The results of the Karnataka Assembly bypolls announced on Tuesday have triggered a blame game between Congress leaders supporting Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and those supporting senior Congress leader and the party’s chief whip in Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge after the Congress candidate in Hebbal constituency, C.K. Abdul Rahman Sharief (grandson of former railway minister C.K. Jaffer Sharief) suffered a huge defeat to BJP candidate Y.A. Narayan Swamy. Sharief was handpicked by Kharge, among other veteran party leaders, after voicing strong opposition to Siddaramaiah’s choice —independent Member of Legislative Council Byrathi Suresh. Karnataka Congress leaders who owe their loyalty to the 73-year-old veteran Kharge told The Sunday Guardian that Siddaramaiah carried out a latent negative campaign against the Congress in Hebbal to prove that his support was necessary for a good poll performance in the state. Leaders loyal to Siddaramaiah say that the party suffered a defeat because Kharge tried to sidestep Siddaramaiah while choosing the party’s candidate.
After announcement of the results, Siddaramaiah said: “The loss was unexpected.” However, party sources said that Siddaramaiah is displeased with the “increased destructive interference into the party’s activities from Kharge, Oscar Fernandes and B.K. Hariprasad”.
“Sharief’s selection turned into a prestige issue. It pitted old Congressmen against Siddaramaiah. It is unfortunate that it hasn’t ended,” said Manohar Tahsildar, minister for excise in Karnataka. The ruling Congress party in Karnataka managed to only win one out of three seats that went for Assembly by-elections on 12 February. The BJP retained Hebbal in Bengaluru and claimed Devadurga in Raichur district from the Congress, which snatched Bidar in north Karnataka from the BJP. The performance of the Congress was dismal, particularly in Hebbal where the Congress candidate was defeated by a margin of over 19,000 votes. The three seats had gone to polls due to the death of sitting members. “The majority of the dominant Vokkaliga community in Hebbal, to which (Karnataka Energy Minister) D.K. Shivakumar belongs, is with the BJP now. Minorities make up a large number in the constituency. But (state Youth Congress chief) Rizwan Arshad, who is also a minority leader and known to be a loyalist to Siddaramaiah, was publicly against Sharief’s candidature. He had also blamed Jaffer Sharief for his defeat in the general election in 2014,” a party source close to Mallikarjun Kharge, who is also a Lok Sabha MP, told this newspaper, on the condition of anonymity. D.K. Shivakumar was charged with handling the election campaign in Hebbal.
The BJP effectively consolidated the Hindu vote bank. It had led a vigorous campaign under Union Law Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda in the Hebbal constituency. Hebbal is part of Gowda’s Lok Sabha constituency.
“Siddaramaiah has openly shown his dissent to the party’s choice of candidate when he refused to meet Rahman Sharief some time ago at his residence. He made him wait for hours and finally met after Sharief had gone through much humiliation. If he had extended support to Sharief, the result would have been different. We admit. It might have been a bypoll, but this problem can grow big and come back to bite the party. We need to resolve this infighting. But he cannot compartmentalise the state unit. The Karnataka Congress is an organ of a larger national party. This kind of power tussle with the central leadership has cost the party a lot of ground in various states,” he said.
Siddaramaiah’s loyalists say that the bypassing of the Chief Minister has led to the defeat of the party in these elections. “Siddaramaiah is a leader who you cannot sidestep sitting in Delhi. Kharge commands great respect and authority in the state unit as well as in Delhi. However, it is not fruitful for the party when you undermine the Chief Minister’s position like that. The results are a direct consequence of the unwise intervention from Kharge. The Chief Minister has a tall stature in the state, be it among the general public or the party members,” a Congress leader part of Siddaramaiah’s Cabinet told The Sunday Guardian. Sharief’s candidature was finalised after a lengthy tug-of-war between veteran Congress leaders in Delhi and Siddaramaiah, who wanted to field Byrathi Suresh for the seat. “Without the support of Siddaramaiah, the party’s old leadership cannot possibly pull off a good poll performance in the state. Suresh had helped the Congress party, even when he was not part of it. Sharief lost in 2013 and now again. The margin of defeat this time is four times more than what it was in 2013 when Sharief lost to Jagadish Kumar of the BJP,” he added. In 2013, Sharief lost by 5,136 votes, while in the recent bypolls he lost by 19,199 votes.