Bangalore: At a time the Congress party is struggling to show a united front in Karnataka, allegations by senior leader Margaret Alva of selling tickets to candidates in state polls in May—which saw her being stripped of organizational positions, including that of a general secretary—have put the party in a spot.
The party’s poor show in the assembly elections saw its biggest rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), form a government in the state. The Congress suffered another blow when three sitting state legislators resigned their posts within two months of getting elected and joined the BJP—one of whom was later appointed a minister.
Introspective take: Deshpande says he has started regional conferences to strengthen the party and highlight failures of the BJP government. Gireesh GV / Mint
Alva’s statements have seen further discontent voiced by the likes of R.L. Jalappa, four time Congress MP, even as the party sought to play down the damage her statements have caused. Alva’s comments came at an awkward time for the Congress as it readies to face polls in six states, including Delhi, and Karnataka is set to hold by-elections for eight assembly seats.
The Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president, R.V. Deshpande, spoke about the challenges the party’s state unit faces and how he plans to reverse its fortunes. Edited excerpts:
By-elections are due in a couple of months. How crucial are they?
They are very important for the BJP because its longevity will depend on these elections. But as opposition, we don’t believe in defections, nor do we encourage defections. We will not leave any stone unturned and we are preparing ourselves for these eight by-elections.
The BJP is using statements made by Margaret Alva in its election campaign. What kind of a setback is this for the Congress?
Margaret Alva made some statements and the party has acted... The party has shown (that) discipline is foremost. Whoever (it is), big or small, is not important. I think the BJP got the answer when Margaretji was asked to leave all the positions (she held). What has the BJP (got) to say when Uma Bharati and Madanlal Khurana charged them with nepotism, favouritism, corruption? Has the BJP forgotten about that? Because some leader makes some statement...no doubt we are concerned about it. But it doesn’t mean that the BJP or some other political party should take advantage of it. It is shameless on the part of the (Karnataka state unit) president of the BJP (D.V.) Sadananda Gowda to say “I welcome Margaret Alva”. What nonsense! Have they got ethics, principles? Till she made a statement, they were exchanging blows with each other. So you just see how low the BJP is going.
Senior Congress leader R.L. Jalappa has endorsed Alva’s statements. Is the Congress a divided house as senior leaders such as Siddaramaiah are not seen at party events and (filmstar-turned party MP) M.H. Ambareesh has been reported as saying he will not contest elections anymore?
If Jalappa has some evidence to support Margaret’s views, why did he not inform this to the high command or KPCC? After Karnataka elections, a committee was constituted by the CWC (central working committee) under the chairmanship of A.K. Antony to find out reasons for the debacle and how to strengthen (the party). That was the right time. Why are they trying to talk now? I don’t think there is anything (problem) with Siddaramaiah, he is our leader and we are comfortable with him. Yes, there are some issues, we will sort it out, I’m confident. As far as Ambareesh is concerned, I talked to him yesterday (Wednesday). He said the way the BJP is going, the way they are spending money, nobody will be able to match resources to contest elections.
What challenges do you face as president of the party in Karnataka?
Taking together everybody is my job, which I have started. I had introspection meetings of all assembly candidates of 2008 and 2004 Parliament (members). Now, I have started regional conferences, to strengthen the party and highlight failures of the BJP government on all fronts.
Karnataka was seen as a stronghold of the Congress for many decades, but the party hasn’t won parliamentary elections twice in a row since 1991. What are you doing to reverse the party’s fortunes?
I agree with you, Karnataka was a Congress bastion. I do admit in 2004 and 2008 elections we had setbacks though we polled more votes than other political parties. We polled 34% votes in 2008 state elections, the BJP polled 33%. I do admit we could have done better...and we failed mainly on three or four counts. One, we declared our candidates very late. There was delimitation of constituencies, so candidates had very limited time to approach voters in the new set-up. We should have put up a united front. We worked unitedly, we campaigned, but we should have brought all the leaders on a single platform which we could not do. The so-called secular votes were divided between the Congress, the Janata Dal (Secular), the Bahujan Samaj Party and other parties. That was to the advantage of the BJP. We would like to strengthen our base. I have tried to start enrolment now. Generally in the Congress, membership drive is done only at the time of organizing elections. But I want it to be a continuous affair.
Will the Congress decide candidates for parliamentary elections early this time then?
One of the recommendations of the A.K. Antony committee is that. That we should release the lists at the earliest, so candidates get time not only to campaign and tour, but to sort out differences if there are any.
Janata Dal (Secular) chief and former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda has said there will not be an alliance for the by-elections with the Congress because the party didn’t seem interested...
Since he is not interested, we are also not interested. JD(S) has to clarify first where they stand...in Delhi they say they are with (BSP chief) Mayawati and Third Front, they are opposing the Congress. Here, they say (on) local issues we have to go with the Congress. So, till they clarify where they are, how can we discuss this (alliance)? I can’t have an understanding with any political party just to win an election. Such an alliance has to be credible.
Is the Congress confident of doing well in the eight seats that go to by-polls?
Yes. we have chances of winning in all constituencies. The only problem is the misuse of power...money power of the BJP. We will not be able to match (that).