Siddaramaiah – Leader Without Phone, Face Of Congress’s Karnataka Comeback

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In August last year, when there was no clarity on the Congress’s campaign in Karnataka, party leader Siddaramaiah celebrated his 75th birthday, calling in Siddamahotsav at Davangere in central Karnataka, an event that drew over six lakh people, with hundreds sleeping in the open ground the previous night wary of losing their seat the next day.Even Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who had specifically made it a point to be at the event, had to wait for hours to get to the venue as the town bustled with crowds all over.This was Siddaramaiah’s first show of strength this poll season, an astute reminder to the party leadership of who he was – leader of the masses who derived his strength from the people, not the party.Till this day, Siddaramaiah doesn’t carry a phone and the world, including top leaders in his own party, connect with him through his personal assistant.If the Congress won the Karnataka election on the back of its guarantees of income support for women, unemployed youth and 10 kg free rice for the poor, it is Siddaramaiah who gave the party the credibility it needed to convince voters and take the party to the historic win of 136 seats. The Congress also swept all seats of Davangere, except one this time.Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar were in the running. The Congress picked Siddaramaiah for the Chief Minister’s post.Siddaramaiah led a successful five-year term as Chief Minister of the Congress government between 2013 and 2018, a milestone in itself in a state known for chief ministers who almost never completed their tenures.He was the face of the party’s Anna Bhagya scheme that gave the poor 7-kg free rice every month. Siddaramaiah is the first Chief Minister to have completed a term, lost an election and then returned as Chief Minister. Why did the Congress choose him?On Thursday, after days of intense deliberations, Siddaramaiah edged out Congress state unit president DK Shivakumar for the post of the Chief Minister. Siddaramaiah is from the Kuruba community, the third-largest caste in Karnataka, and his powerful Ahinda (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) strategy has been the mainstay of the Congress’s electoral strategy in Karnataka.His appointment as the Chief Minister is expected to give a boost to the Congress as it prepares to take the BJP on the other backward classes (OBC) plank, demanding an OBC census and also increasing the reservation ceiling to 75 per cent.The other politically powerful Chief Ministers of the Congress – Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh – also belong to OBC communities.As a politician representing the rural masses and an unapologetic bias for rural and agrarian issues, Siddaramaiah is respected in other parties for the power he holds over people. A glimpse of Siddaramaiah’s popularity was seen at the Siddha Mahotsav, his 75th birthday celebrations organised last year at Davangere. “Hundreds of people slept the night before at the venue itself, an open ground, because they didn’t want to miss their spot. It was moving to see the support the leader has even today,” a Congress worker said.Siddaramaiah reflects the secular credentials of the Congress, say party workersRahul Gandhi, it is believed, was also clear about Siddaramaiah becoming the Chief Minister.Siddaramaiah reflects the secular credentials of the Congress. Four months before the election, BJP leaders started referring to him as “Siddaramullah Khan”, accusing him of appeasing Muslims by organising Tipu Jayanti celebrations, implementing the Shaadi Bhagya scheme, withdrawing cases against Popular Front of India (PFI) workers and issuing pro-Hijab stand.Siddaramaiah responded to the allegations in a way that few politicians in the north would do.”I am happy to be called Siddaramullah. It is a recognition of the work I have done for Muslims. I am called by different names, Anna (food) Ramaiah, Raita (farmer) Ramaiah, Kannada Ramaiah, Dalita Ramaiah and others. If they are calling me Siddaramullah Khan, it is because the community loves me for my work. I have been opposing the communalism of Muslims with the same commitment as I oppose Hindu communalism,” he said.What is his politics like?Seen as a mass leader with socialist leanings who doesn’t compromise on his secular credentials, and also the face of the Congress’s stunning comeback in Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, 76, has many aspects to his personality.He is a leader who doesn’t carry a mobile phone with him, expecting everyone – even the most important people – to reach him through his personal assistance. He puts the poor at the centre of his politics, a father