In Karnataka, Siddaramaiah gives a defeated Congress some hope

The Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah has regained some of his political clout after leading the Congress to success in the recent by-polls in three seats in the state. AP Photo/Kashif Masood
05 September, 2014

The Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah is a forceful speaker, and is usually so without forsaking dignity or resorting to demagoguery. Yet, in his last 15 months in the post, those familiar with his style saw that a certain emphatic edge was missing in his speech. There could be many reasons for this mild dampening of his baritone. Having been groomed in a different political culture (he spent a larger part of his political life as a Lohia socialist and joined the Congress in 2006), it was clear that he was struggling to negotiate with the quirky ways of the Congress high command, and the many games of the party’s local veterans. The results of this year’s Lok Sabha elections, where the Congress won only 9 of the 28 seats in Karnataka did not help his cause. He was expected to deliver anywhere between 15 and 20 seats, and this was clear underperformance. He couldn’t duck the nationwide trend that ushered in a majority government led by Narendra Modi at the centre.

At this juncture, people inside the Congress, and a section of the media controlled by upper castes inimical to Siddaramaiah’s social justice agenda, started to say that he had lost his magical touch and that his government was clueless. “The government has not taken off. He was far more dynamic as a deputy chief minister,” was a refrain that floated around, referring to his time in the Janata Dal (Secular), where he served as second-in-command on two occasions.

Following the Lok Sabha results, there had been speculation about the vacant berths in the state’s cabinet, and whether the power to fill them lay with the chief minister. During Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh’s visits to the state, he entertained groups that demanded that G Parameshwara (the state Congress chief who had lost the assembly polls in 2013) be appointed deputy chief minister. The fact that Singh did not ask these dissenters and their promoters to desist from publicly demanding an alternate power centre was seen as an old Congress trick to check Siddaramaiah’s stride. But now, after the announcement of the by-poll results on 25 August, Siddaramaiah appears to have recovered his confidence. On 28 August, he spoke to the media at his home office, and assured them that he was the one who was vested with the authority to decide on expanding or reshuffling his cabinet. “If need be, I’ll consult the high command myself, there is no need to run emissaries between Bangalore and Delhi,” he said, expressing himself with a firmness that had been missing in recent months.

The by-poll results were significant for many reasons, although only three seats went to polls in Karnataka, unlike Bihar, where ten vacant seats were to be filled. One seat was a Congress stronghold (Chikkodi-Sadalaga), which had been held by the sugar baron and cabinet minister Prakash Hukkeri, until he was elected to the parliament recently. His son Ganesh Hukkeri was fielded as a replacement and he won—though admittedly, his victory margin of 31,820 votes was around 45,000 less than his father’s in 2013. Unlike this seat, there was a great deal of symbolism attached to the two other seats—Shikaripur and Bellary Rural. They represented the fountainhead of BJP power in the state not long ago, and were held by former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu—the latter an insider to the infamous Reddy family, the mining barons who are without an empire at present. The Congress won Bellary Rural by a comfortable margin of 33,104 votes and lost Shikaripur, contested by Yeddyurappa’s son, BY Raghavendra, by a slender margin of 6430 votes. Developments in these two seats have sent ominous signals to the BJP, despite their win of 17 seats in the state in the parliamentary polls.

With the mining baron Janardhan Reddy in jail, the loss of Bellary suggests a loosening of the BJP’s political grip over the iron ore–rich region, a source of funds for the party. Similarly, in Shikaripur, Yeddyurappa appears vulnerable for the first time in a seat that he has won seven times. There are no other political leaders in the state BJP with the stature of Yeddyurappa or the cunning of the Reddys. Two former BJP chief ministers, Jagadish Shettar and Sadananda Gowda, who is also currently the railway minister, are seen as meek without a following of their own. They are also caught in their own spiral of controversies.

The BJP’s struggles are not the only reason for the Congress’s elation. Its other rival in the state, the JD (S) has been weakening steadily since 2007, when its alliance with the BJP collapsed after 20 months—after HD Kumaraswamy refused to hand over the chief minister’s chair to the BJP, as had been publicly agreed—and it fell out of power. This is good news for Siddaramaiah—for one, it suggests he has the upper hand in his rivalry with the former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, his former mentor with whom he parted ways in 2005. It has also made possible a larger and new alignment of electoral forces in the state in the near future. Siddaramaiah, who is from the kuruba community—the third largest caste demographic in the state, after the lingayats and vokkaligas—can now plan to bring into the Congress fold a big chunk of the vokkaliga vote, previously dominated by the JD(S), through a deft deployment of vokkaliga leaders such as DK Shivakumar, the energy minister and TB Jayachandra, the law minister, in south Karnataka districts, where the community dominates. Siddaramaiah, a backward class icon, is in command of a good portion of the backward classes, Dalit and minority votes. By all estimates, the JD(S) presence is shrinking and is increasingly confined to Hassan district. The differences in approach, strategy and principles between HD Deve Gowda and his son HD Kumaraswamy are not helping the party and its confused cadre. It is widely believed that Kumaraswamy had wanted to strike an alliance with the BJP during the parliamentary polls, but was unsuccessful in doing so. Now, many of the JD(S)’s 40 MLAs are openly hobnobbing with Siddaramaiah, their former party colleague and elder.

There is also a growing realisation in sections of the Congress that Siddaramaiah may turn out to be one of the most important men for the Congress in the run up to the 2019 general elections. Given his administrative track record, penchant for fiscal diligence and appetite for developing large-scale social welfare agenda (his food security, nutrition and women-oriented schemes are already runaway hits), he can be a strong figure for the Congress to showcase across the country. Also politically, within the Congress, with Maharashtra likely to slip from its grasp, and other Congress-ruled states being relatively small compared to Karnataka, Siddaramaiah may be the tallest regional leader with a mass following that the party can bank on for both numbers as well as resources.

To fulfil this potential, Siddaramaiah has some areas in which he needs to show significant improvement—specifically, attracting investment to the state, focusing on urban renewal, and communicating his achievements effectively. The by-poll results have certainly cut down political competition from within and outside the party for the chief minister, but from now on he’ll have to set his own new targets. And as some of his ardent followers advocate, he would also benefit from learning to wield national ambition and see himself as more than a regional leader.