IN THE ELECTORAL arena of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, 75, enjoys the image of an old warhorse. It is then only apt that the Congress leader should declare in the run-up to the assembly election that this would be his final electoral outing. While the declaration is an appeal to the voters for their support, it is also being viewed as a way of strengthening his claim to the post of chief minister in the event of his party’s win.
For Siddaramaiah, the coming assembly election is a chance at a last hurrah. He is aspiring to occupy the chief minister's chair a second and final time. The Congress senses an opportunity for itself since the ruling BJP is saddled with a clearly perceptible anti-incumbency, and the many corruption charges have only made matters worse for it. In such a scenario, Siddaramaiah is throwing in all his political might and is putting to use all his experience and guile.
Siddaramaiah's short sprint with former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi as the Bharat Jodo Yatra passed through Karnataka was viewed with keen interest, especially by his in-house rivals. There was also the grand 75th birthday celebration in Davangere, which was attended by Gandhi and other senior leaders and was seen as a show of strength by the leader.
The former chief minister's supporters say his strengths include his mass appeal and his AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and dalits) strategy. The man who has risen from extremely modest beginnings―born in a family from the Kuruba (shepherd) community in a remote village in Mysuru―relies on his rustic charm. He was the first person from his family to graduate from college―he got a BSc and later a law degree from the University of Mysore. The Kurubas form close to 10 per cent of the state’s population. However, he has chosen to broadbase his appeal through the AHINDA movement. Siddaramaiah, known for his plainspeak, has also not minced words in taking on the BJP-RSS over their allegedly divisive, hindutva-driven politics.
However, his aspiration to become chief minister a second time faces challenges both outside and within the party. Siddaramaiah has his roots in socialist politics since he began his political career in the Janata Parivar. He was the second-in-command in the H.D. Deve Gowda-led JD(S) before he was expelled from the party in 2006. The bitter falling out between Siddaramaiah and the Gowdas has meant that the JD(S) has put all its might into making it exceedingly difficult for him to win from his old constituency, Chamundeshwari. In the previous election, Siddaramaiah had contested from Badami, and this time, he has shown interest in contesting from Kolar, which his critics describe as his hunt for a safe seat.
If AHINDA has formed the foundation of Siddaramaiah's success as a leader, it is also seen as an alienating factor for communities such as the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats. His expulsion from the JD(S), whose main support base comprises the Vokkaligas, had followed AHINDA conferences that he had organised. Siddaramaiah's undaunted criticism of the hindutva brand of politics has, meanwhile, exposed him to attacks from the BJP, like questioning his devoutness as a Hindu and dubbing him anti-Hindu.
The Congress has attempted to balance the aspirations of Siddaramaiah with the ambition of his in-house rival―state Congress president D.K. Shivakumar―for the top prize if the party wins. They are a study in contrast, and for the moment, a perfect foil for each other. Siddaramaiah's AHINDA appeal is balanced by the Vokkaliga identity of Shivakumar. And, Siddaramaiah's earthiness is in contrast to the flamboyance of Shivakumar. Thrown into the mix are also the aspirations of leaders such as M.B. Patil, a Lingayat face of the party who heads the state campaign committee, and the state manifesto committee chairman G. Parameshwara, a dalit.
Following the poor performance of the Congress in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the fall of the Congress-JD(S) government shortly afterwards, Siddaramaiah went through a bad patch, with voices from within the party demanding his scalp. However, Siddaramaiah managed to convince the central leadership about the need to have him in a leadership position in the state and was appointed leader of opposition. And now, Siddaramaiah, who has the distinction of being only the third chief minister of Karnataka―after S. Nijalingappa and D. Devaraj Urs―to last a full term, is looking for a grand finale to his electoral career.