In politics, destiny is often a jagged line, and in Siddaramaiah’s case, this line has zigzagged like the needle of a seismograph measuring a massive earthquake. On May 20, when Siddaramaiah became Chief Minister of Karnataka for the second time, he bent the crooked line of destiny in his favour because he has been knocked down so many times in his public career that few would have reckoned that he would lead the State not just once, but twice.
Siddaramaiah was born on April 12, 1948, in a village close to Mysore (now Mysuru) called Siddaramana Hundi in a family that belonged to the Kuruba caste. In anthropological literature produced in the erstwhile Mysore princely state, Kurubas are described as a “caste of pastoral shepherds”, although many had taken to agriculture by the time of Siddaramaiah’s birth.
The Kurubas were, and are, a scattered and large but non-dominant backward caste. By his own account, Siddaramaiah’s family was “mainly dependent on agriculture” and he was also forced to tend to cattle “due to difficult circumstances at home”.
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According to an interview that he gave a few years ago to a Kannada news channel, it was his initiation into a Veera Kunitha (a folk dance) troupe as a child that kindled his interest in getting an education. He said: “I had not joined primary school. The teacher in our Veera Kunitha dance group would make us all sit on the ground and teach us the Kannada alphabet. It was because of this that I developed an interest in education.”
After completing his primary and secondary education, he moved to Mysore and became the first graduate from his family when he got a B.Sc degree. Even at this early point in his life, Siddaramaiah’s determination became evident, when, contrary to his father’s diktat that he become a doctor, he chose to study law and obtained a degree from Sarada Vilas College. But even this was not meant to be a vocation but a mere stepping stone to a career in public life.
Influence of Dr Lohia
Karnataka was one of the hubs of socialism in the 1960s and 1970s and the socialist philosophy of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia resonated widely, leaving deep impressions on the minds of youth like Siddaramaiah. He was deeply involved in the vibrant people’s movements of the 1970s and became a protege of M.N. Nanjundaswamy, the farmers’ leader and founder of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, who had a colossal impact on the politics and society of the State.
The 1970s was also the time when Devaraj Urs, who cast a long shadow on the politics of Karnataka, was the Chief Minister and had challenged the dominance of the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas by building a strong social coalition consisting of the other backward castes and communities of the State.
In 1978, Siddaramaiah became a member of the Mysore Taluk Development Board, formally launching his career as a politician. In 1980, he contested for the Lok Sabha from Mysore but lost. Nonetheless, three years later, he won the Chamundeshwari Assembly seat as an independent candidate. It was a fervid political time for a young MLA as Karnataka was undergoing a major churn in its politics. The Congress’ dominance was receding and the charismatic Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party became the first non-Congress Chief Minister with support from the BJP and independent MLAs.
Siddaramaiah too extended his support to this new government and in, 1985, joined the Janata Party. After his victory in the Legislative Assembly election that year, he became a Minister in only his second stint as MLA.
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B.S. Shivanna, his friend and aide of many years, who first met him in 1985, said: “I had invited Siddaramaiah to Malavalli to address a meeting of the backward castes. What impressed me most then was his honesty and humility as he had no airs about him.”
In the political kerfuffle that followed during this unstable decade of Karnataka’s politics, S.R. Bommai became Chief Minister in 1988 and Siddaramaiah became Transport Minister. The Congress came back to power in 1989 with a massive mandate of 178 seats and, like many Janata Party leaders, Siddaramaiah too bit the dust. He contested for the Lok Sabha once again in 1991 from Koppal but lost. His fortunes were finally reversed in 1994 when he contested and won from Chamundeshwari as a Janata Dal (JD) candidate and became Finance Minister in the Cabinet of H.D. Deve Gowda.
Siddaramaiah said that other legislators took potshots at him at this time, saying things like “What does a shepherd know about finance?” Despite these jibes, Siddaramaiah went on to present a record number of 13 budgets in his staggered career as Finance Minister (he retained this portfolio even when he became Chief Minister later).
When Deve Gowda was elevated to the Prime Minister’s post in 1996, J.H. Patel became Chief Minister and Siddaramaiah was also promoted as Deputy Chief Minister.
Moving to the Congress
In the 1999 Legislative Assembly election, Siddaramaiah, who was now part of the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S), lost in the face of a resurgent Congress. But he won in 2004 and again became Deputy Chief Minister in the Congress-JD(S) coalition government headed by Dharam Singh.
