At a meeting in Bengaluru in June this year, meant to galvanise Congress workers in Karnataka into election mode, an effusive party vice-president Rahul Gandhi praised Chief Minister Siddaramaiah for running his government “the Congress way”. “I am proud to say that Siddaramaiah, with his focus on the poor, with his ability to listen to people, is running a Congress government,” he said. The Congress also took a step it takes rarely, and mostly under duress: it said the next elections would be fought under Siddaramaiah’s leadership.
It was not just an acknowledgement of the importance Karnataka holds for the fast-depleting Congress — the only major state it is in power now, except hard-won Punjab. It was also a nod to how the 69-year-old former JD(S) leader, with his twin planks of “social justice” and “social engineering”, his largely scandal-free regime, and digging deep into his experience of 50-plus years in socialist movements and farmer and language agitations, is holding back the BJP in the one state the party had conquered politically in the south.
No CM has been returned to power in Karnataka for a second term since Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party in 1985. No CM has returned to power after a full five-year term since Devaraja Urs, the last major Congress proponent of “social justice” in the state, in 1978. One of the first opinion polls in the run-up to the elections — by research organisation C Fore — has predicted that Siddaramaiah, whom no one quite expected to survive five years in power in the fractious Congress, could beat both records.
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The Congress’s own internal surveys, conducted since the arrival of K C Venugopal as AICC observer, replacing Digvijaya Singh, suggest the party could win as many as 120 of the 224 constituencies in the state.
In a party severely lacking leaders who can hold their own, Siddaramaiah is being talked of now as even a possible regional foil to Prime Minister Narendra Modi — his brand of “social justice-based” political agenda the answer to the BJP’s “development, divisive agenda”. The BJP realises the challenge it is facing, and sources say, national president Amit Shah told members of the party core committee during a visit in August that it would be difficult for the BJP to win in the state at this rate. He warned leaders against infighting, and reportedly told them to woo leaders away from rival parties to stop the Congress momentum. A BJP leader told The Sunday Express it was like nothing they had ever experienced — “He (Shah) even made us take out a pen and paper and write notes.”
A member of the backward Kuruba or shepherd class, Siddaramaiah often talks about the discrimination he suffered as a child, in a state with entrenched feudal and caste biases — no different than Dalits, he points out. Years later, politically, his caste places him in a favourable position. Backward castes make up 30 per cent of Karnataka’s 6 crore population, and Kurubas (8 per cent of the state’s numbers) are the most dominant among them politically, along with the Idigas. Siddaramaiah is one of the tallest Kuruba leaders.
Siddaramaiah has used his tenure as CM judiciously to shore up this support. The upper castes, largely Lingayats and Vokkaligas, who have dominated the state’s politics since Independence, are seen to favour the BJP and JD(S) respectively. His government has allotted substantial funds for free food grains and milk to the poor, and for schemes meant for backward classes, Dalits and minorities. Nearly Rs 16,000 crore, or 24 per cent of the budget, is set aside annually for SC/ST communities, twice that by previous governments. Despite the slew of populist schemes, Siddaramaiah has maintained fiscal discipline. The deficit of the state in 2017-18 is expected to be Rs 33,359 crore, which is 2.61 per cent of the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) and within fiscal discipline norms. Sources attribute it to the wise choice of officers in key positions, including chief secretary, finance secretary. The long time Sidda-ramaiah has spent in government, presenting a record 12 state budgets, has come in handy.
At the same time, Karnataka hasn’t done so well on the economic front under him. The Economic Survey 2016-17 report shows a GSDP growth of 6.9 per cent, a decline from 7.3 per cent in 2015-16; the industry sector grew at 2.2 per cent, compared to 4.9 per cent in 2015-16; while growth in the services sector, the backbone of Karnataka’s economy, fell to 8.5 per cent in 2016-17 compared to 10.4 per cent the previous fiscal.
The BJP has also accused the Congress of failing to come to the aid of farmers reeling under drought. “It has not disbursed input subsidies released by the Union government,” BJP CM-candidate B S Yeddyurappa alleged recently.
Siddaramaiah admits to disappointments on the economic front, but has other figures to show off. Karnataka topped the Central list of states attracting investments in the first half of 2016, with its Rs 1,09,773 crore figure way ahead of counterparts Gujarat (Rs 39,754 crore) and Andhra Pradesh (Rs 10,848 crore).
The Siddaramaiah government has also remained free of major corruption charges. An investigation in 2016 by the income tax department against a close aide, K Govindaraju, had unearthed a diary carrying suspected records of money being given to Congress leaders in Karnataka and Delhi. But the probe went nowhere.
Another key allegation was that the government had de-notified over 541 acres of government land to generate funds for the 2014 general elections. The inquiry report, submitted recently, is believed to have given a clean chit to Siddaramaiah and the Congress.
