due to the unique politics of Karnataka, not because of the Congress. In Karnataka, the fight is between the BJP and Congress, much like it is in the case of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan or Himachal Pradesh etc. (The difference is) the BJP is a major player in those places but not in Karnataka; it is still struggling to find its foothold in the state,” A. Narayana, political analyst and faculty member at the School of Public Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University, told ThePrint.
“In Karnataka, Congress’ rival has not achieved sufficient strength to pose a challenge it should worry about,” said Narayana, pointing to the fact that while the BJP has emerged as the single largest party twice, it has never beaten the Congress’ vote share in assembly polls.
Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president D.K. Shivakumar and Congress Legislature Party chief Siddaramaiah, whose tussle for control of the party is no secret, have put up a show of unity by posing side by side for the media.
Priyank Kharge, chairman of the IT and Data cell of the Karnataka Congress, does not deny that there is a difference of opinion among the leaders. “It is natural to have various points of view, but there are mechanisms put in place to address them,” he said.
“It is a two-pronged strategy. The KPCC president (Shivakumar) will conceptualise and decide on protests outside the assembly, while the CLP chief will decide the issues that we raise in the House. This time, we have decided not to protest in the well of the House and instead demand answers from the government,” Kharge added.
Shivakumar’s slew of campaigns
In May 2020, when Shivakumar wrote a cheque to the Karnataka Transport Corporation to pay for migrant workers’ tickets home during the first Covid lockdown, he not only embarrassed then-CM B.S. Yediyurappa’s government into announcing free travel for migrants, but also ensured the national leadership of the party took a cue.
Within two days, the Congress asked all its state units to pay for migrant workers’ tickets.
Then, in May this year, Siddaramaiah announced in a press conference that the party would mobilise Rs 100 crore to vaccinate all citizens of Karnataka for free. The party has held hundreds of relief kit distribution camps and vaccination camps in the state over the last many months.
This Wednesday, Shivakumar shared a four-and-a-half-minute video on his social media pages, launching a campaign to shed light on oxygen shortage deaths in Karnataka during the second wave of Covid with #ChamarajanagaraInsideStories.
This is just the latest in a series of new media campaigns that the Vokkaliga strongman’s team has launched, including #OnduPrashne, seeking answers from the government to one burning issue of the week; a #VaccinateKarnataka contest, where he announced 100 Android tablets as prizes for school children, encouraging them to make videos about the importance of vaccination.
Earlier this year, Shivakumar roped in DesignBoxed, a Punjab-based political strategy management firm, much to the grouse of many leaders in Karnataka. All his social media campaigns have come as part of the firm’s image-building strategy for the leader. These campaigns, however, are centred on Shivakumar.
2023 polls winnable for Congress
Even before Yediyurappa’s exit as CM in July this year, the Congress has been taking potshots at the BJP for being a divided house in the state. Ironically, despite the party’s public show of unity, insiders agree that there are camps and factions, and the fissures run deep.
During the recently concluded Karnataka Youth Congress elections, Shivakumar backed Mohammed Nalapad while Siddaramaiah backed Raksha Ramaiah. Another camp, led by B.K. Hariprasad and G. Parameshwara, backed H.S. Manjunath. The results were delayed by months owing to lobbying, influence and the internal tussle among senior leaders.
Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar are also divided on the issue of allowing turncoat legislators back into the party — the CLP leader is vehemently against it, while Shivakumar has a more liberal stance.
The Congress is also yet to appoint office-bearers to its various committees after they were dissolved in June 2019 by then-party chief Rahul Gandhi.
The leaders’ tussle stems from a basic question — who is the bigger leader? The answer holds the key to control of the party and its prospects in the next assembly elections. But for now, the fissures have started showing at the grassroots level too.
“Even at the national level, the Congress is witnessing changes in its leadership style. D.K. Shivakumar is yet to catch the imagination of the people, unlike Siddaramaiah, who is still the more important leader,” said Prof. Narendar Pani, political analyst and dean at the School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies.
“Shivakumar will have to run faster and faster to stay still. He has to keep doing things to remain where he is now,” he said.
A. Narayana concurred with Pani. “When D.K. Shivakumar became Congress president, there were expectations that he would revive the party, but that hasn’t happened. Siddaramaiah outshines Shivakumar despite not being acceptable to the middle-class voters, who detest him,” he said.
But despite all these issues, political analysts believe that the next assembly elections scheduled for 2023 seem winnable for the Congress.
“They are winnable for the reason that voters in Karnataka keep changing the ruling party, and also because the BJP is not in great shape. Although the Congress appears united, there is an undercurrent of rivalry. (But) it has the time to dispel that image to do some damage-control,” said Narayana.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)