'Modi's guarantees remain in speeches, my guarantees are fulfilled': Siddaramaiah

I don't see Modi wave anywhere in Karnataka or south India, he says

38-Siddaramaiah-with-his-son-Yathindra Stronger together: Siddaramaiah with his son Yathindra | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Interview/ Siddaramaiah, Karnataka chief minister

The transformation is unmissable. The old-school mass leader Siddaramaiah has suddenly switched into the new avatar of a master strategist. It was unavoidable, as at stake is his chief minister's seat. “If you want me to survive, you should give a clear lead to the Congress candidate in the Lok Sabha polls,” he pleads to the voters in Varuna, his assembly constituency. Amid rumours of him being replaced as chief minister after the Lok Sabha polls, only a good show on his home turf, Mysuru, will give him a slim chance for survival.

The BJP seems to believe there is a Modi wave it can bank on. But I don’t see a Modi wave anywhere in Karnataka or south India.

And helping him in the tough campaign are his son, Yathindra, who vacated his seat for his father in the last assembly polls, and a bunch of loyalists. Siddaramaiah and his crew are locked up in a room to avoid the stream of visitors to his house. He slumps into a king-size red leatherette chair in front of the television. A channel shows Union Minister Amit Shah addressing a rally in Bengaluru and accusing Siddaramaiah of playing ‘drought politics'.”

Even as the the chief minister's media team prepares a counter, he seeks his son's help to remove his shoes. Nursing his swollen feet, he suggests the shoe size could perhaps be wrong. Yathindra teases him saying he does not know his own shoe size as he never shops for himself.

But Siddaramaiah seems sure of improving his party's tally in the state, winning at least 20 of the 28 seats. In an exclusive interview, he also shares his thoughts on a spectrum of issues—from the Karnataka model of development, the impact of the Congress's five guarantees on the polls, the Centre's apathy towards the drought-hit state, and the waning Modi magic. Excerpts:

Q. Winning Karnataka is crucial for the BJP for its larger south India plans. How prepared is the Congress to stop it?

The Congress has taken this election very seriously. In the past eight or nine months, our government has fulfilled all the five poll promises made to the people. The BJP argued that it was impossible to implement the guarantee schemes as the state would go bankrupt. Now, after we successfully implemented all the schemes, they are saying the schemes would be stopped soon after the Lok Sabha elections! We spent Rs 36,000 crore on these five schemes—Shakti, Gruha Jyoti, Gruha Lakshmi, Yuvanidhi and Anna Bhagya—without stalling any development work in the state. In the current budget, I have allocated Rs 1.2 lakh crore for development work. All guarantee schemes will continue for till the next assembly elections. If people vote us back to power, these schemes will continue.

Q. How are Siddaramaiah’s guarantees different from Modi's guarantees?

While Modi's guarantees remain only in his election speeches and are never implemented, my guarantees are fulfilled. I don't make false promises like him. People have trust in us. The Congress party winning 135 seats in the Assembly elections last year is the proof that people trust us.

Q. The free guarantees are being criticised as financial imprudence. You have been defending them as 'affirmative action'.

There is a concept of universal basic income followed across Europe. The purchasing power of the common man is reducing due to growing inflation and unemployment. By putting money into the hands of the poor, you increase their purchasing power and this positively impacts the economy. Today, a poor family in Karnataka, irrespective of religion or caste, is getting Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 every month under our five guarantee schemes. This is based on the same principle of universal casic income. It is not freebie.

Q. Karnataka is known to vote differently in the assembly and Lok Sabha elections. The BJP is hoping to ride the Modi wave once again.

The BJP is not the preferred party in Karnataka as people are not foolish. Narendra Modi has been the prime minister for the past 10 years. But has he matched his actions with words? Has he delivered on his promises? The BJP seems to believe there is still a Modi wave they can bank on. But I don't see a Modi wave anywhere in Karnataka or south India.

