It’s being called Siddaramaiah’s Rolex moment. The Karnataka chief minister is caught in an embarrassing spotlight for flaunting what are alleged to be branded luxury watches, spectacle frames and shoes, when his income declaration (mandatory as an MLA) clearly shows he could not have afforded such extravagances. The controversy has gathered force after a city newspaper spied on the chief minister for several weeks during his public appearances and carefully documented Siddaramaiah’s excesses in splashy photos replete with price tags of the ultra-expensive (worth tens of lakhs) accessories. The article was headlined “Sid Dude”. When juxtaposed with the chief minister’s impeccable — but modest — daily dress code of white cotton panchey (dhoti), white shirt and white shalya (a drape for the shoulder), commonly formal attire among Karnataka’s villagers and farmers, these luxe items present a bizarre contrast.
The exposure puts the Congress chief minister in a mighty tight spot, unless he can quickly come up with a reasonable explanation for the lavish trimmings he sports. With his profligacy, the chief minister has opened himself up as a target for the opposition as well as dissidents from his own party just as the state goes in for a by-election.
For the Congress party itself, southern India is not looking anything like the impregnable citadel it used to be. If Siddaramaiah is in Rolex trouble in Karnataka, in neighbouring Kerala, which is preparing for assembly elections, Congress chief minister Oommen Chandy is embroiled in a serious corruption scandal and is facing increased dissidence from his partymen, causing Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to entreat that the leaders could fight with each other after the elections. All in all, neither state is making the Congress look good at this time.
It was Siddaramaiah’s arch-enemy and former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) who first called out the chief minister for wearing a diamond-studded Hublot watch that he alleged costs Rs 50 lakh. Kumaraswamy said the chief minister has a fondness for luxury watches. When reporters questioned Siddaramaiah about the watch, he turned aggressive and offered to sell it to anybody who could pay him Rs 5 lakh. He said the watch was a gift. In the city paper’s photo-backed expose, Siddaramaiah is seen sporting Rolex and Audemars Piguet watches as well as Hermes and Louis Vuitton shoes.
Siddaramaiah is caught in a bit of a pickle. His income clearly shows that he cannot afford such pricey accessories. His asset statement, declared in March 2015, reveals that the chief minister has Rs 2 lakh in cash, some Rs 42 lakh in various banks, some farm land, 350 grammes of gold, a Toyota Innova car and two properties in Bangalore. Interestingly, the chief minister has declared that he owns household goods worth Rs 1.5 lakh. There is no mention of owning any luxury items.
If the chief minister defends his finery as gifts, then he has to explain the impropriety of accepting such expensive presents. It leads to speculation on the quid pro quo. If Siddaramaiah claims the adornments are fake, then there is the extreme awkwardness of clarifying how a chief minister can sport illegal goods. All in all, it is a situation that Siddaramaiah will find hard to explain away. A complaint has been made with the state Lokayukta against the chief minister, although no FIR has been registered.
If Siddaramaiah, indeed, has an addiction for luxury accessories, the hardest hit would be his aura. All along, he has held himself
up as a champion of the poor and the backward classes. Siddaramaiah, 66, came into the political limelight as a follower of the socialist leader, Ram Manohar Lohia.
He has proudly described himself on various occasions as an atheist, a secularist and a socialist. He was born in a village in Mysore in a farming family of modest means. In fact, it has even been alleged that Siddaramaiah’s pro-socialist ideologies have come in the way of developing Bangalore and attracting capital to Karnataka. If, indeed, it is proved that Siddaramaiah owns all the ultra-luxury items he has been photographed with, it will cause a serious dent to his pro-poor, socialist image. If he is disgraced, things could get precarious for the Congress and its government.