At this juncture, Siddaramaiah had been in active politics for more than two decades but it increasingly became clear that he would never head the State government if he remained under the patronage of Deve Gowda, who was promoting his son, H.D. Kumaraswamy.
In Siddaramaiah’s own words, he was “expelled” from the JD(S) and spent the next year consolidating his status as a leader of a disaggregated social base consisting of Dalits, Backward Castes and religious minorities. (In Kannada, this agglomeration of castes and communities is known by its acronym, AHINDA.)
Despite his long-standing opposition to the politics of the Congress, Siddaramaiah joined the party in 2006 in the presence of Sonia Gandhi. In one of his toughest political battles in the face of a massive campaign against him by his former fellows in the JD(S), Siddaramaiah scraped through in the Chamundeshwari byelection by 256 votes in a byelection the same year.
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Siddaramaiah had to contend with a host of powerful party loyalists who branded him an outsider. However, his stature as a mass leader of the consolidated AHINDA bloc resulted in his being the Leader of the Opposition.
The BJP government of the day was mired in allegations of corruption and even the Chief Minister, B.S. Yediyurappa, was unable to curb the influence of the mining barons of Bellary (now Ballari). Siddaramaiah led a padayatra to Bellary, which cemented his standing within the Congress.
He then crisscrossed the State in the campaign of 2013, when the Congress gained a majority under his leadership and he was able to shrug off the outsider label. Siddaramaiah emerged as the MLAs’ choice for the Chief Minister, defeating Mallikarjun Kharge and G. Parameshwara, both Dalits.
Tenure as Chief Minister
In keeping with his socialist credentials, his tenure as Chief Minister was marked by a host of populist measures collectively called the Bhagya schemes, of which the flagship scheme was Anna Bhagya which provided 10 kilograms of rice and subsidised oil, lentils, salt and sugar to families living below the poverty line.
Muzaffar Assadi, a political scientist, described this as a unique welfare model and dubbed it the “Siddu Socialism Model”.
Siddaramaiah also successfully injected a heady regional favour into his governance as he ruled the State like a provincial satrap with emphasis on Kannada pride. Another notable feature of his tenure was the composition of his Cabinet, which was diverse and drew from all the major castes of the State.
However, his reign was on the back foot because of three issues: first, there was a spate of farmer suicides; second, his decision to recommend that the Lingayats be recognised as a separate religion was criticised; and third, there was severe opposition by the BJP to his decision to commemorate the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Mysore ruler. But he stood his ground in celebrating Tipu Jayanti, even though the BJP accused him of “minority appeasement”.
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Siddaramaiah completed his term of five years, becoming the only Chief Minister to do so after Devaraj Urs in the 1970s. In the 2018 Karnataka Assembly election, Siddaramaiah again led from the front but the Congress was reduced to only 80 seats in the face of the BJP’s campaign that pivoted on the allegation that scores of Hindus had been killed in the previous five years.
Reportage that investigated this claim established that this charge was false but the damage was done and the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the hung Assembly. The Congress and the JD(S) swiftly came together to form a coalition government that was wobbly from the start, as Chief Minister Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah, who was the head of the coalition’s coordination committee, did not see eye to eye on a host of issues.
The BJP, which had been actively looking to topple this fragile coalition from day one, made its breakthrough in 2019 when it lured away enough MLAs from the Congress and the JD(S) to form the government on its own, with Yediyurappa as Chief Minister. Siddaramaiah became the Leader of the Opposition.
As the Congress campaign took off in 2022, Siddaramaiah’s supporters began to proclaim that he would be the next Chief Minister , while KPCC president D.K. Shivakumar’s supporters also began lobbying in his favour. This intra-party factionalism that could have potentially destroyed the robustness of the Congress’ electoral strategy was quelled, but it never disappeared entirely, as the flurry of events after the Congress’ massive victory showed.
However, the high command of the party did not have any choice but to appoint Siddaramaiah as Chief Minister as he is clearly much more popular and has the support of the majority of the Congress’ MLAs.
There have been only two Chief Ministers in Karnataka’s history (S. Nijalingappa and Devaraj Urs) who completed a full term of five years and led the State for a secondterm (albeit truncated). With his anointment as Chief Minister for the second time, Siddaramaiah will be the third person to join this short but prestigious list. It is a stupendous achievement for someone who made it big in politics without any social or political capital.