The importance of being Siddaramaiah in Karnataka politics

The former chief minister, arguably one of the tallest leaders of the Congress today, turns 75 on Wednesday, 3 August.

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Aug 02, 2022 | 8:03 PM Updated Aug 03, 2022 | 11:51 AM

Congress leaders Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar in a meeting with Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi on 29 June, 2022. File photo (supplied)

“It is not Siddaramhotsava, it is just an Amrutha Utsava — they call it platinum jubilee in English. Because I am turning 75 years old, my supporters and well-wishers are celebrating it,” Siddaramaiah told reporters at Davangere on Tuesday, 2 August.

While the central Karnataka district is bustling with Congress workers preparing a massive event for Siddaramaiah’s birthday on Wednesday, social media was abuzz with trends calling him the next chief minister of Karnataka — much to the dislike of his contemporaries in the party.

Even as he prepared to put up a show of strength, underlining his influence as a leader of backward class communities at Wednesday’s event — one that will see former AICC President Rahul Gandhi’s participation — Siddaramaiah downplayed the celebration, deeming it nothing more than a milestone birthday.

The reality is quite different

Siddaramaiah’s 75th birthday is a grand declaration of his stature as the most influential leader in Karnataka Congress — a stepping stone towards posturing himself as the party’s best bet as chief ministerial candidate in the run-up to the 2023 assembly elections in Karnataka.

Congress leader Siddaramaiah

Congress leader Siddaramaiah waves to supporters in Kollegal, Karnataka. (Supplied)

His supporters are looking to gather four lakh people for the event, even as many in the Congress — publicly and privately — have been showering him not with bouquets, but brickbats. 

“When Rahul Gandhi is coming to the celebrations, all naysayers will have to fall in line,” a close aide of Siddaramaiah’s told South First. Although grudgingly, leaders of the Congress, including those putting their hats in the ring to be chief ministerial candidates, such as KPCC President DK Shivakumar, are making peace with Wednesday’s display of Siddaramaiah’s popularity.

Why Siddaramaiah stands out

Once considered the political protégé of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, Siddaramaiah joined the Congress in 2006 after a fallout with the JD(S) patriarch.

Those close to Siddaramaiah insist that Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy are the only two people in politics he holds a grudge against for denying him the chief minister’s post when he had enough support in the party for it. In 2018, when the JDS and Congress came together to form a coalition under Kumaraswamy, Siddaramaiah stayed out of the government.

Despite the “outsider” jibes from his contemporaries in the party, Siddaramaiah went on to become one of Congress’ most popular and successful chief ministers, though he continues to be criticised for promoting caste-based politics. An icon of sorts for the backward classes in the state, Siddaramaiah, who hails from the OBC Kuruba community, is often called “tagaru” (ram) and “huliya” (tiger), monikers underlining his “mass leader” status.

Siddaramaiah Ambedkar award VCK

Former Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah was given the ‘Ambedkar Sudar’ award by the VCK for his work towards upliftment of oppressed communities. Credit: Siddaramaiah/ Twitter

Despite being a first-generation politician from a farming family, Siddaramaiah is only the second chief minister after Devaraj Urs to have completed five years in office — a rarity in Karnataka politics.

Like Urs, Siddaramaiah put together a social coalition dubbed AHINDA — a Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits — to strengthen the Congress’ core vote base, banking heavily on his own backward class community.

Dancing his way to the CM’s chair

His brainchild, Congress’ “Bellary chalo” padayatra in 2010 — which was his challenge to the then all-powerful mining baron Janardhana Reddy — laid the foundation for the party’s return to power on its own in the state. A folk art performing, drum-beating, dancing Siddaramaiah’s stature catapulted within the Congress during this yatra.

Despite his Janata Party roots, despite not being an “original Congressman”, Siddaramaiah was elected leader of the legislature party in a secret ballot after the party’s thumping victory in the 2013 assembly polls. Siddaramaiah’s supporters are hoping to recreate the same magic during his birthday celebrations on Wednesday.

