With the spectre of uncertainty regarding the outcome of the crucial Karnataka Assembly polls looming in his subconscious mind, Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Saturday took pains to place on record the contributions of seniors, while in the same breath urging younger leaders to rise to the occasion and combat divisive and communal forces. Acknowledging the presence of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Rahul thanked them for strengthening the party, along with many others including his mother, and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

However, the importance the party was attaching to the Karnataka Assembly polls was evident when the political resolution at the plenary session convened to endorse his elevation as president was moved by Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the party in the Lok Sabha and a formidable Dalit leader from the state. Generally, the protocol is that the political resolution is moved by the senior-most functionaries, and had that been the criterion, then Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, A.K. Antony, former Defence Minister, Ahmed Patel, erstwhile political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, P. Chidambaram, former Finance Minister, or Kamal Nath, nine times Lok Sabha MP from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh would have done so.

All these leaders were amongst those present, but the privilege of speaking about the political blue print was accorded to Kharge, since retaining the government in Karnataka is vital for Rahul to have a good start as the head of the organisation whose footprint on the national map has been gradually receding. If the Congress were to lose Karnataka, a big question mark would hover over the leadership abilities of Rahul Gandhi, who seems to have, otherwise, made a political comeback after the party’s impressive performance in Gujarat.

Kharge, who, in the past, had been critical of the poll preparedness, as well as the manner in which the Siddaramaiah government had been functioning, was handpicked in order to showcase the unity in the state Congress party, as also to send a strong signal to workers that the high command had sorted out, amongst various factions, all differences.

The significance of Karnataka in the Congress scheme of things was further underlined when during her brief address, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi recalled how Indira Gandhi’s victory from Chikmagalur in 1978 had changed the political fortunes of the party, which had been at the receiving end of a strong tirade launched against it by the Morarji Desai-led Janata government. “Let Karnataka show the way once again”, she said.

Though Sonia Gandhi did not mention it, but her own Parliamentary sojourn commenced from Bellary in Karnataka in 1999, when she defeated Sushma Swaraj in a high profile contest, while simultaneously emerging victorious from the family bastion of Amethi. However, she later relinquished the Bellary seat. Interestingly, during her campaign against her opponent Veerendra Patil in Chikmagalur, from where for the first time she was contesting on the hand symbol, Indira Gandhi had stayed at the home of D.K. Taradevi, who for reasons best known to the present party leadership, was during the last 20 years never granted the ticket to enter the fray from there. Taradevi, who belongs to a prominent Vokkaliga family, and is married to P. Siddhartha Reddy, once a close lieutenant of Rajiv Gandhi, was in 1984 given the Congress ticket by the former Prime Minister and subsequently served as a minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government.

Karnataka being on the top of the party’s agenda became crystal clear when Rahul Gandhi reached out to Siddaramaiah, who is believed to have resisted pressure mounted on him last week to provide Rajya Sabha tickets to the high command’s favourites. The no-nonsense Chief Minister, whose political style bears similarities with that of his very senior predecessor Devraj Urs, without mincing words, conveyed to the party’s leadership that in the election year, “no outsiders could be accommodated”.

Earlier, political grapevine had indicated that the high command was looking at the possibility of fielding Sam Pitroda, a key-adviser of Rahul Gandhi, as well as some other seniors to the Upper House from the state. Siddaramaiah, like his other colleague, Captain Amarinder Singh has formulated his own strategy of beating his political opponents and has already declared that his main poll plank would be good governance and the Kannadiga pride that was sought to be bruised by the Central government and its principal party, the BJP.

The Congress leadership is fully aware that since the BJP’s political fortunes have started fluctuating in the wake of its recent defeat in the three Parliamentary byelections, Siddaramaiah alone can be instrumental in carrying the battle to the enemy camp. Therefore, exercising the doctrine of restraint, the high command was allowing him to have a major say in poll related matters. This would not have been so, had the Congress been in power in multiple states.

Sonia Gandhi’s reference to Karnataka as the comeback point assumes relevance since the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh elections—where the party is expected to do well—would follow the polls there. A loss in Karnataka would be extremely demoralising and could have a bearing on the morale of the workers for other elections as well. As it is, the non existence of the Congress organisation has always been a cause of great concern. A victory in Karnataka would also provide the Congress with more leverage, while dealing with regional players engaged in the formation of a united front against Narendra Modi and the NDA.

Along with Siddaramaiah, Amarinder Singh, whose name had not figured in the steering committee, was accorded his rightful importance. He was asked to move the resolution on agriculture distress and given due prominence so as to inspire younger leaders who played a stellar role in Saturday’s proceedings. Singh has always praised Rahul, and the Congress leadership, while claiming that they have never made any attempt to foist their views or nominees on him. He had been extended complete freedom when he had constituted his Cabinet. Two of his ministerial colleagues, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Manpreet Singhg Badal, were amongst those who were listed as speakers. 

Yet, it was Karnataka which remained the flavour of the first day.

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