The CM has retained this clean image despite dismantling the Lokayukta, the independent anti-corruption system in existence in the state since the 1990s, citing widespread corruption within it, and replacing it with an anti-corruption bureau (ACB) reporting to the government.
Dismissing the ACB, BJP leader Jagadish Shettar notes, “The Karnataka Lokayukta was regarded as a model for the country.”
Siddaramaiah has also survived charges from within the Congress and Opposition of allowing dubious characters to be part of his inner circle. Friend Kempaiah, an ex-police officer, appointed as adviser to the home minister, is often called a “super home minister”.
Correspondingly, the Congress too has gone about rallying the backward classes, SC/STs, and minorities, to build a rainbow coalition of 65 per cent of the population, dubbed AHINDA. Opposition leaders have accused the Siddaramaiah government of being casteist, ignoring the Gowdas, Lingayats and Brahmins. “It is an anti-GLB (pronounced jalebi) government,” Shettar said recently.
At a recent international conference on Babasaheb Ambedkar, hosted by his government, Siddaramaiah called the charge a “politically motivated attempt to discredit my government”. Projecting himself as one among those “at the bottom of the pyramid”, he has said earlier, “As finance minister and CM, when I sit down to prepare the budget, the thing that comes to my mind is the vision of a poor man in my village who stood at the doorstep of a rich farmer begging for a bowl of rice for his ailing daughter.” A young party legislator from a backward class explains Siddaramaiah’s appeal. “Do you know why the dominant communities in Karnataka hate Siddaramaiah?” he asks, going on to give the answer. “It is because he refuses to be cowed down despite being from the backward class.”
Groomed in socialist politics, Siddaramaiah ventured into public life under late farmers’ rights leader and Lohiaite Prof M D Nanjundaswamy. The Emergency soon followed, and the young lawyer found himself in the company of vociferously anti-government Kannada writers such as Dalit author Devanuru Mahadeva. He has retained those links with the Kannada intelligentsia, helping him hone his proud Kannadiga credentials.
Under the Janata Party and CM Ramakrishna Hegde, a leader who could similarly hold his own among disparate audiences, Siddaramaiah was appointed to his first government position in 1983. He became chairman of the erstwhile Kannada Watchdog Committee, to protect the Kannada language — a task he considers close to his heart.
In 1996, Siddaramaiah became deputy CM under J H Patel, a post he held again in 2004 in a JD(S)-Congress coalition government. In 2006, however, JD(S) supremo H D Deve Gowda sacked him for floating the AHINDA movement. By then, Siddaramaiah had realised that Gowda would never allow him to grow bigger than his own sons. The Congress wooed and won him over. Siddaramaiah sees his politics as shaped by socialist thinking, Lohiaite ideas and Ambedkarite Dalit movements. Prof S Japhet of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, says the CM has stuck to this. “Social justice is not a part of his larger public policy, but social justice is his public policy. There is a consistency that imbues all the 12 budgets he has presented as finance minister of Karnataka.” Japhet incidentally was roped in by Siddaramaiah to draft a still-born model Bill to curb superstitious practices.
Realising the formidable vote bank the Congress and Siddaramaiah have assembled, the BJP has been trying to woo SCs. Shah’s instructions to BJP leaders include visits to Dalit homes and dining with them. During a ‘Janasampark’ tour in May, Yeddyurappa ate at 33 Dalit homes, and recently hosted those families at his Bengaluru home. The BJP admits it is also facing Dalit anger over attacks on them in parts of the country by “gau rakshaks”.
Within the Congress, Siddaramaiah has virtually subsumed all opposition by accommodating rivals. Old Congress hands like Mallikarjun Kharge and D K Shivakumar were seen as likely challengers. While Kharge’s son was inducted into the Cabinet, Shivakumar has enjoyed a free run as Energy Minister. Even key Opposition leaders like H D Revanna of the JD(S) have been kept happy with funds for their seats and redressal of their problems.
Young Congress leaders like Siddaramaiah for being “open and democratic”. “He is willing to listen to young leaders,” says MLA Vijay Singh, 46, the son of former CM Dharam Singh. This has helped Siddaramaiah counter the blame put on him for the exit of three senior Congress leaders from the party, including S M Krishna, Adagur Vishwanath and Dalit face V Srinivas Prasad. Vishwanath, a fellow Kuruba, said at the time, “There is no Nehru Congress, Indira Congress, Sonia Congress, or Rahul Congress in Karnataka. There is only Siddaramaiah’s Congress.” Prasad, who left after being forced out of the Cabinet, slammed Siddaramaiah as “arrogant”.
Many others among the older lot remain suspicious of the fact that Siddaramaiah continues to have close links with former JD(S) leaders. One of the most vocal, Janardhan Poojary, says, “Siddaramaiah is arrogant and the Congress will not survive under him. He is not running a government of the Congress party but a government of the JD(S).” How much goodwill Siddaramaiah actually enjoys in the Congress will be severely tested now at the time of ticket distribution, when he will have to accommodate not just partymen but the ex-JD(S) colleagues.
