On a sound footing

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah interacting with members of the fishing community of Thenka Yermal in Udupi on March 20. Photo: PTI

Siddaramaiah receiving a memorandam from Lingayat religious leaders at his home office, Krishna, in Bengaluru on March 15. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Unveiling the proposed Karnataka flag after a meeting of the State Flag Commitee on March 8. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A mobile Indira Canteen van outside Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru on January 26. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Through deft political management and a populist public policy, Karnataka’s Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has consolidated his position within the party and among the people to strengthen his claim to head the State’s government for a second consecutive term.

As the political battle heats up in Karnataka, which is expected to go to the polls soon as the term of the current Assembly ends on May 28, there is cautious optimism in the Congress camp. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has managed to outwit his main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in social, political and administrative spheres at various points of time ever since he assumed power in 2013. The saffron party seems to be fumbling to find a narrative to counter the Congress.

This optimism is not unfounded if one looks at the Congress’ electoral record in the State since 2013. In the 2016 zilla panchayat elections, the Congress secured 46.88 per cent of the vote and won 498 zilla panchayat seats and 1,709 taluk panchayat seats while the BJP won 406 and 1,362 respectively. (There are 30 zilla panchayats with a total of 1,083 seats and 175 taluk panchayats with a total of 3,884 seats in the State.) The Congress also won the Gundlupet and Nanjangud Assembly seats in byelections held in April last year.

In a pre-election survey conducted by the market research group Cfore between July and August last year, the Congress was well ahead of its main opponent, the BJP and the regional party, the Janata Dal (Secular). The survey predicted a vote share of 43 per cent for the Congress (translating into 120-132 seats), 32 per cent for the BJP (60-72 seats) and 17 per cent for the JD(S) (23-30 seats).

If the survey results translate into actual seats, it would place the Congress in an exactly similar position that it found itself after the last election, winning 122 of the 224 Assembly seats. Siddaramaiah has already set a record of sorts in Karnataka’s politics as the only Chief Minister to have completed his full term since D. Devaraj Urs in 1977.

Siddaramaiah’s ascent to the top legislative post was the culmination of a long and chequered political journey which began in the 1970s when he became close to socialist leaders such as Pa. Mallesh and M.D. Nanjundaswamy in Mysuru. Political observers say that he deserved to become the Chief Minister much earlier, considering his competence and closeness to former Chief Minister and Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda. But Deve Gowda’s partiality towards his son H.D. Kumaraswamy ensured that this was not to be. Siddaramaiah, who was Deputy Chief Minister twice in the Deve Gowda government, was expelled from the JD(S).

When Siddaramaiah was elected as the Congress Chief Minister in 2013, many political observers predicted that he would not last a full term as he was considered an “outsider”. Siddaramaiah joined the Congress in 2006 and was soon battling factions. A member of the backward Kuruba community, he is now leading the Congress in the Assembly elections for the second time.

It is no secret that G. Parameshwara, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president and a Dalit, and D.K. Shivakumar, the powerful Vokkaliga leader from south Karnataka, have been vying for the top post. Mallikarjun Kharge, again a Dalit and a veteran Congress leader from north Karnataka, was seen as a contender a few years ago. Apart from factionalism, it was felt that the government had become slack. The fact that Karnataka went through a long spell of drought which resulted in a spate of farmer suicides did not help the government.


However, there has been a turnaround in the past two years, and the Chief Minister has been exuding confidence in taking on the BJP. Of late, Siddaramaiah has been swift and aggressive in his retorts to any charge made by the BJP and its government at the Centre, be it the charge of murder of Hindus under his regime or allegations of corruption. A series of events helped Siddaramaiah quell factionalism and consolidated his position as the Chief Minister who enjoys popular support as well as the support of Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

How did Siddaramaiah manage this turnaround? Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, a political commentator based in Mysuru, said: “After a very long time, a Congress Chief Minister has had the autonomy to shape the campaign in his own image and to take decisions on crucial issues like ticket distribution. Even a few years ago, there was a feeling that this government had not taken off. Then how did he get through?” Shobhi explained. “Through deft political management and a populist public policy.”

The Congress’ victory in the byelection in Gundlupet and Nanjangud ( two constituencies in south Karnataka dominated by Lingayats and Dalits respectively) in a straight fight with the BJP helped Siddaramaiah immensely. This came after senior Congress leaders such as former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and Dalit leader V. Srinivas Prasad joined the BJP.

The Lingayat issue

Over the past year, Siddaramaiah has endorsed the demands of a section of Lingayats who want to be recognised as a separate religion distinct from Hinduism. He appointed a seven-member panel to study the demand and on March 19, after a marathon Cabinet meeting, approved its recommendation that Lingayat be recognised as a separate religion. It is unclear to what extent Siddaramaiah saw this as a core strategy. A bureaucrat, who is close to him, said Siddaramaiah was a true believer in the ideals of Basavanna, the 12th century reformer who founded the Lingayat creed by advocating a casteless society. Others say that the support for the demand for a separate religion is a calculated political strategy.