40-Siddaramaiah People’s leader: Siddaramaiah with supporters at his house in Mysuru | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Q. You feel the Congress is in a strong position in Karnataka and it will replicate the success in the assembly elections in the Lok Sabha elections?

Of course. We came to power 10 months ago and successfully implemented all five guarantee schemes to help the people. I don’t see any reason for my government to suddenly become unpopular. There is no anti-incumbency and I am confident that my party will win more than 20 of the 28 parliament seats in the state.

Q. The Congress won only one of 28 seats in Karnataka in 2019. How will you increase the tally so drastically?

It is true we had won only one seat last time. The BJP tactfully garnered support by raking up abrogation of Article 370 and cashed in on emotional issues like the Pulwama terrorist attack, hindutva and the promise to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya. This time, none of these issues is relevant.

Q. Will the JD(S)-BJP alliance affect the Congress's prospects?

On the contrary, the alliance will benefit the Congress. The logic is simple. The anti-BJP votes will now shift to the Congress.

Q. Amid a raging debate over dynasty politics, the Congress has given tickets to children of 10 ministers. Aren't there more deserving party workers?

The BJP has given tickets to [former chief minister] Yediyurappa's son (Raghavendra in Shivamogga) and to [former minister] Shashikala Jolle's husband (Anna Saheb Jolle in Chikkodi). So dynasty is not an issue here and all political parties are doing it. Ultimately what matters is acceptability. Will people accept the candidate? For instance, we picked Sunil Bose for Chamarajanagar as all seven MLAs in the district felt the ticket should be given to Dr H.C. Mahadevappa (social welfare minister and Bose's father) or his son for the party to win the seat. It was not a unilateral decision, it was the choice of the local MLAs, party workers, block committees and district president.

Q. If candidate selection was based on consensus, why is there resentment and rebellion, like in Kolar?

Former union minister K.H. Muniyappa, who is an MLA from Devanahalli, did not have the support of local MLAs except his daughter (Roopkala Shashidhar of Kolar Gold Fields constituency). We have fielded a neutral candidate and a party worker (M. Gowtham).

Q. In Mysuru, royal scion Yaduveer Wadiyar from the BJP is taking on Lakshman of the Congress. But it appears you have taken it as a personal challenge and have been camping and campaigning in the district. Will the Mysuru, Chamrajnagar poll outcome impact your position in the party and chief ministership?

I am confident that we will win both seats. In Varuna, I had got 48,000 more votes than the opponent in the assembly polls. So, I told my voters to give us a bigger lead of 60,000 votes this time. A good lead will make me happy and help me fulfil all the guarantees. You shouldn't read too much into my statement. If the BJP comes to power again, it will stop all the guarantees. So, I sought their support to strengthen my position.

Q. What are the chances of D.K. Suresh retaining Bengaluru Rural given that the BJP is fielding renowned cardiologist Dr C.N. Manjunath?

Everyone knows Dr Manjunath is former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda's son-in-law. But the JD(S) got him a BJP ticket as they felt he would lose if he contested on a JD(S) ticket. Let me tell you, Dr Manjunath will be defeated anyways because he served the people only as a doctor and was never in politics. But Suresh is a three-time MP who has done good work in his constituency. He knows every village and the voters in his constituency. A constituency has nearly 1,000 villages. Can you imagine Dr Manjunath going to every village in his constituency before the polls? Suresh has a great advantage over his opponent.

Q. Former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy is contesting from Mandya, one of the most-watched constituencies. Can the Congress candidate, a less known face like 'Star' Chandru, defeat Kumaraswamy?

Star Chandru is a local but Kumaraswamy is an outsider to Mandya. His son (Nikhil) lost the seat in 2019 when Kumaraswamy was the chief minister and had campaigned extensively in Mandya. Nikhil lost despite the JD(S)-Congress alliance. This time, the JD(S) has a tough challenge to outdo the Congress as BJP votes might or might not get transferred and JDS votes might shift to the Congress, too.

