While the Congress has been consistently backing its sitting chief ministers as the mainstay of its assembly election campaigns and publicly endorsing that they will continue in office if it is voted back to power, Siddaramaiah joins the latest in a long line of defeated incumbents from the party.
This has triggered a rethink within the party about the costs and benefits of projecting a clear chief ministerial face during the campaign.
Since 2014, no sitting Congress chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan in Maharashtra, Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana, Tarun Gogoi in Assam, Oommen Chandy in Kerala, Harish Rawat in Uttarakhand, Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh, Mukul Sangma in Meghalaya and Ibobi Singh in Manipur, has been able to retain power.
In each case, the Congress announced in the run-up to the elections that the incumbent chief minister would continue in office if the party was re-elected.
There are two views within the Congress on the issue. While one section favours projecting a chief ministerial face, the other section believes that the move causes heartburn among other aspirants, resulting in some of them either sitting out or even working against the party’s interests.
“Once a CM candidate is announced, the other contenders get disenchanted and refuse to work for somebody else. In the process, the party ends up on the losing side,” said a senior Congress functionary who refused to be named. “The hope of assuming the top post after polls is what keeps everybody going.”
Contrary to the perception that the Congress does not encourage local leaders, since 2014, the party has consistently given space, prominence and backing to its regional stalwarts. In spite of this obvious shift in strategy from the party high command, the move has worked only once in recent years — in Punjab in 2017, when Amarinder Singh was not the sitting chief minister but challenging the 10-year-old Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party regime.
Now, Siddaramaiah’s failure to bring the Congress back to power in Karnataka has put a question mark on the strategy of going into state elections with sitting chief ministers at the helm of the campaign.
While the Congress has extended its support to the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, and still hopes to be part of a government in the state, it lost badly in Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, while emerging as the single largest party in Manipur and Meghalaya but not with enough numbers to get a majority.
Political experts say the problem lies in the Congress lacking an election machinery that is comparable to the BJP’s.
“The BJP has well-oiled election machinery and we don’t see that kind of backup army in the Congress and other political parties. In Karnataka, there was no anti-incumbency against Siddaramaiah but still he could not return to power because of the lack of backup and resources BJP had,” said A Narayana, associate professor for public policy at the Bengaluru-based Azim Premji University.
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