A few months ago, speculation was rife that Siddaramaiah was no longer interested in fighting another election. This was after his son Rakesh had passed away and the Karnataka chief minister seemed to have withdrawn into a shell. But the Nanjungud byelection challenge, it appears, spurred on the fighter in Siddaramaiah.
The bypoll in this southern Karnataka constituency had been turned by his former revenue minister Srinivas Prasad into a mission to humiliate Siddaramaiah. And when the going got tough, Siddaramaiah got going.
The twin wins in Karnataka - in Nanjangud and Gundlupet - gave the Congress the sole reason to cheer on Thursday. What makes it special is that they came in straight contests against the BJP, with the Janata Dal (Secular) not contesting. It puts Siddaramaiah in a position of strength to have his way ahead of the Assembly elections in May 2018.
Congress party general secretary in charge of Karnataka Digvijay Singh, doing a SWOT analysis of Siddaramaiah, recently described him as a politician with a good hold over the rural masses.
Congress party general secretary in charge of Karnataka Digvijay Singh, doing a SWOT analysis of Siddaramaiah, recently described him as a politician with a good hold over the rural masses. The problem with the CM is that his somewhat rustic approach does not go down well with a more urban audience. But the Congress calculation is that Bengaluru whose issues and Siddaramaiah's brusque response to them find traction more than they deserve in the media, may still be a small loss to bear compared to a better acceptability in the countryside.
An aggressive campaign
Given the aggression with which Siddaramaiah and his challenger BS Yeddyurappa campaigned in Nanjungud and Gundlupet, it is obvious that the byelections have kicked off the poll fever in Karnataka. And in a marked departure from the buzz a month ago, when even Congress leaders described Siddaramaiah as arrogant, with the party certain to spend the next five years in the opposition, Thursday's victories have given them hope. That if they strategise right, choose the right candidates, micromanage the election down to the booth level and campaign unitedly, they are in with a chance.
Congress sources suggest that the appointment of a new Karnataka Pradesh Congress chief is on the cards. Digvijay Singh, after the Goa fiasco, too may be shown the door. In the post-Uttar Pradesh and post-Nanjungud scenario, the Congress High command is not in a position to go against Siddaramaiah's choice.
The CM is believed to be backing SR Patil, a Lingayat, with an eye on blunting the BJP's core strength. The other contender who has thrown his hat in the ring is Energy minister DK Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga leader with a reputation of being a go-getter. Whoever is chosen will have to acknowledge the power equations with Siddaramaiah that the CM is the boss. Unlike KPCC chief G Parameshwara who harboured ambitions of becoming the CM in 2013, till his defeat in the elections.
But in the wheels-within-wheels politics of Karnataka, the caste equations play out in a complicated manner
But in the wheels-within-wheels politics of Karnataka, the caste equations play out in a complicated manner. Since the Cauvery dispute in September last year, the state saw a thaw in the personal equation between Siddaramaiah and his one-time mentor HD Deve Gowda. Analysts say the CM used the optics of this friendship to subtly convey to the Congress High command that a deal with JD(S) could always be his Plan B, should New Delhi try to rein him in by shooting off the shoulder of pliable and rootless leaders.
While a UP-like alliance is not likely to take place between the Congress and the JD(S) to beat the BJP, what cannot be ruled out is a tacit understanding. A Bengaluru Municipal Corporation-kind of formula where the Congress and the JD(S) came together to bag the Mayor and Deputy Mayor posts despite the BJP being the single largest party, could be replicated in the Vidhana Soudha. If the Congress falls short of a majority, the JD(S) could step in as the junior partner.
Political analyst Sugata Raju points out that it is for this reason that Shivakumar as KPCC chief will not amuse Deve Gowda as the former prime minister sees himself as the tallest leader of the Vokkaligas. Gowda would not like anyone to threaten his son HD Kumaraswamy's position among the gen-next of the Vokkaliga commmunity leadership.
Many feared that the exit of SM Krishna, the tallest Vokkaliga leader the Congress had, would dent the party's prospects in Nanjungud, since it falls in the former CM's backyard of Mysuru-Mandhya. The 21,000 vote victory margin has shown that the BJP has invested in a past-his-date politician who is unlikely to go beyond creating ripples in friendly media.
In the run-up to the assembly elections, Siddaramaiah is likely to fall back on AHINDA, the Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits. This was the segment that helped the Congress come to power in 2013. The three communities are spread through Karnataka unlike Lingayats (BJP's core vote base) and Vokkaligas (JDS core vote base) that are concentrated in select districts.
A victory will position him as a regional chieftain in the YSR mould.
Though Siddaramaiah will be forced to pay lip service to the greatness of Rahul Gandhi's leadership, Thursday has established that 2018 will be his election to win or lose. A victory will position him as a regional chieftain in the YSR mould. Given the moribund state of the Congress at the national level, Siddaramaiah has everything to play for.