With election year nearing, the Congress has turned its attention also to the Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Conscious that no political party in Karnataka can win without the support of either of the two rival communities, Siddaramaiah has in recent months started making overtures towards the Lingayats.
The community, that makes up nearly 17 per cent of the state population, is considered a vote bank of the BJP and especially Yeddyurappa (a Lingayat himself). The Lingayats, who comprise people from various communities, including dominant groups, Scheduled Castes and backward classes — who came under the Lingayat roof to escape the caste system — were once firmly with the Congress. They drifted towards the Janata Party and BJP after Rajiv Gandhi abruptly sacked a popular Lingayat Congress CM, Veerendra Patil, in 1990.
In April this year, came a signal that the Lingayats may be ready to switch back. The Congress retained two constituencies with a sizeable Lingayat population in bypolls held in Siddaramaiah’s backyard Mysore, in surprise results. The election to the Gundlupet seat was mandated by the sudden demise of five-time MLA and Congress minister H S Mahadeva Prasad, while Nanjangud saw election as the local MLA, formidable Dalit leader V Srinivasa Prasad, quit the Congress and joined the BJP. Yeddyurappa had led the BJP campaign, hoping to forge an alliance between the Lingayats and Dalits.
A triumphant CM later said he had asked for votes “as payment for the pro-people work we have done”. Noting that this “increases our hope of winning in 2018”, he added, “A message has been sent out that Karnataka is not UP. This is a land of saints and philosophers like Basavanna. It is a most secular state, a cosmopolitan state.”
Soon after, the high command said Siddaramaiah would lead the Congress in the 2018 polls. Later, the CM announced that pictures of Basaveshwara, the 12-century founder and patron saint of the Lingayats, would be put up in all government offices of the state. He has also backed the demand among a large section of the Lingayats to be recognised as a separate religion. Sources say a few Lingayat BJP leaders are also backing the CM in this, hoping to puncture Yeddyurappa’s clout. A key Lingayat spiritual leader, Mathe Mahadevi, has even called Siddaramaiah “a real Lingayat”.
The local BJP, afraid of how this will play out, has largely kept silent, except for Yeddyurappa, who has said Lingayats are Hindus in essence. Amit Shah has slammed it as a “political game”, while JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy has accused Siddaramaiah of engineering divisions just for elections.
Denying the charge, AICC observer Venugopal says, “Every community has the freedom to chose their future.”
Siddaramaiah is more cautious when it comes to the Vokkaligas (15 per cent of the population), perhaps because Gowda, his former mentor, is a Vokkaliga patriarch. He is hoping his former JD(S) links will get him some support from the community.
Lately, Siddaramaiah has also dealt the Kannada card. During his years in power, he is known to have tacitly courted pro-Kannada groups, including those known to erupt in violence over issues such as Cauvery water. Recently, his government went ahead with a proposal to have a Karnataka flag, and opposed Hindi signboards and announcements in the new Metro.
In its vociferous protests to both, the BJP played right into his hands. Siddaramaiah was able to generate a groundswell of support in local social media, with Kannada chauvinist groups coming onto the streets.
At the Ambedkar conference, the CM said, “Today, we are told that being a good Indian means we have to ignore inequality and exploitation in our midst, that we need to adhere to rigid norms regarding food, clothing, language and free speech, that we have to privilege the majoritarian view of India. I reject that view as totally opposed to the letter and spirit of our Constitution.” Apart from consolidating Siddaramaiah’s Kannadiga credentials, the controversies helped reinforce the image of the BJP as an assertively Hindi-centric party. The BJP itself has backtracked on the issue since.
On personal front, Siddaramaiah has recovered from the shock 2016 death of his elder son, Rakesh Siddaramaiah, while on a holiday in Holland, and has begun grooming the younger Yathindra, a doctor, in politics.
To the charge that he is anti-Hindu and pro-minorities, Siddaramaiah likes to point out that his name contains the word ‘Rama’. He ignores other accusations, that he is pursuing “retrogade” politics, not unlike the BJP.
On August 17, Siddaramaiah launched his personal Twitter handle saying he wanted to “stay connected”. And added, “I reach out to you today not as your CM, but as Siddaramaiah — a rooted and proud Kannadiga.”
Congress sources say the central leadership is so optimistic that it would like to go to polls by the end of the year, alongside Gujarat, in order to ensure that the Modi-Shah combine does not steal its thunder. Says Venugopal, “We cannot underestimate the BJP, but as a party, we are confident. Why are we confident? It is because we are getting reports from the grass-roots — at rallies, events.”
A lot depends on how the monsoon fares. But there is another factor. Siddaramaiah wants to be the first CM to complete a full-five year term in the state in a long time, and the Congress is in the mood to oblige.