Time not ripe for a dalit CM

42Siddaramaiah Siddaramaiah | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Interview/ Siddaramaiah, Karnataka chief minister

Three years into his term as chief minister, and ten years after he quit the Janata Dal (Secular) to join the Congress, Siddaramaiah continues to battle the “outsider” tag—both within the government and his party.

His journey has been not been smooth. Though his government launched several welfare schemes, it has had to battle allegations of corruption and nepotism, a rebellion within the party after the recent cabinet rejig, droughts and farmer suicides, and the urban planning mess in Bengaluru, besides containing spats between bureaucrats and political leaders. The controversy over the suicide of M.K. Ganapathy, deputy superintendent of police in Mangaluru, led to the resignation of Bengaluru Development Minister K.J. George on July 18.

In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Siddaramaiah defends his government and shares his plan for the next two years.

You have fared well on delivering poll promises.

The Congress government has succeeded in fulfilling 120 of 165 poll promises. There is scope for more, as I will be presenting two more budgets. In addition to the manifesto, I have tried to implement new programmes like Krishi Bhagya [welfare scheme for farmers], Vidyasiri [stipend for poor students] and Shoe Bhagya [footwear for schoolchildren].

Experiences from my childhood and college days motivated me to launch these programmes. I thought of Anna Bhagya [subsidised rice for the poor] because I have known hunger. I felt no one should go through it. Today, I am glad the scheme is helping 1.08 crore families below poverty line. Similarly, Vidyasiri came through—I still remember my college days, when I had no money to pay hostel fee. Today, 87,000 students benefit from it. I used to wear the same pair of chappals for three years. Today, Shoe Bhagya can save schoolchildren from such humiliation.

Are your ahinda credentials alienating majority communities from the Congress?

I believe in social justice. But that does not mean I am abusing other communities. My policies and programmes are not discriminative, as the poor belonging to every community benefit from them.

The popular perception is that your government has focused more on rural areas, while cities remain neglected. A recent study said Bengaluru was a dead city.

It is not true that I concentrated only on rural Karnataka. I do agree, we needed better focus on cities. In the next two years, we hope to accord priority to infrastructure development and job creation. Bengaluru has got Rs 7,300 crore in the current budget, which is the highest allocation in the history of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike.

In the run-up to the 2018 polls, what will be your priority?

Infrastructure and job creation are priority sectors. I have announced a new department for skill development to focus on creating jobs.

If job creation is a priority, how can you justify the huge number of vacancies in government departments? The private sector, too, needs better infrastructure and investments to create jobs.

The state has no dearth of investments, as it has a land bank, and water, power and tax concessions, which are crucial for new companies to set up shop. The power deficit in the state will not impact industries.

The government has vacancies as the BJP government had frozen fresh recruitments. We lifted the ban. We are filling up vacancies in education, health and police departments. At least 9,000 new recruits have joined the police. Another 15,000 will be hired soon.

The recent cabinet reshuffle has not gone down well with many leaders, especially the ones who have been dropped from the cabinet. What was the need and criteria for the rejig?

It was a long-pending demand of party workers and leaders. The high command, too, sought change. The reshuffle was an exercise to accommodate newcomers in the government. It was done after deliberations with the state party chief, AICC general secretary, [vice president] Rahul Gandhi and [president] Sonia Gandhi. The ones who were dropped were given three years to perform and accomplish.

The demand for a dalit chief minister has gained decibels.

Personally, I am for it. I have no objection to anyone becoming the CM. But this is definitely not the time to pursue such a demand.

Did your government mishandle the Ganapathy case? Don’t you think George’s resignation, which came a bit too late, dented the government’s image?

No. The Madikeri police filed a case of unnatural death under section 174 [of the Code of Criminal Procedure]. A CID probe was immediately ordered. We did not falter anywhere. But the family of the deceased officer—his son Nehal and wife, Pavana—approached a Madikeri court, which directed the police to file an FIR under section 306 of the Indian Penal Code [abetment to suicide], naming George and two IPS officers. Let law take its course.

George’s exit was uncalled for. A mere allegation does not warrant a resignation. My cabinet colleagues asked George not to resign, but he insisted on resigning on moral grounds, as he did not want the party and leadership to face embarrassment.

The opposition’s demand is for a CBI probe into the case. But the government has ordered a judicial inquiry, even as the CID inquiry is on.

The government cannot yield to the unreasonable demands of the opposition. I am surprised at the BJP’s change in perception of the CBI. When the BJP was in power, I, as the opposition leader, had urged for CBI probe in 13 cases. But they dubbed the CBI as the Congress Bureau of Investigation and did not hand over a single case. Today, the Congress government has referred eight cases to the CBI, as we have nothing to fear. We believe in constitutional bodies.

The home department has always been a target of the opposition. First, it was the appointment of retired cop and your confidante, Kempaiah, as adviser to home minister. Then came DySP Anupama Shenoy’s resignation, followed by the constabulary threatening to go on mass leave to protest against harassment. And now, suicide of two DySPs Kallappa Handibag and Ganapathy. Do you still believe all is well with the home department?

The police have always worked under pressure and it is not a recent phenomenon for the opposition to blame only my government. During the BJP and JD(S) rule, too, policemen have committed suicide. NCRB records show 122 policemen committed suicide in Karnataka between 2003 and 2013. Kempaiah was chosen as adviser by George when he became the home minister and it was not on my advice. Kempaiah will continue to work as long as the current home minister wants him to. The police mass protest was not planned by any policeman. A dismissed head constable Shashidhar had given the call for bandh.

As opposition leader, you attacked tainted BJP ministers. Today, we see similar cases against your colleagues.

There is no evidence; only baseless allegations. In fact there are allegations against me, too. [JD(S) president] H.D. Kumaraswamy is digging out old cases against me, as old as 2007. They were filed against me during a public protest and were closed by the CID in 2008.

BJP leaders are facing criminal charges. Both the BJP and the JD(S) have no right to point fingers at us, as they are staring at moral and political bankruptcy.

Are you prepared for a greater role within the party, since you seem to have earned the trust of the high command?

My political interests are confined to Karnataka for now.

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