The Curious Case of Siddaramaiah: It’s All or Nothing in 2018

Siddaramaiah has no insurance in case of defeat in the Karnataka polls, but if he wins, it’s winner takes all.

5 min read
Siddaramaiah has no insurance against defeat and his own party will finish him off, but if he wins, he will take it all.

On 8 May 2013, as the results for the Karnataka State assembly elections began pouring in, outside the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee office, a stream of senior party leaders started gathering. They were speculating and suggesting to journalists that the choice of Chief Minister wasn’t certain.

It did not matter that Siddaramaiah, who was Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Assembly then, was the one who led that victorious election campaign from the front.

The ‘Outsider’ Messiah

In true Congress style, there were confabulations and it was made obvious to the journalists that several Congress leaders were backing themselves for the post.

The President of the Congress State unit, then and now, G Parameshwara was one such aspirant, but he had lost in his own constituency. The names that were deliberately floated included Congress heavyweights like Mallikarjun Kharge and former Chief Minister Veerappa Moily, amongst others.

Siddaramaiah is a regional satrap and not one who grew because of loyalty to, or benevolence from, the Gandhi family. 
Siddaramaiah is a regional satrap and not one who grew because of loyalty to, or benevolence from, the Gandhi family. 
(Photo: PTI)

Siddaramaiah was an “outsider” to the old guard in the party. Unlike the traditional Congress leadership, he came from a fiercely anti-Congress Janata movement and had joined the Congress only in July 2006. He was a regional satrap and not one who grew because of loyalty to, or benevolence from, the Gandhi family. He split from the Janata Dal (Secular) after a fierce battle with former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda.

His coterie was full of former JD(S) leaders like himself and they controlled access to him, not the Congress’ old guard. He was both arrogant and a politician in his own right, and he refused to fall for the machinations of the Congress old guard.

But in 2013, like they do in 2018, Congress needed a charismatic leader and orator like Siddaramaiah to capture power in Karnataka. He brought with him a categorical caste base known as AHINDA in Karnataka.

Caste and Congress

AHINDA is a conglomeration of socially backward sections that was a way to beat the two major vote bases in Karnataka – the Lingayat sect which forms around 14 percent and the Vokkaliga caste vote base which is estimated at around 11 percent. The Lingayats, who are divided into several sub-sects and have now been granted religion status by the state government, are spread across Karnataka and hold decisive sway in several seats in the northern parts. The Vokkaliga caste is concentrated in the Old Mysore region of the State and holds sway in agrarian areas around the Cauvery River.

Siddaramaiah interacting with Lingayat leaders. 
Siddaramaiah interacting with Lingayat leaders. 
(Photo: PTI)

Ironically, it was Congress Chief Minister Devraj Urs who used the AHINDA base to great success in the 1970s. (Much like the KHAM alliance in Gujarat as a way to fight the Patel vote bank). But, Siddaramaiah became and remains the face of that caste combination.

Stride of Siddaramaiah

The party high command, despite resistance from the old guard, was decisive in backing Siddaramiah and it’s believed that Rahul Gandhi was categorical in his support for him. More importantly, they stood by him through the last five years. One reason could be the threat that he might break the party if they unseated him, but they backed him and he used the five years to establish a strong grip over the party in the State.

Through the last five years, there has been friction with the Old Guard and in several instances their battle with the Chief Minister was out in the open. That he completed a full five-year term without being unseated by his own party is as a remarkable achievement.

But he has pulled off much more. The Congress central leadership has categorically declared that the party is “fighting the 2018 elections under his leadership” and it’s not often that such statements are made by the party high command. It is a reassertion that Siddaramaiah has overpowered machinations in a party that has often been accused of destroying strong State leadership.

There is more evidence for this. For instance, in Congress campaigns in most States, the face of the State leadership is buried in the prominence given to the Gandhi family in posters. But in Karnataka, posters or otherwise, Siddaramaiah is the most visible face and not Rahul Gandhi.

Leader of the State

Despite such a strong reassertion of his personality, he remains a Rahul Gandhi confidante, according to leaders. Further, it is believed that he has a categorical say in ticket distribution for the party. State leaders have realised in the last five years that Siddaramaiah can be decisive and is not cowed down by threats to rush to the party high command with a complaint. He hasn’t promoted those with access to the high command and has shifted the Congress’s state power centre back to Bengaluru.

In this election campaign, he also seems to be dictating the agenda for his opponents. He has portrayed himself as the champion of Karnataka by whipping up regional and linguistic pride as a carefully thought-out counter to the BJP’s use of Hindu nationalism and patriotism to its advantage.

 Karnataka is trying to be the second state in the country to have an official state flag, after Jammu and Kashmir.
Karnataka is trying to be the second state in the country to have an official state flag, after Jammu and Kashmir.
(Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

His decision to announce a State flag, though criticised by several sections, is aimed at creating regional sentiment for electoral gains and has left the BJP State leadership in a studied silence.

Winner Takes All

The decision to accord religion status to the Lingayats has left the Bharatiya Janata Party unnerved. The Lingayats form the core base of the BJP and BS Yeddyurappa, BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate, is considered the most powerful Lingayat leader in the State. He and his party now seem focused on consolidating their core vote base.

On the other hand, Siddaramiah is fighting a bitter battle against his friend turned foe HD Deve Gowda and the JD(S) which has built itself as the party of the Vokkaliga caste.

Except for a handful of seats, Karnataka needs to be seen as two separate two-way battles. The first one is between the Congress and the JD(S) in the Cauvery heartland, where the BJP has negligible presence, and the other is between the Congress and the BJP in the rest of Karnataka, where JD(S) has only a meagre presence.

Both the JD(S) and BJP see Siddaramaiah as the prime enemy and would go to any extent to see him lose. It must be pointed out that for the JD(S), it’s not the Congress, but Siddaramaiah who is enemy number one.

In the end, the victor takes all and this is especially true for Siddaramaiah in 2018. He has no insurance against defeat, and his own party will finish him off, but if he wins, he will certainly take all.

(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached @TMVRaghav . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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