Celebrations in the Congress camp in Karnataka have given way to curiosity and anxiety over who will become chief minister of the state.
The party has decided on a tentative date for the swearing-in ceremony of the new government — 18 May. There is, however, one tiny glitch: The party hasn’t decided on who will lead the government.
Hectic bargaining is expected to take place in New Delhi on late Monday, 15 May, and Tuesday as the two contenders — former chief minister Siddaramaiah and party state unit chief DK Shivakumar — are set to hold talks with the Congress central leadership.
Siddaramaiah left for Delhi on Monday afternoon, while DK Shivakumar continued to flex his muscles and was “undecided on visiting Delhi”. He cited his birthday and “poojas at home” for his stance.
By evening, the stance had changed.
With a resounding mandate of 135 seats with a vote share of 42.9 percent, the two top leaders of Congress are vying to stamp their authority on the landslide victory.
That Siddaramaiah, who is touted as an able administrator, is the popular choice of MLAs has been established, his aides claim. Siddaramaiah, too, in an interview to a television news channel claimed that majority of the MLAs on Sunday had chosen him as their preference for chief minister.
In the secret ballot process carried out on Sunday evening after the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meeting, a majority of the 135 MLAs of Congress have purportedly voted for Siddaramaiah.
But the DK Shivakumar’s camp denies this.
“It is a secret ballot and MLAs have expressed their preference on a piece of paper and put it in a sealed box. The box will be opened only by Kharge. How can anyone claim to know for sure who is the choice,” asked a senior leader of Congress.
In a cryptic statement, DK Shivakumar told reporters on Monday evening that he was a “single-man majority” — perhaps a dig at Siddaramaiah’s claims of popularity.
“All 135 MLAs of the Congress are my MLAs. Under my leadership, 135 MLAs in one voice have said the matter is referred to high command. I don’t have a single number or personal number. Whatever my number is, is the Congress’ number,” Shivakumar told reporters before confirming that he too was leaving for Delhi.
Public compromise formula? No, says party
While several reports suggested that Congress had offered a compromise formula for the two leaders and encouraged power-sharing, sources in the party suggest that both leaders have been asked to cooperate with each other on a “trust factor”.
Sources close to DK Shivakumar told South First that the Congress state president is willing to accept a power-sharing formula if the party makes a public announcement of the same. Supporters from both leaders’ camp talk of two compromise formulas.
One, a 50-50 power-sharing formula that will allow each of the leaders to hold the chief minister’s post for 2.5 years each. DK Shivakumar is said to have sought first preference (for him to be in the post for the first 2.5 years) in this arrangement, but following pushback from Siddaramaiah, rejected the proposal.
Another formula that was proposed is said to be a 2:3 formula — a two-year term for Siddaramaiah and a three-year term for DK Shivakumar. The latter was not impressed by this either.
In Delhi, these issues are expected to be sorted out, along with lobbying for Cabinet berths. DK Shivakumar is expected to demand complete say in Cabinet formation if he doesn’t get the chance to be chief minister immediately.
Aides of Shivakumar said that the KPCC president also wants the party to make a public announcement if any power sharing formula is arrived at, an idea that the party is not kicked about.
Given that the mandate for Congress has come in the hope of a stable government, the Congress is apprehensive of the backlash that could come the party’s way if talk of a change in chief minister is made in the public domain even before the government is sworn in.
War-time president, experienced CM?
The party is said to prefer Siddaramaiah as chief minister immediately, and DK Shivakumar to continue as its “war-time” president of the state unit in the run-up to 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The leaders hope to convince the duo of revisiting the arrangement after the 2024 election.
Shivakumar , who waited for years to even get a Cabinet berth in the 2013 Siddaramaiah government, is not willing to wait it out this time. He has also been backed by Vokkaliga leaders and seers who have endorsed his candidature for chief minister.
Siddaramaiah, on the other hand, is the Congress’ AHINDA (Kannada acronym for Minorities, Dalits and Other backward classes) icon.
With him at the helm of government and DK Shivakumar at the helm of party, the Congress hopes to further its poll prospects in 2024 when the the BJP is sure to come at it with vengeance following its decimation in Karnataka Assembly elections 2023.
“If both leaders keep fighting, the party will do a Himachal and pick someone else,” threatened a senior Congress leader. “The decision-making is with the high command and we expect the leaders to accept whatever decision is made — even if it is picking a third name,” the leader said.
The leader was insinuating at Mallikarjun Kharge as a possible choice who could consolidate Dalits in the Congress’ favour in the run-up to 2024 parliamentary election.
Others in the party, however, insisted that the contest for the chief minister’s chair is only between Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar.
“Several MLAs have, even in their secret ballot, left the decision to AICC President Mallikarjun Kharge — especially MLAs from the Kalyana Karnataka region. It is only between Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar and there is nothing wrong in leaders showing ambition. Bringing Mallikarjun Kharge’s name into the cgief minister race when he is already AICC chief is mischievous,” the leader told South First.