On 23 October, 2019, DK Shivakumar made a promise to Sonia Gandhi, then the interim chief of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). In May 2023, he delivered on the promise in style.
Shivakumar was in Tihar jail in an Enforcement Directorate (ED)-charged case of alleged money laundering when Sonia Gandhi visited him. He promised her the Congress would be back in power in Karnataka.
Shivakumar was still smarting from his defeat back home when he made the promise. Exactly three months ago, on 23 July, 2019, the HD Kumaraswamy-led JD(S)-Congress had collapsed after losing a vote of confidence.
As many as 17 MLAs had then defected to the BJP, despite the Congress leader’s best efforts to keep the flock together. Two months later, the ED arrested him.
After his release from prison, the AICC made him the president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) on 11 March, 2020. He planned his moves meticulously and build a new image for the Congress, fighting political rivals and the Covid-19 pandemic.
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While the BJP banked on national leaders and their political rhetoric that did not connect with the Karnataka electorate — as the results of the 2023 Assembly elections revealed — the Congress assiduously projected local leaders, and issues, including corruption, to win votes.
The efforts paid off. Popularly known as Kanakapura Bande — or the Rock of Kanakapura — Shivakumar was a man of emotions when he recalled the promise — to “deliver Karnataka” — he had made to Sonia Gandhi while being incarcerated for 50 days in a once-notorious prison.
“I credit party workers and leaders, including Siddaramaiah, for the victory. It was a collective work of the party,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks, on 13 May, minutes after the Congress had decimated the BJP in the Assembly polls held three days earlier.
The emotional outburst was unlikely of Doddalahalli Kempegowda Shivakumar — and least expected from the Congress’s Vokkaliga strongman, waiting to turn 61 two days later.
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From NSUI to deputy CM
Shivakumar is no stranger to Congress politics. Born to Kempe Gowda and Gouramma of Doddalahalli village in Kanakapura taluk, he joined the National Students Union India (NSUI), the student’s wing of the Congress, when he was 18.
He was a student of Ram Narayan Chellaram College in Bengaluru when Shivakumar was made the general secretary of the Youth Congress in Karnataka. He made his electoral debut contesting against the JD(S) patriarch HD Deve Gowda from Sathanur In 1985. Though he lost the polls, his political acumen and deftness were noticed.
In 1989, he won Sathanur. Before becoming an MLA, he represented the constituency in the Bengaluru Rural Zilla Panchayat.
His political deftness became more obvious when he played a pivotal role in the formation of the Sarekoppa Bangarappa government, in which he held the prisons portfolio. His shrewd moves often took his political rivals, including a seasoned Deve Gowda, by surprise.
Tejaswini Gowda was one such surprise.
Though known only as the host of a television chat show, Mukha Mukhi (Face to face), the Congress fielded her against Deve Gowda in Kanakapura in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Despite her inexperience in electoral politics, she pulled off a thumping win by a margin of more than one lakh votes.
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The former prime minister had to settle for third place, though he won from Hasan. From winning SM Krishna the support of the JD(S) in the Rajya Sabha polls to successfully fielding actor Ramya aka Divya Spandana from the Mandya Lok Sabha segment, all had the stamp of Shivakumar.
Meanwhile, he won the confidence of the Congress high command, which did not think twice before assigning him the charge of protecting the party MLAs from Maharashtra and Gujarat from being poached.
Shivakumar had been a part of the Cabinets of SM Krishna and Siddaramaiah, against whom he contested for the chief ministerial post.
While the AICC backed the majority MLAs’ preference to make Siddaramaiah the chief minister, it did not leave Shivakumar out in the cold: He will take oath as the deputy chief minister on Saturday, 20 May.
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Pitted against Amit Shah
On 28 September, 2022, Shivakumar was busy making arrangements for Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra when officers from the CBI began assessing his properties. It was just the beginning.
The ED summoned Shivakumar to New Delhi to question him in another case. He obliged. A day of ED’s questioning later, he received a notice from the Supreme Court based on a petition by the Income-Tax (I-T) Department, challenging a lower court discharging him in a tax evasion case.
