Bangalore: The return of 76-year-old Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna to the political rough and tumble in Karnataka has been the talk of this election season. It has rattled even his own partymen in the state where the three-phase polls begin on Saturday.
The Fulbright scholar from George Washington University, who hails from Karnataka’s sugar bowl of Mandya, has been keenly watched by friends and foes alike ever since he resigned as Maharashtra governor—a job he took up after Congress’ poor showing in the 2004 polls under his leadership.
His return is interesting as Krishna is seen as a serious contender for the chief minister’s post in case the Congress returns to power. He earned himself the sobriquet of “IT-BT chief minister” during his five-year term that ended in 2004. The title refers to a perception among Krishna’s detractors that he focused on emerging sectors such as information technology and biotechnology at the cost of the countryside. Krishna sprung a surprise by deciding not to contest the elections, but has been extensively electioneering. He took time out to answer Mint’s questions while campaigning in Bangalore. Edited excerpts:
With just three days before Karnataka goes to polls, what is your assessment of the situation?
Poll-ready: Former Karnataka chief minister and Congress leader S.M. Krishna. (Photo: KPN Photos)
In the first phase, where we are going to elect 89 representatives, I think the Congress will win anywhere between 45 and 50 seats. About the state as a whole, I will have an assessment when I go to those areas.
You have been campaigning aggressively in Bangalore. Does the city hold the key to forming a government now that it has 28 seats?
Yes, Bangalore is an important segment. It’ll be equivalent to about four districts with 28 seats. I think Bangalore will help decide who will form the next government.
You are seen as the urbane face of the party. Why are you not contesting?
(Laughs) I suppose I can show my face in as many constituencies as possible now. Well, I didn’t want to be tied down to any constituency even though I had offers from about half a dozen, including Maddur, my home constituency. If I contested, the message would be that I would be tied down in Maddur.
The Janata Dal (Secular) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are projecting H.D. Kumaraswamy and B.S. Yeddyurappa, respectively, as their chief ministerial candidates. Why is the Congress reluctant to name its candidate?
We are a very democratic party. We will elect our leader from the Congress legislature party. Not projecting (a leader) will not affect the party’s performance. In 1999, I wasn’t projected as the chief ministerial candidate. I was elected leader by the legislature party.
You were the face of the party in 2004.
That’s because I was the chief minister.
The common perception is that the Congress has not been able to project anybody because there are too many aspirants. As the campaign coordinator, have you been able to negate that feeling?
Well, we have successfully launched the campaign and carried it on, at least in the first phase. We are preparing for the second phase.
I think the purpose for which I was brought in has been largely served.
State Congress president Mallikarjuna Kharge is a contender for the post of chief minister and Siddaramaiah has declared he is an aspirant as well. What about you?
No. I’m not.
What role will you play after the elections?
The party high command will decide what role I have to play.
There has been large-scale rebellion including by your nephew in Maddur, your hometown. Will this affect the party badly?
It’s all personal hatred towards some candidates. It has always been there in the Congress party. However, there will be no impact.
You have acknowledged that price rise will affect the party.
No. I have said price rise will become an issue among other issues.
Will populist schemes like giving away colour television sets help counter that?
Why do you forget that giving colour TVs is one among several (steps) such as giving rice at Rs2 a kg, and stipend of Rs1,200 for upgrading skills and other schemes. You and I, who have TVs, do not realize the worth of it, but for a slum dweller, for a poor person, colour televisions would certainly matter.
Karnataka enacted the Karnataka Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2002, during your tenure.
Yes, we are fiscally responsible, I know that. There is buoyancy in tax collections, and based on that, we have formulated our manifesto.
Won’t these populist schemes be at the cost of human development programmes such as improving health and education?
Certainly not. What do you mean by human development programmes? A child, a student who lives in slums, would he not get some education by these televisions? Will he or will he not? This is education-cum-entertainment, cultural advancement.
The first phase of elections is mainly in the Vokkaliga belt of Old Mysore region. JD(S) derives most of its support base from here. The Congress seems to have alienated this community when it delayed giving a ticket to M.H. Ambareesh (former Union minister and Vokkaliga leader). Will the JD(S) be the beneficiary?
The JD(S) doesn’t have a monopoly over Vokkaliga voters. Yes, at one point of time, they enjoyed support but you have to go through what has happened in the last 20 months to realize that they have lost their grip over the community. There was a delay in Ambareesh choosing a constituency, that’s all.
The BJP appears to be confident in this region, especially after it successfully wooed Vokkaliga leaders such as Madhu Madhe Gowda and G.T. Deve Gowda from other parties.
Even in 2004 they were very confident. So, confidence has always been their forte. Nothing wrong in having confidence.
Why did the Congress back S. Bangarappa, even withdrew its candidate in Shikaripura? Is it, as Yeddyurappa alleges, a conspiracy to defeat him ?
We backed Bangarappa because he was once a Congressman, a Congress chief minister. Why should we not defeat Yeddyurappa? Why should we not work out a strategy to defeat him? No apologies. We don’t need to explain to anybody our stand.
After all, after having gone to the BJP, Bangarappa has learnt a bitter lesson and he has come out clean on his misguided entry into a communal party like the BJP.
Then why didn’t the Samajwadi Party’s (Bangarappa heads it in the state) attempt at seat sharing with the Congress work out ?
We could not arrive at (an agreement on) the number of seats (to be shared). He didn’t try but some interested persons tried to bring about an understanding.
Will the Congress get a majority?
Yes, it will be a clear majority for the Congress party.
If it is a hung assembly, will you look for partners again?
It all depends on how hung the assembly is going to be. Depending upon that, the leadership will take a view.