Race for Karnataka Congress president post turns into battle between Lingayats and Vokkaligas

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New Delhi :  The race for the Karnataka Congress president’s post has virtually turned into a fierce battle between Lingayats and Vokkaligas, the state’s two influential communities.

“While the party’s central leadership is keen on handing over the reins in Karnataka to former minister and key troubleshooter DK Shivakumar, former chief minister Siddaramaiah favours Lingayat leader MB Patil for the post,” a Congress leader familiar with the developments said. Current state unit chief Dinesh Gundu Rao had submitted his resignation to the party high command, taking responsibility for the party’s poor performance in the recent by-elections. Siddaramaiah also stepped down as the Congress Legislature Party leader.

In the December 5 bypolls held in 15 assembly constituencies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 12, the Congress two and an independent one. It was widely believed that the intense infighting in the Congress cost it dear in the by-elections as Siddaramaiah had emerged as the party’s lead campaigner.

Shivakumar, 57, a Vokkaliga from south Karnataka and a seven-time legislator, had been in prominence since he played a key role to shelter the party’s Gujarat lawmakers ahead of a crucial Rajya Sabha election in 2017, sequestering them at his resort.

Income tax authorities recently raided properties linked to Shivakumar. In these raids, the income tax department officials said they seized unaccounted cash of ~8.82 crore from his Delhi house. Shivakumar was arrested by the ED on September 3 last year in a money laundering case based on a complaint by the tax department alleging tax evasion.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi had visited him in Tihar jail and it was seen as a message that the party stood behind him. Former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, also a Vokkaliga leader, too had visited Shivakumar in jail. The Congress had alleged both Shivakumar and former finance minister P Chidambaram were targeted by central agencies because of political vendetta. Shivakumar was released on October 23 after bail in the case.

Patil, 55, a former state home minister and a Lingayat leader, has the support of Siddaramaiah.

The two upper castes – Lingayats and Vokkaligas – have dominated the state politics for decades. While Lingayats constitute 17% of the state’s 65 million population, Vokkaligas account for 15%. Lingayats had moved away from the Congress in 1990 when Rajiv Gandhi removed Veerendra Patil as the chief minister.

On the other hand, a large chunk of Vokkaligas had for years rallied behind HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular).

A Narayana of the Bengaluru-based Azim Premji University said the delay is because of the long standing tussle between the original Congressmen and migrants from other parties. He said Siddaramaiah is opposing Shivakumar and prefers Patil but the original Congressmen seem to fear if Patil becomes the state unit president, Siddaramaiah, a migrant, will have an upper hand.

“There is also some discontent about Siddaramaiah’s style of functioning. Although he is aggressive, he is not strategising enough to take on the mighty BJP. So, old timers feel that with Siddaramaiah or his henchmen at the helm of affairs will not help the party much. The party is also unsure as to which of the two dominant castes is easier to win over. So the question is should it choose Patil to get the Lingayat support or bet on the Vokkaligas by anointing Shivakumar,” Narayana added.

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