Just before the Assembly polls In May this year, the ED filed a chargesheet against him in a 2018 money laundering case.
The Congress leaders felt these cases were all timed to disrupt Shivakumar’s poll preparations and campaign. However, the cases could not deter him.
South First had reported earlier that all cases against Shivakumar were interlinked.
Shivakumar had faced the heat of central agencies earlier as well. In the early hours of 2 August 2017, I-T officials, with armed central police force personnel in tow, searched a resort on Bengaluru’s outskirts where the Congress leader had safely parked 44 Congress MLAs from Gujarat.
The high command had then entrusted their security — fearing that they would be poached — to Shivakumar, thereby pitting him directly against Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Shah was then keen on getting three BJP leaders elected to the Rajya Sabha, but the party had numbers only to elect two. The Congress wanted the late Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha. Shivakumar ensured that Patel won.
Shivakumar was then the energy minister of Karnataka. He housed the MLAs in Eagleton Resort in Bidadi. The I-T Department later said ₹9 crore unaccounted cash was seized from the resort.
Properties worth crores were attached for further probe after simultaneous inspections at 67 locations of his friends and relatives across the country.
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Political vendetta, interlinked cases
The Congress alleged that the raids were politically motivated: The I-T Department termed the timing a “coincidence”.
Following the searches, the I-T Department filed three cases against Shivakumar, accusing him of tax evasion and suppression of income, having benami properties, and a criminal case for destruction of evidence. I-T officials claimed that Shivakumar had torn up papers on crucial transaction information.
Based on the I-T Department’s chargesheet, the ED registered a case of money laundering in 2018. Incidentally, a special court for elected representatives in February 2019 discharged Shivakumar in all three I-T cases on the grounds of “bad law”.
In April 2021, the Karnataka High Court upheld the order discharging Shivakumar, and the I-T Department went to the Supreme Court against the order.
The ED case was based on the I-T Department’s charges against Shivakumar and his associates for alleged hawala transactions through offshore and obscure accounts. Shivakumar’s mother and daughter, too, were questioned in the case.
It was in this case that Shivakumar was arrested and sent to Tihar Jail.
In October 2020, the CBI again knocked at Shivakumar’s doors accusing him of acquiring assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.
After searching 14 locations, the CBI booked Shivakumar for holding disproportionate assets to the tune of ₹74.93 crore. This case was based on the input by ED, the CBI said.
Interestingly, the ED issued a fresh summons to Shivakumar in September after it took cognizance of the CBI case against him.
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The crisis manager
Shivakumar is the money and muscleman of the Congress in Karnataka. These two — his biggest strengths —— seem to have turned bane for him.
He has been considered as the crisis manager and troubleshooter. Perhaps it could be the reason that made him — then the minister for irrigation in the HD Kumaraswamy Cabinet — sit in the rain outside a Mumbai hotel to shield the JD(S) and Congress MLAs from being poached in 2019. He did not succeed as 17 jumped ship.
Still, right after the 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections threw up a broken mandate, Shivakumar and Kumaraswamy kept the JD(S)-Congress flock together, forcing BJP veteran BS Yediyurappa, who had hurriedly taken oath as the chief minister, to resign.
Images of Shivakumar walking into the legislature in 2018 holding then Congress MLA Anand Singh by the wrist made headlines the next day. A year down the line, Shivakumar was not as lucky.
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It was through money and muscle power that Shivakumar emerged as the party’s troubleshooter. His resources allowed him to streamline his organisational skills and nip squabbles in the bud.
While some in the Congress aren’t fans of Shivakumar for his show of money and muscle power, others believe it is the only way to take on the Modi-Shah combine, specifically in an election year.
“Other than his great organisational and management skills, he is also the president of the Karnataka Congress, which means any action on him reflects on the party. And the timing of the searches on him does matter,” Prof Sandeep Shastri, national coordinator of the Lokniti Network, opined.
Shivakumar married Usha in 1993 and they have two daughters, Aishwarya and Aabharana, and a son, Aakash. He is an eight-time MLA from Sathanur and Kanakapura constituencies.