Dance isn’t new to Siddaramaiah. He was sent to learn and perform “Makkala Kunitha”, a temple folk dance, as a child by his father as a “pledge” to Lord Siddarameshwara. His dance teacher at the temple taught him to read and write. Siddaramaiah’s formal schooling began directly from Class 5. In March this year, at the Siddarameshwara temple fest in his home town, Siddaramaiah danced with friends who learnt at the temple with him.

From ‘counting sheep’ to 13 budgets

Despite starting school late, Siddaramaiah — a law graduate — has presented 13 budgets in Karnataka, of which six were as chief minister.

The populist “Bhagya schemes” introduced by Siddaramaiah, which became ammo for the then opposition BJP to ridicule his government — Anna Bhagya, Ksheera Bhagya, Krishi Bhagya, Shaadi Bhagya, Indira canteen, etc. — continue to remain highly popular among the masses, with the BJP was compelled to continue them, albeit grudgingly.

Despite these massively populist schemes, Siddaramaiah couldn’t lead the Congress back to victory in the 2018 election.

“He put his own interests ahead of party’s. Now he wants his birthday celebration to be a party event. That is not possible,” an office bearer of Karnataka Congress, miffed over the grandeur of Siddaramaiah’s 75th birthday, told South First.

His well-wishers, however, credit Siddaramaiah’s success to his relentless hard work.

“Siddaramaiah was initially mocked, with baiters asking, ‘Forget presenting a budget, does he know how to count sheep at least?’ He felt insulted and took it up as a challenge to master his hold on finance. His sense of economics and statistics is remarkable,” Dinesh Ameen Mattu, former media advisor to Siddaramaiah when he was chief minister, told South First.

The jibes on him counting sheep — a reference to his caste Kuruba (shepherd) — is something Siddaramaiah has recalled repeatedly too.

Siddaramaiah with his son and Varuna MLA Dr Yathindra Siddaramaiah

Siddaramaiah with his son and Varuna MLA Dr Yathindra Siddaramaiah. (Twitter/Yathindra)

When his elder son and assumed political heir, Rakesh Siddaramaiah, died in Belgium, Siddaramaiah — who was then the chief minister — returned to work in three days, albeit persuaded by his wife Parvathi, who is rarely seen in public. His second son, Dr Yathindra Siddaramaiah, now MLA from Varuna, has often confessed about entering politics only as a result of his elder brother’s death.

Taking on the BJP-RSS

During the hijab row, when almost all Congress leaders in Karnataka chose to keep mum, Siddaramaiah was the lone leader to raise questions over government prioritising clothes over education of young girls. During the 2018 assembly elections, Siddaramaiah emerged as the only leader to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his election campaigns in the midst of a “Modi wave”.

“He just speaks the truth. It is an impossible task to get him to lie or not speak his mind, no matter how silly or serious the issue,” Mattu said.

“When he was chief minister, he fell in the bathroom and sustained minor injuries. We told the media that it was a shaving accident since his face had swollen up. As soon as he came out, he very nonchalantly told reporters that he fell in the bathroom and injured himself. Something most politicians would never do,” he recalled.

Despite his unsparing attack on the BJP and RSS, Siddaramaiah continues to remain good friends with leaders from the saffron party.

“When it comes to elections, we fight tooth and nail, but otherwise we share a personal bond. All I wish is that he takes all castes together instead of just one,” senior BJP leader KS Eshwarappa, a staunch critic Siddaramaiah’s “caste-focused politics”, told South First. That has not, however, stopped from fighting hard to replace Siddaramaiah as leader of the Kurubas.

The resistance Siddaramaiah is facing in Congress today is akin to 2006 when he joined the party on Sonia Gandhi’s insistence. The firebrand leader was already a tough competition to seasoned Congress politicians. Sixteen years down the line, Siddaramaiah is once again the frontrunner to be chief ministerial candidate for the Congress. Only this time, the competition is tougher.