Mocked as Niddaramaiah, Siddaramaiah pulls out moves to catch rivals napping

The Congress leader has positioned himself at the forefront of the Kannada identity fight and against the Centre’s perceived attempt to impose Hindi.

india Updated: Jul 24, 2017 17:06 IST
Vikram Gopal
Vikram Gopal
Hindustan Times, Bengaluru
Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah and other dignitaries stand for the state anthem, with the Kannada flag in the background, on the inaugural day of the ‘Quest for Equity’ conference on Dalit icon BR Ambedkar in Bengaluru on July 21.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Often ridiculed by critics as Niddaramaiah for dozing off at public forums, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah has pulled off a series of moves to catch rivals off guard in the run-up to assembly elections due in 2018.

The 68-year-old Congress leader has positioned himself at the forefront of the Kannada identity fight and against the Centre’s perceived attempt to impose Hindi. He is also basking in the glow of conducting one of the biggest conferences on Dalit icon BR Ambedkar, in Bengaluru last week.

This is in line with some of his government’s measures that are seen as appealing to Kannada sub-nationalism tendencies. His latest move is setting up of a committee to look into the legality of having a state flag.

Kannada identity consolidation

In January, the Congress government proposed 100% reservation for locals in blue-collar private sector jobs. Later, it ordered making Kannada mandatory in schools, and the singing of the official state anthem compulsory.

Earlier this month, when the use of Hindi in signboards at metro stations in the city kicked up a row, Siddaramaiah was quick to weigh in on the issue, saying it was a state project and, hence, the Centre’s three-language policy was not applicable.

According to political analyst Narendar Pani, Siddaramaiah’s proactive approach caught the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (Secular) napping.

“These were essentially issues the BJP used to champion. It is interesting that even the JD(S) kept quiet over the flag controversy,” said Pani, who teaches at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Pani said this indicated Siddaramaiah had out-thought rivals.

For political watchers, the Congress state unit is smartly projecting itself as a regional force, whereas the BJP state unit has lost room to manoeuvre as part of the dominant national party.

Taking on BJP CM face Yeddyurappa

Siddaramaiah hasn’t backed off from taking on the opposition. At a recent convention of Lingayats, believed to be the BJP’s biggest support base in the state, he assured them he would convey to the Centre their demand to be classified as a separate religion.

By wading into the separate religion demand, Siddaramaiah has also taken the battle to BS Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s chief ministerial face and an influential Lingayat leader.

Yeddyurappa, under whose leadership the BJP formed its first government in south India on its own in Karnataka in 2008, said on Sunday that Lingayats should remain within the Hindu religion.

Siddaramaiah’s decision to form the committee on the state flag also saw Yeddyurappa struggle to respond. Initially, the BJP leader criticised the formation of the committee, but changed stance the next day.

Siddaramaiah has also repeatedly undermined the BJP state leadership. For instance, after announcing the waiver of farm loans from cooperative banks, he said, “I challenge the BJP state unit to convince the central government to waive the remaining debt.”

Making himself an indispensable force

The CM, who belongs to the backward Kuruba caste and has always positioned himself as the leader of the AHINDA formation (a grouping of minorities, backwards classes and Dalits), has also sidelined critics within his party.

Siddaramaiah, who switched from the JD(S) to the Congress in 2006, has already been chosen by the party as its CM face for the assembly elections.

Incidentally, he became CM primarily because his rival, G Parameshwara, lost in the 2013 assembly elections.

The caste question

At the three-day Ambedkar international conference titled ‘Quest for Equity’, he recalled instances of discrimination he faced as a child and said, “Only those who have faced discrimination can understand it, get angry about it, and, hence, have the will to change it.”

On caste, he has bucked the narrative, suggesting that equality would first mean equality between castes. In an ambitious Bengaluru Declaration, a manifesto of sorts released at the end of the conference, the Karnataka government proposed reservation in the judiciary, in promotions in the public and private sector.

Political analyst and film critic MK Raghavendra acknowledged Siddaramaiah’s early start, but cautioned that tapping into patronage networks might not necessarily bring success. “The assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh have shown Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal potentially stretches across interest groups,” he said.

First Published: Jul 24, 2017 14:54 IST