Why Siddaramaiah Still Matters in the Congress Scheme of Things

Some good sense has prevailed in the Congress, a party known to dump losing chief ministers. It has chosen Siddaramaiah as the leader of the Congress legislative party. After resigning in the wake of the election verdict, he could have exited quietly. But he will now stay on.

Between 2008 and 2013, he consolidated dissenting voices against the BJP and took on the Ballari mining mafia that controlled the BJP in Karnataka. He led a padyatra and challenged the myth that the ‘Republic of Bellari’ was invincible. Under him, the Congress romped home to a comfortable victory in 2013.

But he overestimated his potential ahead of the 2018 elections, giving up his safe constituency to his son, and choosing two other constituencies to try his luck. He won just one with a slim margin. Also, heeding his Lingayat advisors, he gambled too hard with the demand for a separate religion for Lingayats. But in hindsight, he did more things right than wrong.

The election debacle has denied Siddaramaiah due honour. Some Congressmen were readying to heap all the blame on him. But the voices died down quickly as the party swung into action and backed the JD(S) to share power. As party elders fought a legal battle in the Supreme Court and leaders in Karnataka kept the flock together, the high command realised Siddaramaiah’s strengths.

Siddaramaiah’s designation as leader of the Congress legislative party is wise. The Congress will now have to play second fiddle to the JD(S), and Siddaramaiah is on cordial terms with many leaders in that party. The Congress also needs Siddaramaiah in its larger scheme of things in south India. A leader of his stature will help the party as it tries to unite non-BJP parties across the country. Rahul Gandhi, who observed Siddaramaiah closely during the election campaign, now knows not many in the party can match his oratorical skills and earthy wit. Moreover, he is the only senior leader in the Congress who can take on Modi and Shah and call their bluff, as he did throughout the Assembly campaign. Regardless of who managed his Twitter handle, his tweets were among the sharpest, and were re-tweeted by news anchors across the country. His continuous digs at BJP leaders hit home. No senior leader in the Congress articulated Karnataka’s concerns as he did.

Siddaramaiah broke the jinx of Chamarajanagar. This south Karnataka town had been avoided for decades by all chief ministers, including the US-educated S M Krishna. The superstition going around was that chief ministers lose their position if they visit the town. Siddaramaiah was also the moving spirit behind the passage of the anti-superstition law, albeit in a diluted form. Many people active in people’s movements say he is the best chief minister after Devaraj Urs, thanks to his commitment to the cause of social justice.

In 2016, Siddaramaiah was instrumental in passing an amendment to the Karnataka Land Reforms Act. Its revolutionary impact will be realised in the years to come. The poorest of the poor from all castes, whether they voted him or not, have truly benefited from his Annabhagya and Ksheerabhagya schemes. The extension of free education for girls upto the post-graduate level in all government institutions further them in the rural areas. The Congress, however, has miserably failed to communicate to the masses the considerable success of these programmes.

A leader’s image can grow even after his electoral defeat, when beneficiaries look back in leisure. The Congress needs untainted leaders with a pan-Karnataka presence. Siddaramaiah scores on this front. G Parameshwara, who heads the party at the moment, maintains a low profile and phrases his sentences diplomatically. Mallikarjuna Kharge’s knowledge of Indian politics and Karnataka politics is deep, but he is ageing. Veerappa Moily is not so popular among fellow Congressmen. D K Shivakumar has boldy weathered the recent storm and is trying hard to be a leader acceptable to all. M B Patil, a dynamic Lingayat leader, can help the Congress broaden its Lingayat base. But the best choice for KPCC president appears to be Siddaramaiah. He thinks on his feet, and his skills will come in handy as the party takes on the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Some analysts feel the Ahinda base that Siddaramaiah nursed and gave ideological clarity to has shrunk, but with a two per cent increase in the party’s vote share, statistics tell a different tale. The Congress has a limited choice of leaders at the moment, and it looks like Siddaramaiah is indispensable.

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