Along the narrow village street of Daripura, a small crowd winds its way to a chavadi, a raised stone platform with thatched roof that offers respite from a sweaty Mysore morning. Then, after genuflecting before a photograph of the venerable seer Shivakumara Swamy, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah steps back onto the street, where he is handed a mike. It’s after 12 years that he is standing for elections from Chamundeshwari, an assembly seat hugging the south-eastern fringe of the sandalwood city. He reminds people about a ‘tough fight’ back in the December 2006 byelection and how they stood by him even when the Janata Dal (Secular) and BJP had joined forces to “finish me off”.
That bypoll, which Siddaramaiah scraped through by a margin of 257 votes, is now a milestone in Karnataka’s politics. Not just because it was fought tooth-and-nail between former friends, but it handed Siddaramaiah a second political innings: the ‘rebirth’ of a dyed-in-the-wool Janata Dal leader as a Congressman. Now, after five years as CM, Siddaramaiah is leading his party into another tough election and, while he’s at it, forcing rivals to react than set the tone.
For the Congress now, the 68-year-old is indispensable. To critics, both old rivals in politics and newly fallen-out colleagues, Siddaramaiah is arrogant. To observers, even BJP party president Amit Shah, known as a master strategist, won’t find it an easy ride for his party in Karnataka. This, despite the BJP’s strong presence here, unlike in other southern states.
Siddaramaiah’s shrewd—some say risky—moves are the talking point of the election. He’s a mix of, say, J. Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee—by taking the late AIADMK supremo’s approach of sweeping welfare schemes and the West Bengal CM’s penchant for local connect garnished with rustic wit. He has also had enough stints in power over the past three decades to pull out the cards that unsettle rivals. A case in point: the alternative narrative of regional pride—a Karnataka state flag, for instance—or the minority-religion status for the politically strong Lingayat community. So, the BJP labels him Nidderamaiah (nidde is sleep in Kannada), and its top leaders cite a flurry of budget statistics to counter the CM’s claims on welfare programmes.
Siddaramaiah is unfazed. “This time, I’ve come back to Chamundeshwari and all of you know me,” he tells the crowd in his trademark drawl. There’s a mix of Vokkaligas and Lingayats in the village, mirroring the broader demographics of Chamundeshwari segment. “The BJP or JD(S) will not come to power because I’ve worked for all sections, not just for any one,” says the CM, who’s from the Kuruba (shepherd) caste. Again, Siddaramaiah’s political base firmed up after that 2006 bypoll following his fallout with mentor H.D. Deve Gowda, the visible cause of which was that he was stitching together a coalition of the backward classes, Dalits and minorities (known in Kannada by the acronym AHINDA).
“In his first year, he was called a Kuruba CM; then an AHINDA CM for the next three years. Now he’s a CM of all communities,” a local Congress functionary tells Outlook. That, in many ways, also outlines Siddaramaiah’s rise within his own party: one, where it wasn’t easy to become a CM in just seven years amid plenty of claimants. Many Congress leaders hadn’t taken too kindly to Siddaramaiah becoming CM in 2013—not least of all because he brought in his own coterie.
Until mid-2016, a party leader confides, many in the Congress were hopeful of a change in the top post but that didn’t materialise. Siddaramaiah firmly settled in. “Even now, he probably won’t know the names of Congress party workers. But he knows those of JD(S) workers,” quips a Congress leader. Yet, in the same breath, he concedes Siddaramaiah’s policies are the mainstay of the Congress campaign.
Even his detractors in the party say the CM’s policies form the core of the Congress campaign for the May 12 elections.
In early 2017, the Congress won two bypolls near Mysore. Many reckon there’s been no stopping Siddaramaiah since. “It’s not correct I became more aggressive only after that bypolls,” Siddaramaiah tells Outlook in the midst of his campaign. “I’ve always been fighting against communal forces,” he says, walking into the house of a local leader in Mavinahalli village for a meal of ragi mudde and curry.
“Too much is becoming too bad,” was how a BJP leader recently described Siddaramaiah’s approach, pointing out that the Lingayat gambit would help the BJP in the elections. Shah recently accused Siddaramaiah of being an ahindu, not AHINDA leader. “I am a Hindu; I need not learn lessons from him,” goes Siddaramaiah’s response. The BJP has won polls elsewhere, but Karnataka is different, he says. “Political awareness is more here; the people are committed, for historical reasons, to a plural society.”
The BJP too hasn’t pulled any punches, especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “10 per cent commission sarkar” jibe at the Siddaramaiah government. The CM dubs it as an unnecessary allegation. “The BJP has no developmental agenda; they only have a hidden agenda.”
There’s going to be a tough contest in Chamundeshwari, says a farmer from Mavinahalli where Siddaramaiah’s election convoy passes by. Part of the reason is that the CM had shifted to the neighbouring segment of his Varuna village after the assembly seats were redrawn during delimitation in 2008. This time, his son Yathindra, is tipped to contest from Varuna. “He hasn’t been to the villages here since he became CM. He should have at least come earlier,” complains the farmer. Local Congress workers say Siddaramaiah will win easily in Chamundeshwari but they are a bit concerned about some negative talk.
A little further down the road, at Jayapura village, Siddaramaiah is reading out from a piece of paper a list of projects his government has completed in the locality. Then, he makes an emotional appeal: “This is where I started my political career in 1983 as an independent. If I hadn’t won here, I’d never have become a CM…. I want to contest my last election too from the same seat from where I had started out. That’s why I am here.”
By Ajay Sukumaran in Mysore