CHIEF Minister Siddaramaiah found himself in the midst of a controversy recently over his Hublot wristwatch. It all started in late January at an election rally of former Chief Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy. He raised the issue of the expensive watch the “socialist Chief Minister”, his one-time comrade-in-arms, was seen wearing these days. The barb followed insinuations that Siddaramaiah had acquired a penchant for expensive spectacles and fancy footwear. It was also reported that Siddaramaiah had recently “bought a waterproof saree worth Rs.1,20,000 for his wife”. The opposition was quick to use the issue to corner Siddaramaiah.
Speaking to Frontline, Kumaraswamy said: “How can Siddaramaiah call himself a socialist and a follower of Ram Manohar Lohia and at the same time wear such an expensive watch? And it is not the only one. Photographs on his official website show that he has 15 to 20 such expensive watches. I don’t care if he wears a watch worth even Rs.2 crore, but let him not mislead people saying he is a socialist. I did not raise it to malign him but to expose the ideological paradox. Let him say that he is not a samajwadi [man for the masses] but a majamadi [man who loves a good time and materialistic things].”
Siddaramaiah brushed off Kumaraswamy’s charges as stemming from sheer envy and as a case of “much ado about nothing”, and said he was ready to sell the watch and his “expensive” spectacles to anyone for Rs.5,00,000. He claimed that the watch was a gift. Siddaramaiah also pointed to the fancy cars that Kumaraswamy’s son owned.
Kumaraswamy then alleged that the watch was most likely a stolen one and pointed to a complaint filed with the jurisdictional police by Dr Sudhakar Shetty in July last year that his watch had been stolen from his Bengaluru residence. According to Kumaraswamy, the jurisdictional police recovered the Hublot watch and a couple of other stolen watches and handed them over to a senior police officer, who in turn handed them to a retired police officer, who is said to have “gifted” it to Siddaramaiah. Speaking to Frontline, Kumaraswamy said: “Sudhakar Shetty tried to contact me through an intermediary on the night of February 9. At that time, I was busy with the zilla panchayat elections and said we could meet in two days. But the meeting did not take place because Sudhakar Shetty faced threats. My phone is also being tapped by the government.”
With insinuations and invective flying around and the opposition disrupting proceedings in the Assembly, on March 2 Siddaramaiah said the watch had been gifted to him last year by Girish Chandra Varma, a Dubai-based doctor friend of his for well over 30 years, and that he had paid income tax for the watch. He then handed over the watch to the Speaker, Kagodu Thimmappa.
In a letter to the Speaker, he said: “I, being the Chief Minister of Karnataka, by following the precedents set by the predecessors in office, declare the gifted watch Hublot Big Bang.301-M as a government asset and hand it over to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, to forward the same to the Chief Secretary, to place the same in the Cabinet Hall at Vidhana Soudha.” Accusing the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular) of politicising the issue, Siddaramaiah said it was a pre-owned watch and cost only Rs.1.4 million, and not Rs.5 or 6 million as the opposition was claiming.
The Chief Minister’s decision notwithstanding, the opposition continued to demand an inquiry by a Central investigation team. Speaking to this correspondent, Leader of the Opposition Jagadish Shettar said Siddaramaiah had been very economical with the truth.
“We are disputing the ownership of the watch. Was it gifted or a stolen one? Initially, the Chief Minister said it was a gift but didn’t disclose who gave it him. Now he has disclosed a name, but there is no affidavit from his friend, no receipt of the watch being bought in Dubai, no receipt of duty being paid when the watch was brought into India…. The C.M. is hiding something. It is a dubious watch; why should it be kept in the Cabinet Hall?” But the Speaker, after accepting the watch, had said that no documents were necessary nor did it matter to him to whom the watch belonged.
A senior Minister put it succinctly: “In the 1950s, Ambedker wore a suit, not Indian dress. Similarly, a watch can’t change Siddaramaiah’s ideology. But being in public life, he has to be careful. He has to have all the relevant records and papers. The watch episode has only defamed politicians in the eyes of the public.”