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Mainstream, VOL LX No 26-27, New Delhi, June 18 & June 25 2022 [Double issue]

Siddaramaiah’s brand of Politics in Karnataka | P S Jayaramu

Friday 17 June 2022

by P. S. Jayaramu

16th June, 2022

Siddaramaiah, the former Chief Minister of Karnataka and presently Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, is a down to earth politician with secular and socialist credentials. He has his eyes and ears focused very much on the politics of the state, so much so that he has twice rejected Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s invitation to move to national arena.

Siddaramaiah entered the Karnataka Assembly in 1983, having contested on Bharathiya Lok Dal ticket, but soon joined the Janata Party. Impressed by his love for Kannada language Ramakrishna Hegde, the first non-Congress Chief Minister of the State, appointed him as President of the Kannada Kavalu (oversight) Samiti to supervise the implementation of Kannada as official language. When the State witnessed mid-term polls in 1985, Siddaramaiah was re-elected from the Chamundeswari constituency in Mysore and joined Hegde’s government. After the split in the Janata Dal, Siddaramaiah joined the Janata Dal (secular) faction headed by Deve Gowda. However, conscious of his backward class background and identity, he decided to focus on mobilising the support of the OBCs and towards that end, created the Ahinda group, representing the OBCs and SC, STs. His address at the massive Ahinda really in Hubli led to the snapping of his ties with the JD(S) and his eventual expulsion from the Party. He toyed with the idea of starting a regional party, but realised the limitations of such a project and abandoned it.

In subsequent years, Siddaramaiah’s political instincts led him join the Congress, an umbrella party, closer to his ideological moorings. He started consolidating his position in the Party, given the absence of a mass OBC leader in the Congress. In the 2013 Assembly elections he played a key role in bringing the Party to power.

During his term as chief minister, Siddaramaiah introduced many welfare scheme, like the Anna Bhagya scheme, to provide 30 kgs of rice at ₹1 per kg to people below the poverty line ( (BPL families) for a month. He followed it by the loan waiver decision for the OBCs. The two populist schemes cost the state exchequer over ₹5,500 crores, according to government sources itself. Additionally, Siddaramaiah started the famous ‘Indira canteens’ for the benefit of largely urban poor.

The astute politician in him led Siddaramaiah to appoint a Commission to prepare a Social and Educational Survey, popularly known as “caste census”, with the intention of enhancing opportunities for the backward classes to play their role in State Politics, apart from enhancing the educational, social and economic benefits. The report, however, has not seen the light of the day. Siddaramaiah now says he will implement the report if he becomes the chief minister again. The report is said to have pointed to the reduced strength of the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities in the State, possibly impacting their future role as dominant communities in State Politics, one of the reasons why the lingayat and Vokkaliga communities within the Congress Party are not very enthusiastic about the report.

As chief minister, Siddaramaiah sidelined prominent SC leaders, like Dr.G. Parameswara, who could not stake his claims for the chief ministerial ‘gaddi‘ as he lost the assembly elections in 2013, though he subsequently became deputy chief minister, thanks to the Party high command.

In the run up to the 2018 assembly elections, following stiff resistance from local elements in his home constituency , Siddaramaiah shifted his political base to Badami in north Karnataka and entered the Assembly from there. The uneasy coalition which the Congress Party entered into with the JD(S), following the fractured mandate, did not last long. Thanks to the ‘operation kamala’, the BJP formed the Government, with Yediyurappa at the helm. It was a measure of Siddaramaiah’s failure that he could neither foresee nor prevent a good chunk of Congress MLAs from crossing over to the BJP.

As Leader of the Opposition in the assembly, Siddaramaiah has succeeded in putting the BJP government on the mat on issues relating to the finances of the state and its inability to get the state’s share of the centre’s revenues, be it central grants or the money due to the state from the GST collections. His experience in having presented eight State budget in the past helps him to speak confidently on financial issues. The recent Mekedatu padayatra jointly led by Siddaramaiah and Shiva Kumar was a good political move by the leaders, who are otherwise engaged in one-upmanship game.

Siddaramaiah is no doubt a strong mass-based OBC leader in the post-Devaraj Urs phase of Karnataka Politics, but he is perceived by many as a factional leader, representing the numerically strong Kuruba community within the OBC group. As such, it is imperative that while fighting for the cause of OBCs, Siddaramaiah carries with him other OBC factions with him, as he is opposed by Eswarappa, another strong Kuruba leader and former deputy chief minister in the BJP government. Siddaramaiah should also accord priority to work in harmony with the SC, ST and other dominant caste leaders within the Party as many seniors are unhappy with his style of functioning.
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To achieve his political objectives, at times, Siddaramaiah makes direct appeals to the members of his rival Parties, like he did recently to JD(S) legislators to exercise ‘conscience vote’—an euphemism for cross-voting—to support the Congress candidate in the recent Rajya Sabha polls. It is alleged by the JD(S) Working President that Siddaramaiah entered into an understanding with the BJP’s third candidate and helped him win the election to checkmate the JD(S). Siddaramaiah seems to have drawn the battle lines clearly by signalling that the electoral contest would be bipolar, only between the Congress and the BJP and that the JD(S) would be reduced to a non-player. In any case, JD(S) will come to the fore in the event of a fractured mandate, as in the past.

Though a senior and seasoned politician, Siddaramaiah often lowers the level of political discourse, both within the assembly and outside, by addressing senior ministers/ members of the treasury benches in singular and a manner bordering on unparliamentary behavior. He needs to refine his political communication to make himself acceptable to his fellow politicians as well as the electorate. Interestingly, he is reported to be planning to hire the services of a PR agency to bolster his image in the run up to the assembly elections slated for 2023.

On the positive side, as a secular leader, Siddaramaiah is vociferously exposing the communal polarisation agenda of the Bommai regime on issues relating to the hijab, halal controversies and the brazen efforts at saffronisation of the school curriculum. However, it is pertinent that Siddaramaiah establishes the right connect with the mature voters of Karnataka by assiduously taking up issues related to inflation, price-rise, and unemployment in the State.

(Author: P. S. Jayaramu is a former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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