Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was in New Delhi on Saturday when the chief minister-designate in neighbouring, new Seemandhra, Chandrababu Naidu, declared in a television interview, “Modi and I are a deadly combination, we are both development persons. Our goal is to take both (Seemandhra and Telangana) states forward”. On Sunday, his Tamil Nadu counterpart J. Jayalalithaa’s government consumed newspaper front pages with ads that listed her three-year-old government’s “splendid achievements”.
Around the time Naidu was making these utterances in Hyderabad, Siddaramaiah was scheduled to meet Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi in back-to-back half-hour meetings in Delhi. There, no doubt, the conversation would have turned to the question foremost on many Congressmen’s minds: how could things have changed so drastically in Karnataka that a party, which swept the assembly elections in May 2013 to form the government, had, exactly a year later, got downgraded to an enervating nine Lok Sabha seats out of 28?
This week, as Siddaramaiah prepares to launch a gala celebration to mark the first anniversary of his government, he — and many chief ministers around the country — will ponder over Modi’s spectacular victory that stunned his opponents. None of them could have imagined that one chief minister’s crystallised idea of strong leadership and a development agenda could be such a potent and convincing countrywide election platform, despite his carrying the baggage of the 2002 communal violence.
“The general election results are a wake-up call to all political parties, and every chief minister in the country ought to focus on economic development that reaches all strata of society,” said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman of Biocon and a rare voice in corporate India who speaks on political issues. The election results have demonstrated that, for the man on the street, it is all about jobs and a better life. “Modi’s journey contains one lesson for fellow chief ministers: if you don’t show the vikas story in your state, you will go out of business,” said V. Ravichandar, a civic expert. Siddaramaiah and his chief minister peers will have to gaze at the writing on the wall and reorient themselves.
For the first time in an election campaign, candidate after candidate was confronted by every category of voter, from the rural poor living in backward villages to the upper middle class ensconced in urban homes, with questions about what they had delivered to the constituency and what they promised for its future. For candidates of every hue, whether the outgoing Congress, the victorious BJP or the relatively new
Aam Aadmi Party, the pressure was just enormous. India’s aspiring middle class alone, set to grow to 267 million by 2016 from just 160 million in 2011, has a minimum common expectation of an efficient administration that delivers balanced growth.
In Karnataka, the Congress’s single-digit gains (admittedly, the party did not reach the double digits in any state) came even as the BJP, which stood devastated just a year ago, powered back with 17 Lok Sabha seats of 28 (the Janata Dal-S won the remaining two), convincingly sweeping all three high-profile constituencies in Bangalore city. Of course, the Congress’s nationwide rout could buffer the chief minister from immediate instability as the party’s national leadership will be busy contemplating its ruinous shape and may not want to upset the one solid government it actually has.
At the same time, with the party getting vanquished nationally, the weight of carrying along a decimated Congress party could rest on Siddaramaiah’s shoulders. As preparations get going for the “one year in office” celebrations, the chief minister’s performance so far has been far from impressive. Recent utterances such as mandating Kannada as the medium of all dealings with government, or of reserving jobs for locals in the IT and biotech sectors, have not exactly endeared him to investors. It is now imperative that he demonstrate a strong, development-based leadership as opposed to the unsustainable social welfare-based politics that his party is known for, said Mazumdar-Shaw. “It is time for the chief minister and the Congress leadership to move away from parochial reservation politics to serious economic development,” she said. Industry leaders like Ashok Soota, a software industry pioneer who is founder and chairman of Happiest Minds, concur. “Giving benefits to the poor is fine but people are asking, what are you doing to help us grow beyond that?” says Soota.
Siddaramaiah has spent the last year disbursing hundreds of crores of rupees towards social welfare schemes, even as stories about the one-rupee rice making its way to the black market abound. In parallel, and defying all logic, his government has studiously neglected Bangalore, which contributes 70 per cent to the state’s GDP and could actually help the chief minister (who also holds the finance portfolio) balance his books. The city’s piecemeal metro project that has been years in the making, its expensive tolled expressway to its distant airport, or its non-existent highway to neighbouring Mysore, all illustrate that the government could not care less about balancing its urban-rural growth agenda.
“No government can set aside the development agenda and infrastructure growth. Only if we have investments can we afford welfare schemes,” says Dinesh Gundu Rao, Karnataka’s food minister and Siddaramaiah loyalist, staunchly defending his government’s hand in improving Bangalore’s roads and flyovers. But those who travel are not convinced. They see improved roads in Chennai, superior public transport in Delhi and a better life in Dubai or Singapore and blame any backwardness on the failure of the system.
To make Karnataka secure for himself and the Congress, the chief minister really needs to recast himself beyond his role as only a proponent of Ahinda (Kannada acronym for minorities, Dalits and backward classes) and mould himself as an investor-friendly, job-creating chief minister. He will have to work against the Bangalore-Delhi jinx (the two cities have been ruled by opposite parties for decades now as assembly and Parliament elections have consistently delivered converse mandates) and co-opt the Modi government into helping build Karnataka and, particularly, Brand Bangalore. The image of Bangalore, so closely intertwined with India’s own branding, has many factors going for it, including its go-getter entrepreneurial spirit, its cosmopolitan air and, thanks to Siddaramaiah’s own recent decision, a better night life. But to get investors knocking on Karnataka’s door, the chief minister needs an urgent makeover of his acerbic persona.
To improve his credibility with investors and bring in ideas for the development agenda, the chief minister needs to draft partyman Nandan Nilekani in a strategic role, such as Karnataka’s ambassador for investments and jobs.
To be sure, like Bangalore’s innate advantages, Siddaramaiah too has some things going for him. He is capable and hardworking and, god knows, Karnataka has not had those qualities in the chief ministers of recent decades. The coming months will be Siddaramaiah’s and the Congress’s chance to make Karnataka a model state for the party’s units in other states. It is going to be a long journey. “But if Siddaramaiah and the party don’t go to work soon, the Congress will be devaluing their one hope of a political resurrection,” said Mazumdar-Shaw.