Q. What is the 'Karnataka model of development' that you frequently talk about?

Nowhere in the country will you find the schemes designed on the principle of universal basic income but in Karnataka. The GST collections have grown from 18 per cent to 22 per cent in the past few months. This is due to the increase in the purchasing power of the people.

Q. Karnataka is reeling under a drought and you have accused the Centre of withholding the drought relief funds to the state. The compensation to drought-hit states is fixed as per the National Disaster Response Fund norms. So, how can you blame the Modi government?

The Karnataka government has given three memoranda to the Centre, in September and October of last year. It has been five months but the Centre has not released a single penny. The Disaster Management Act mandates that the compensation be given within one month after the Central team submits its report on the drought situation in the state. This rule has been violated. Of the 240 taluks in the state, as many as 223 are reeling under drought. We have demanded Rs 18,171 crore as compensation, but the Centre has not released a single penny.

I met the Prime Minister on December 19, and [Home Minister] Amit Shah the following day, along with state Revenue Minister Krishna Byre gowda, and requested both of them to release the compensation, but to no avail. We have now petitioned the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution (writ of mandamus), seeking apex court direction to the Centre to release the funds. The DM Act was passed in 2005 by the Centre and we sought compensation as per the NDRF norms made by the Centre. We were forced to approach the Supreme Court as the Centre is not complying with the laws and rules made by it.

Q. Bengaluru is buckling under a severe drinking water crisis. Do you have a solution?

We must acknowledge that only 60 per cent of Bengaluru is being provided with Cauvery river water and the remaining 40 per cent is depending on bore-wells and water tankers. The problem will be resolved when we extend Cauvery water distribution to the 110 villages on the periphery. This year, the shortage of rainfall has led to bore-wells drying up. I have instructed the BWSSB and the BBMP to supply water through tankers to meet the demand, as we are prepared to spend any amount of money to help tackle the drinking water crisis in Bengaluru. As private tankers are in action now, I have asked BWSSB to take over private tankers on rent and supply water to underserved areas.

Q. Do you think the INDIA alliance that failed to name a prime ministerial candidate or work out seat-sharing formulae in many states can take on the BJP election machinery? How is the alliance beneficial to the Congress?

The sole objective of forming the INDIA alliance was to prevent the division of anti-BJP votes. Seat sharing has been possible in some states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Telangana, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, but not in West Bengal or Odisha. But that is alright. The alliance can certainly help consolidate the anti-BJP votes.

Q. In its manifesto, the DMK has promised to oppose Karnataka's proposal to build Mekedatu reservoir on the Cauvery. This will affect the plans to supply drinking water to Bengaluru. How will you resolve such issues with allies?

The DMK is free to make promises to the people in Tamil Nadu. But we will go ahead and build the Mekedatu reservoir to provide drinking water to Bengaluru and surrounding areas and also produce electricity. None of this will inconvenience Tamil Nadu. Some people continue to play politics over the Mekedatu issue.

Q. How do you see the ED raids and the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal?

It is clear that the BJP is misusing the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department to rein in its political opponents and critics. You send Kejriwal and Soren to jail, just before the Parliament elections; don’t you think people can see through your plan? People are not fools. Have they jailed any BJP chief minister on charges of corruption till now? It is clearly political vendetta.

Q. The BJP has got the lion's share of the electoral bonds. But the other political parties also have received funds. Do you think electoral bonds were a good idea to ‘clean up’ political funding as the BJP claims?

It is clear that electoral bonds is nothing but black money. On the one hand Modi calls himself "chowkidar", on the other he encourages black money by accepting electoral bonds. The BJP has got a major share in these bonds as it is the party in power. Most corporates and individuals were threatened to buy electoral bonds by using agencies like IT, ED and CBI.

Q. If electoral bonds have failed to cleanse political funding, what are the better alternatives?

I prefer the resource mobilisation through karyakartas and well wishers, through membership drives.

Q. Are you against corporate funding of political parties and elections?

Are the corporates going to give you white money? If yes, accept it. There should be accountability and transparency in the system.