Karnataka had made history some years ago when it became the first state in southern India to elect a BJP government, although the party promptly squandered away that gain by getting entangled in corruption scandals, maladministration and political instability. Now Amit Shah, BJP president and its chief election strategist, wants the “lotus to bloom again” in Karnataka.
This should be notice to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who cannot rest on his Congress party’s performance in last year’s assembly elections or even its respectable show in the recent assembly bypolls, especially since Shah has instructed the Karnataka BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa and the local unit to “agitate and expose” the ruling party.
The BJP and Shah are not the chief minister’s only sources of concern. Within his party in Karnataka, the differences are many and out in the open. For the longest time, it has been the “new entrant” Siddaramaiah and his supporters (all arrivals from the Janata Dal) versus the old guard in the state Congress. Disparate opinions have surfaced time and again on several key matters in the fractured ruling party.
Primary among them is the expansion of the cabinet and the chief minister’s seeming reluctance to conduct the exercise that he has been deliberately putting off for months on some pretext or other.
The other is his unwillingness to install various Congressmen as heads of state-run boards and corporations, a reward that chief ministers usually bestow on peeved MLAs to soothe their sentiments at being left out of ministerial positions. There again, the chief minister has been dragging his feet. He has his own favourites, but the aspirants are over a thousand.
Much was expected of Siddaramaiah when the Congress galloped to a decisive vote over a year ago and named him chief minister. Today, bureaucrats who knew him in his previous avatars as minister and deputy chief minister say that the politician has lost focus. In his role as chief minister, he appears distracted — even disinterested — and yawns his way through meetings, they say. The more charitable officers say that he is simply overwhelmed by his new responsibilities and is taking time to settle down.
His adversaries within the party are certainly not helping calm the chief minister’s nerves. Siddaramaiah seems to have a few, but the most prominent is the state party chief, G. Parameshwara, who is hankering after the deputy chief minister’s spot. Parameshwara was tipped to be chief minister until he lost his assembly seat in the elections last year, but that has not quelled his ambition. His supporters confidentially share that Parameshwara finds it galling that the chief minister slyly sets new deadlines for cabinet expansion and then lets them pass.
The latest target date for the induction of new ministers is “after Dussehra”, and that is expected to slide to “after the local body polls”, six to eight months down the line. Even if he does eventually expand the cabinet, Siddaramaiah has made it amply clear that he wants no deputy and certainly not his principal in-party foe Parameshwara, who could cramp his style.
The battle is out in the open, with Parameshwara attacking the chief minister for not dropping so-called ineffectual ministers in his cabinet and announcing that the appointments to boards and corporations should be in the 70:30 ratio, in favour of prominent party workers rather than MLAs.
Siddaramaiah’s detractors are trying to rattle him but their campaign has not gone far, as they have failed to impress upon Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and national-level Congress leaders that the chief minister needs reining in. The two of three assembly bypolls victory in Karnataka has made national leaders less inclined to shake the balance and jeopardise one of the few state governments the Congress has.
The chief minister’s 16-month record is now hovering between “indifferent” and “mediocre” on the performance scale. In Bangalore, for instance, there has been no evidence of a decisive administration, though Siddaramaiah has put a powerful minister in charge of the city.
The “Namma Metro” train system is inching along, new deadlines come and go, and only two tiny lines are operational at opposite ends of the city, serving no real purpose.
Again, on the high court’s directive, the government set up a metropolitan planning committee for Bangalore but has done nothing to transfer the city’s developmental controls from local representatives and bodies and the state government to the independent authority.
Meanwhile, a number of Bangalore’s urban activists, like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Mohandas Pai and Swati Ramanathan have been drafted by Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje on the government’s advisory council on economic and social issues. Siddaramaiah has been waffling over a role for Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys co-founder and former UIDAI chief who was defeated as a Congress party candidate in the recent parliamentary elections from Bangalore South.
Nilekani’s meeting with the chief minister to volunteer his services was a photo-op for the local newspapers. But Siddaramaiah has not shown much inclination to draft him to work for Bangalore or Karnataka. Perhaps this is because the chief minister is not quite comfortable with the English-educated, jacket-wearing, internationally known Nilekani, despite the latter’s brief attempt during the elections to rebrand himself with Kannada and khadi.
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