A poster of Leader Ramaiah, a biopic on former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, was released on Ram Navami. It described him as a “king raised by the people”, and highlighted the message that the film was about a person named after Ram.
Siddaramaiah, the Congress’s mass leader and the only Karnataka chief minister to have completed a full term in the past 45 years, is facing several challenges before the elections, one of them being the perception that he is “anti-Hindu”. The BJP has accused Siddaramaiah of minority appeasement, and even his own party men are shying away from endorsing his views fearing backlash from the majority community. The poster, perhaps, was to address all this.
It started in 2015, when the Siddaramaiah government decided to celebrate Tipu Jayanti. The BJP was up in arms, saying that the Congress was portraying a “religious bigot” as a “nationalist”.
The BJP also alleged that Siddaramaiah had withdrawn cases against Popular Front of India and Social Democratic Party of India activists, whom it called “communal” and “anti-national”. Siddaramaiah has vehemently denied these charges, but he finds himself isolated in a party that, under state president D.K. Shivakumar, has been accused of practising “soft hindutva”.
There is also the memory of the 2018 Lingayat movement, demanding a separate religion tag, which the Siddaramaiah government allegedly fuelled to divide the BJP’s Lingayat vote bank. It backfired as the Congress lost the elections; it was seen as a verdict against the “divisive politics” of Siddaramaiah.
Heading into these elections, the Kuruba strongman once again finds himself at a crossroads. His long hunt for a “safe” seat is reminiscent of the 2018 elections, when he, as chief minister, searched for a safe seat fearing sabotage by detractors from within and outside his party.
This time, he has zeroed in on two seats―Varuna, the constituency in Mysuru currently held by his doctor son Yathindra, and Kolar, for which he is yet to get the high command’s nod. He has, notably, abandoned his plan to seek re-election from his current seat, Badami.
In 2018, he had lost from Chamundeshwari, a constituency in Mysuru he had won five times. The Vokkaligas mobilised against him and gave the win to his friend-turned-bitter rival G.T. Deve Gowda, a Janata Dal (Secular) leader from their community.
Badami had saved him the blushes. But there, too, he had won only by a margin of around 1,700 votes against the BJP’s B. Sriramulu, a popular ST leader. This was despite the seat being in the Lingayat heartland and having a sizeable Kuruba population.
Insiders said that Siddaramaiah’s constant attacks on former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s family―including calling on his party workers to “put an end to the reign of the Gowda sons”―turned the community against him.
There seems to have been more scouting in 2023. Siddaramaiah picked Varuna and Kolar after a whirlwind tour of potential constituencies and a series of secret meetings with local leaders. And though this would mean that his son would be left without a constituency, the plan is for the father to win both seats and vacate Varuna for Yathindra in the byelection that would follow.
A defeat in either, however, would threaten his chances of becoming chief minister, even if the Congress gets a clear majority. As it is, the Congress has been called the ‘party of chief minister aspirants’, and pre-election surveys indicating a comfortable win for the party has only made it more anxious.
Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar aside, the other hopefuls include Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and former deputy chief minister Dr G. Parameshwara, both dalit leaders. They have long resented the “outsider” Siddaramaiah―who came from the JD(S)―becoming chief minister “out of turn”.
Parameshwara, who lost from Koratagere in 2013, suspects Siddaramaiah’s hand in his defeat. Former Union minister K.H. Muniyappa holds Siddaramaiah’s close aide and former assembly speaker Ramesh Kumar responsible for his defeat in Kolar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Shivakumar supporters recall how Siddaramaiah kept him out of the cabinet.
There was also speculation that Siddaramaiah had a secret pact with the BJP to fell the Congress-JD(S) government in 2019. He apparently did not want to share power with the JD(S), which had come third in the elections but got itself the chief minister’s chair. The BJP, led by B.S. Yediyurappa, had engineered a mass defection of Congress and JD(S) legislators; most of the Congress defectors were from the Siddaramaiah camp. A few months before the coup, a video of Siddaramaiah predicting the coalition’s premature collapse had widened the rift between the partners.
The animosity between Siddaramaiah and the Gowda family has only grown. Recently, he mocked the JD(S), saying it would not win more than 20 seats this time. Irked, senior JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy dared Siddaramaiah to float a new party and win at least a couple of seats to prove his mettle.
When a JD(S) MLA recently joined the Congress, Siddaramaiah said he, too, was “forced out” and that the Deve Gowda clan had harassed him. Kumaraswamy shot back saying it was Siddaramaiah who was using the JD(S) as his fiefdom and was arm-twisting party president Deve Gowda to have his way.
Speaking of the party presidents, the Siddaramaiah-Shivakumar tussle has become a major headache for the Congress. Last August, Siddaramaiah turned his 75th birthday celebrations in Davanagere into a show of strength. It was a counter to Shivakumar’s ‘Mekedatu Padayatra (campaign for water)’ in the Vokkaliga heartland, through which he projected himself as the undisputed Vokkaliga leader in the state and also the next chief minister. Such is the rivalry that former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has on multiple occasions called for a truce between the two leaders.
Interestingly, even as “original” Congressmen are opposed to Siddaramaiah as chief minister, there has also been a whisper campaign against him by leaders lobbying for a dalit chief minister.
In what could be another blow to Siddaramaiah, the BJP has been trying to lure smaller SC, ST and OBC communities away from the former chief minister’s Ahinda block.
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The Basavaraj Bommai government recently enhanced the SC and ST quota, and also rejigged the OBC list to fulfil long-pending demands for a hike in quota by the politically strong Vokkaligas and Lingayats. Moreover, the implementation of the internal quota in the SC reservation to provide a level playing field for non-influential SC communities has further divided the Congress’s dalit vote bank.
Moreover, an internal Congress report said that Siddaramaiah’s Ahinda politics is apparently alienating dominant castes like the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats.
“Siddaramaiah, who got power through Ahinda politics, ended up fragmenting the communities once he came to power through his divisive policies, favouring only a few communities,” said BJP national general secretary C.T. Ravi. “He defeated dalit leaders of his own party and kept them out of the cabinet. His only achievement was building a corrupt team in the party and the government.”
Challenges are not new to Siddaramaiah. From cowherd to chief minister, the 75-year-old has fought several battles on his way to the top. This time, though, the battles seem to be piling up.