Whatever may be the case, the Congress is sure to benefit from Siddaramaiah’s stand. The Lingayat community is predominant in northern Karnataka where the BJP has won the majority of its Assembly and Lok Sabha seats. The government’s approval for separate religion status is expected to make at least a section of the community favour the Congress. Considering the sensitivity of the issue for Lingayats, the BJP has not been able to challenge the Congress. The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa, who is himself a Lingayat, appears to be unable to take a clear stand on the issue.

While Siddaramaiah’s bold move has caused consternation in political circles, its long-term and more important ramification will weaken the Hindutva ideology. The idea of Hindutva will work only if Hinduism is imagined as a monolithic entity. If it is seen instead as an agglomeration of caste groups and theological and schismatic offshoots, then the underpinning of the Hindutva ideology becomes unstable.

Siddaramaiah has been vocal about his differences with the divisive ideology of Hindutva. By ensuring his support to the Lingayat demand for a separate religion, he has caused a dent in the ideological foundation of the BJP as well.

Regional leader

Another factor that seems to be working in favour of Siddaramaiah is that he is conducting himself like a regional satrap and using the motif of Kannada pride, which the BJP is unable to counter. Although he is a member of a national party, his actions suggest that he is working like a regional leader. It is clear that he has used issues such as endorsing the demand for a State flag and the removal of the Hindi language from the Bengaluru Metro signboards to bolster his core constituency. “Since Siddaramaiah came to power, Kannada schools have stopped facing closure all over the State,” Pa. Mallesh, an 84-year-old educator based in Mysuru, said.

On the day he unveiled the State flag, Siddaramaiah also took to Facebook to make a strong pitch for regional identity. He wrote: “Whether we now like it or not, the States of India were organised on linguistic basis. Many of the languages and cultures of the States pre-date the Indian identity. Yet, we Indians are bound by a common history, common civilisation, and a common destiny. My identity as a proud Kannadiga is not inconsistent with my identity as a proud Indian. So, in Karnataka when we speak about primacy to Kannada, argue against imposition of Hindi language, or call for adoption of a State flag, we are confident we are contributing to the building of a strong India; for, a confident Indian nation is confident about the individuality of all her daughters.”

A close aide of Siddaramaiah said his espousal of regional identity caused some discomfort in the Congress leadership, but when it realised that this posture would benefit the party in Karnataka, the high command did not make it an issue. It also realised that Siddaramaiah had a loyal following in the State, and it is clear that the Congress needs him more than he needs the Congress. This is evident from the fact that he refused to support the high command’s two non-Kannada candidates (Sam Pitroda and Janardhan Dwivedi) for Rajya Sabha seats. Instead, he ensured that three local candidates of his choice (a Muslim, a Dalit and a Vokkaliga) filed their nominations.

Progressive group's support

While some of Siddaramaiah’s old associates question his commitment to socialism, it is undeniable that progressive sections of society such as Left-leaning activists, intellectuals, writers, members of the farmers’ movement and Dalits continue to support him. This group feels that he is sincere in his commitment to fighting fascist forces and stopping the BJP in Karnataka. His image as someone who does not believe in rituals and his personal effort in getting the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill, 2017, or the Anti-Superstition Bill, passed in spite of strong opposition from the BJP, have endeared him to this group.

Siddaramaiah has countered allegations—both inside and outside the Assembly—that Hindus are under threat under his government. The BJP, at all public fora, including when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and party president Amit Shah visited the State, has been accusing the Congress of being soft on communal killings of Hindutva workers. The saffron party is aggressively propagating the idea that Siddaramaiah is anti-Hindu, especially in religiously polarised areas such as coastal Karnataka and the Malnad districts. While this may have a limited political impact in favour of the BJP, the Congress is countering the propaganda effectively. In a case-by-case examination of each death, Home Minister R. Ramalinga Reddy proved that the BJP’s allegations were false.

AHINDA support

Siddaramaiah, who assiduously built his AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for backward classes, Dalits and minorities) vote bank, has retained it throughout his term. The BJP has not managed to make a dent in this vote bank. AHINDA is a notional bloc brought together for political convenience and machinations. The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits, while opposed to the dominant castes, have internal hierarchies among them. Retaining the support of this conglomerate consisting of numerous castes is not an easy task, but Siddaramaiah has managed to do this through smart budgetary allocations. He has formed separate boards for various backward castes.

