New Delhi/Bangalore: A group of 20 present and former Congress legislators from Karnataka is set to meet party president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on Tuesday to urge her to replace state unit president G. Parameshwara, a Dalit, with the 81-year-old veteran leader, Shamanur Shivashankarappa, a Lingayat. Caste considerations in party leadership are assuming strategic importance as assembly polls in the state are due in May 2013. There is speculation, however, that the polls could be held as early as December 2012.
"We will meet Sonia ji tomorrow (Tuesday) to urge her to appoint Shivashankarappa as state Congress chief," P.M. Ashok, a legislator who is part of the group, told reporters in New Delhi on Monday. "We have nothing against Parameshwara but we believe that Congress will come to power in our state if a Lingayat leader from our party is made state unit president," he asserted. Lingayats constitute about 17 percent of Karnataka's around 65 million population and are generally believed to be backing the Janata Party since the 1990s, on the ground that the Congress has neglected the community.
Ashok said the Congress has done well in the elections whenever the state unit was headed by either a Lingayat or a Vokkalika, another dominant caste group, which makes up about 16 percent of the state population. He justified the demand for replacing Parameshwara citing the failure of the Congress to capture power in the 2008 assembly polls, when Mallikarjun Kharge, now union labour minister, was state unit president. Kharge is a Dalit. "Kharge is the tallest Dalit leader in Karnataka. Still, the party did not win. In contrast, in 1999, we won," Ashok said.
Caste considerations in party leadership are assuming strategic importance as assembly polls are due in May 2013.
In 1999, the state Congress was led by present external affairs minister S.M. Krishna, a Vokkaliga. Shamanur Shivashankarappa, a veteran Congressman, runs a string of educational institutions in the state. Shivashankarappa has been saying that if he is made the state Congress chief, the party will win around 150 seats in the 225-member assembly. Members are elected to 224 of the 225 seats in the assembly and one member is nominated to represent the Anglo-Indian community.
Shivashankarappa had met Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi last July, staking his claim to lead the state unit of the party. Anticipating the backlash from the Dalits if Parameshwara is replaced, the Lingayats say that Parameshwara could serve as chief minister in the state if the party wins. "We have no objection to Parameshwara or any other leader being made the chief minister. We are not seeking the chief minister's post. We only want Shivashankarappa to be made state Congress president to win the polls," Ashok said.
In related developments, another team of OBC (other backward classes) Congress leaders is reaching New Delhi late on Monday. While Ashok claimed this team would also pitch for Shivashankarappa as the new state Congress chief, the OBC members are not making public the reasons for their visit to New Delhi. Another senior Congress leader, Siddaramaiah, who heads the party in the assembly and is considered an aspirant for the chief minister's post, is already in New Delhi to meet party leaders and apprise them of his understanding of the situation in the state.