Video Producer: Mayank Chawla
Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma
The president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), a troubleshooter, a Vokkaliga strongman, an eight-time MLA, and now, the Deputy CM of Karnataka – DK Shivakumar is the man of the moment.
Cut to 13 May, when the Congress was at the cusp of crossing 130 seats in the Assembly elections, Shivakumar was an emotional man. Breaking down before the media, he said the Congress was his mother and thanked the people of Karnataka for helping the party come to power.
The moment captured the imagination of onlookers, as Shivakumar was finally having a catharsis as the president of a party that had lost power in Karnataka by a whisker in 2019 – when 17 Congress and JD(S) MLAs jumped ship to join the BJP.
Speaking about Shivakumar, who is fondly called 'DK Shi' in Congress circles, a party leader said, "He was bearing the weight of the party and its many ups and downs during the election campaign and before. He deserves every bit of a chance to rise in the party."
As he becomes the Deputy CM of the state, The Quint analyses Shivakumar's political career, his Vokkaliga identity, his proximity to the Gandhi family, and his contentious relationship with Siddaramaiah, who is set to be a two-time CM of Karnataka.
Master Strategist, Congress Veteran
Hailing from the Vokkaliga community, Shivakumar was born in Kanakapura, near Bangalore. He began his political journey in the early 1980s as a student leader and steadily climbed the ranks of the Congress party.
Shivakumar won his first election in 1989 from the Sathanur constituency in Mysuru district when he was just 27 years old; he had contested the election on a Congress ticket. He has since been re-elected from Sathanur (four times) and Kanakapura (three times) in seven subsequent Assembly elections.
In the 2018 Assembly elections, he won the Kanakapura seat by defeating the Janata Dal (Secular) candidate by a huge margin of 79,909 votes.
On 13 May, defeating R Ashoka of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and B Nagaraj of the Janata Dal (Secular), by a margin of over 1 lakh votes, Shivakumar seized control of the Kanakapura yet again.
Shivakumar has held several positions in the Karnataka government, including the Minister of Energy under the Siddaramaiah government and as Minister of Irrigation under HD Kumaraswamy.
But Shivakumar is known to have gone above and beyond his official roles to keep his flock together.
Case in point: the 2018 elections produced a hung Assembly – and Shivakumar played a crucial role in maintaining the unity of the Congress-JD(S) alliance. He clout ensured that the BJP did not succeed in poaching MLAs from the Congress-JD(S) camp by ferrying them to Hyderabad and back. But ultimately, the coalition government fell in July 2019.
In 2002 as well, when the then-Congress leader and Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was facing a no-confidence motion, Shivakumar hosted the Congress MLAs at the Eagleton Resort, escorted them to Mumbai on the day of the trust vote, and ensured that they cleared it.
The firebrand politician has also been close to the Gandhi family, particularly Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. He has often been described as one of Rahul Gandhi's key strategists in Karnataka and seen as a troubleshooter for the family in times of crisis.
His relationship with the family goes back several years, and he has often been spotted at the side of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi at important political events.
In fact, when Rahul Gandhi was being questioned by the Enforcement Directorate in the National Herald case in 2022, he led the state Congress leaders in a rally to Delhi to protest against the BJP government.
Vokkaliga Strongman & KPCC President
Ever since he assumed the charge of Karnataka Congress in 2020, Shivakumar has had a tough task at hand. He was to prepare the Congress for a face-off with the BJP in the Legislative Assembly elections 2023 – a challenge he took in his stride.
DK Shi was not only to unite people under the anti-incumbency wave against the BJP, which was slowly gathering momentum in Karnataka, but also establish himself as a prominent Vokkaliga leader in the state.
While the first challenge was strategically met with the support of party cadre and election strategists who made the Congress' campaign rage against BJP's corruption, the second was a tougher nut to crack.
In Karnataka, the Vokkaligas are synonymous with one family – the Gowdas. Former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son and former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy had wooed and bagged the confidence of the Vokkaligas, a dominant caste which accounts for about 16 percent of Karnataka's population, over the past many decades.
When The Quint reached out to a JD(S) leader about his party's chances of losing seats and Vokkaliga voters to the Congress, he said, "DK Shivakumar will never be known as Vokkaliga leader. HD Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy are the people's Vokkaliga leaders."
A day later, on 13 May, DK Shivakumar proved this JD(S) leader, and many like him, wrong. The Vokkaliga votes in Karnataka split in favour of the Congress, and as per India Today-Axis My India exit polls, the swing was a record 7 percent. The JD(S) was cut to size in the election, and DK Shivakumar emerged as a Vokkaliga leader of the Congress.
While several factors, including the influence of current Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, can be attributed to people, especially Muslims, opting for the Congress over the JD(S), DK Shivakumar had indeed struck a chord with Vokkaliga voters through the help of Karnataka Vokkaligara Sangha, a powerful organisation of the community, which had nurtured from the moment he took over a KPCC president.
"DK Shivakumar is definitely a factor for Vokkaligas favouring the Congress," a senior officer bearer of the Vokkaligara Sangha told The Quint.
How did he manage this herculean task?
Unlike Siddaramaiah, who had a major tiff with HD Deve Gowda, Shivakumar hardly undermined the prowess of the JD(S) patriarch, to the extent that he was one of the first to visit the JD(S) family when Deve Gowda was found to be ailing earlier this year.
Meaning, Shivakumar carved a space for himself as a Vokkaliga leader without having to dethrone the Gowdas – a strategy which seems to have worked in 2023. But will he be able to manage the same magic in 2024 Lok Sabha elections?
"Time has come for the Vokkaliga community to elect their community leader after a gap of 18 years" – these were the words that Shivakumar said at a community event in Mysuru in July 2022. Now that he is the only Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka, his popularity and clout within the community may very well rise.
However, Shivakumar's immediate task after he swears in will be to keep the understanding, which the Congress seems to have cobbled up between him and Siddaramaiah before the elections, intact.
What Will Happen to Team Congress?
Before Congress national leader KC Venugopal announced the decision of the party to anoint Siddaramaiah as CM and Shivakumar as his deputy, All India Congress Committee President, Mallikarjun Kharge, tweeted a jubilant photo of him with the two leaders, tagging it, "Team Congress."
While it is well known that Shivakumar wanted to be rewarded with the CM's post, his tenure as Deputy CM will test the strength of this 'team.' The easiest way to keep the party from falling into tatters will be to keep the symbolic alliance the two leaders had achieved before the elections.
On 7 and 8 May – the last two days of campaigning for the Karnataka Assembly elections – the Congress released two videos of the two leaders having a 'heart-to-heart'. Though clearly scripted, the video sent a message that the two leaders, who are considered rivals in Karnataka Congress, are willing to work together.
As both Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar vowed on Twitter that they will work together for the Congress and the people of Karnataka, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to share power without any powerplay. The success of Karnataka's new CM and Deputy CM could decide the fate of the Congress in Lok Sabha elections 2024.