Recognising the importance of cultural identity, his government added close to 30 jayantis (anniversaries) to the celebrations in the State. Tipu Jayanti, which has become controversial because of the BJP’s opposition to commemorating Tipu Sultan, is the only anniversary that is well known. There are a number of OBC icons who are celebrated on various days through the year. While it is clear that Kurubas have benefited during Siddaramaiah’s term, he has not alienated the OBCs. His regime is not referred to as a Kuruba regime the way past governments in the State were described as Lingayat or Vokkaliga regimes. The practice of previous Chief Ministers, who mostly belonged to either of the two dominant castes, was to surround themselves with a coterie of bureaucrats and Minsters from their community. The State government is engaged in an advertisement blitzkrieg over the past few months to project its various schemes in order to seek re-election on the development plank. Siddaramaiah often claims that 90 per cent of the State’s populace is governed by one welfare scheme or the other. “For a below poverty line family, 50 per cent of its income comes from the government now,” said Dinesh Amin Mattu, media adviser to the Chief Minister.

Siddaramaiah is particularly proud of Annabhagya, the flagship scheme that he announced a day after he became Chief Minister. The scheme aims at a hunger-free Karnataka by providing free rice and subsidised oil, lentils, salt and sugar to each BPL family. Official statistics indicate that there are 3.73 crore beneficiaries of Annabhagya in the State.

This correspondent visited villages near Bengaluru to find out how farmers responded to the government’s schemes. Visvanna, 68, of Oorkere village in Tumakuru district said he would vote for Siddaramaiah. A member of the Valmiki Nayaka Scheduled Tribe, he said the Annabhagya scheme had ensured that his family did not go hungry.

In C.B. Dasarahalli village in the same district, Somshekariah Nanjappa, 52, a Lingayat farmer, said he benefited from the pond built under the Krishi Bhagya Scheme. Under the scheme, an 80 per cent subsidy is given to farmers to dig a pond where rainwater will percolate and can be used during months when there is water shortage. “This is a good scheme and my coconut and areca nut farm has been saved only because of this,” Nanjappa said. Lakshmi Narsimaiah, 58, a farmer belonging to a Scheduled Caste, said that the agricultural loan waiver of Rs.25,000 in June 2017 had helped him.

While Siddaramaiah did not introduce any major policy change or radical reform, it is the social welfare schemes that he will bank on to get the support of rural voters. “His idea of Karnataka is derived from his own experience of early poverty and the time he spent with socialists. That is why you see so many social welfare schemes,” Prof. Muzaffar Assadi, a political scientist at the University of Mysuru, said.

On the question of factionalism, while it is true that a number of strong political contenders are keen on dislodging Siddaramaiah, he has managed to keep them in check. In the past, it was common to see rebel Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) being shepherded to resorts for confabulations. Such open dissidence has been absent during Siddaramaiah’s tenure. He has even managed to break the ranks of the JD(S) by wooing seven MLAs from that party to the Congress.

Siddaramaiah versus Modi

From the way the contest is shaping up in Karnataka, it is clear that it will be Siddaramaiah versus Narendra Modi, with Rahul Gandhi and Yeddyurappa consigned to smaller roles. While Yeddyurappa remains the strongest leader of the BJP in the State, he appears weary from the infighting in the State unit where he was consistently battling his one-time friend and Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, K.S. Eshwarappa.

Recognising the eventuality of a Siddaramaiah versus Modi fight, the Congress strategy, according to a close aide of Siddaramaiah, is to focus on Yeddyurappa and the mining scam that plagued the BJP during its tenure between 2008 and 2013. “Modi is popular among the youth and the urban masses. We have to acknowledge that. It helps the Congress to keep the focus on the State BJP leadership, meaning Yeddyurappa. There is a feeling that Siddaramaiah has neglected urban residents, who are the keenest supporters of the BJP, by focussing on rural upliftment,” the close aide said on condition of anonymity.

What will work in Siddaramaiah’s favour? Assadi states: “While Narendra Modi is a dream merchant who sells the idea of India that may favour a new generation of crony capitalists, Siddaramaiah speaks the language of the subaltern, the dispossessed and the marginalised. While Narendra Modi’s idea of India is exclusionary, Siddaramaiah’s model believes in inclusiveness. Thus, while Siddaramaiah has not done anything radical, he has developed his own brand of socialism with empathy for the poor.”

Sugata Srinivasaraju, editorial director of The State, states: “When Modi speaks nationalism, Siddaramaiah speaks sub-nationalism. When Modi speaks Hindi, Siddaramaiah speaks Kannada. When Modi speaks of religion, Siddaramaiah speaks of caste. He has managed to stay ahead of Modi at all times.” Siddaramaiah’s regime has not seen any major scams or scandals. He is seen as a largely honest politician, an image that could work in his favour.

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