grieving the death of a son, and most importantly, a shrewd politician who knows the power of the masses and has almost, always managed to outwit his rivals.Similar to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who has often taken on the RSS for its Hindutva approach being exclusionary, Siddaramaiah has been deeply critical of the RSS-BJP’s ideological stancesSiddaramaiah has often advocated for a separate state flag and personally ordered that signs in Hindi on city subways be taken down and replaced with those in the region’s own language – Kannada.Siddaramaiah as Chief Minister gives credence to efforts made by the Congress to boost leaders with a strong, regional identity who can take on the BJP and its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on the ideological front, and also on caste issues.While in 2013, Siddaramaiah edged out Mallikarjun Kharge, who is now the Congress national chief, this time he won over Mr Shivakumar who was seen as the most important for the Congress in Karnataka for mobilising resources and galvanising the party for 2024, apart from strengthening the Vokkaliga support of the Congress against the receding regional party Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S).The challenges, however, are plenty for Siddaramaiah, particularly as he needs to fulfil the guarantees promised by the party and also manage the aspirations of other leaders in the party.He needs to balance the growth of industry, provide a vision for Bengaluru and the state’s growing urbanisation, apart from doling out programmes for the welfare of the rural masses who voted in large numbers for the Congress.A sharp critic of the BJP-RSS, Siddaramaiah is known to speak his mind and is acutely aware of his popularity, which is why he has always defiantly spoken about his ambition to become the Chief Minister.Having presented 13 state budgets as the Finance Minister, his close aides say finance is his biggest strength, apart from administration. He first became an MLA in 1983 from Chamundeshwari on a Lok Dal Party ticket and has won five times from this constituency and lost thrice. He vacated Varuna, created in 2008 for his younger son, before going back to Chamundeshwari. This time he won from Varuna.The Karnataka Congress came to power after a stunning victoryIs Siddaramaiah strongly anti-RSS?Similar to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who has often taken on the RSS for its Hindutva approach being exclusionary, Siddaramaiah has been deeply critical of the RSS-BJP’s ideological stances.Experts say that though the Siddaramaiah government’s decision to accord “religious minority” status to the dominant Lingayat community resulted in electoral losses for the party in the 2018 assembly polls, the party still did better than the BJP in 2023, indicating that it was due to the popularity of Siddaramaiah among the poor.”He doesn’t care for anyone but his own politics. He would rather meet a group of poor farmers than some big, global CEO. People’s interests are also above party for him. And he has strong beliefs. Once, we went to a mutt when the mutt mildly expressed his concern that Siddaramaiah, as the Chief Minister, never respected Hindu seers. Siddaramaiah quickly retorted saying his respect won’t come for people who push Brahminical, caste-ridden traditions,” a party worker said.Another worker who has observed Siddaramaiah closely said he was like Tamil Nadu’s social reformed Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker, with a democratic edge who strongly believed in challenging social structures. “That is why he takes on the RSS because he believes it’s the Hindutva ideology that leads to divisions. He doesn’t believe in rituals etc,” the party worker.The Congress’s big win in Karnataka has given the party a new boost of confidenceAnti-corruption ImageKnown to have a clean image, Siddaramaiah had to face his share of controversies too when he was questioned by his political opponent over a Rs 70 lakh Hublot watch he had worn. Siddaramaiah had then said that the watch was a gift from a doctor friend working in the Middle East, who handed over his own watch to the Chief Minister when he admired it. Although the BJP has criticised him for diluting the Lokpal and allegedly emboldening the corrupt, Siddaramaiah has never been charged with corruption for personal gains.Grief as a fatherIt is, however, the grief of Siddaramaiah as a father that many of his close aides touchingly remember. In 2016, Rakesh Siddaramaiah, the eldest son of Siddaramaiah, passed away at Belgium University Hospital due to multiple organ failure. Rakesh was seen as Siddaramaiah’s heir.”That was the first time we saw him extremely emotional because he had to go to Brussels to get the body and bring it back,” a party worker said.It was after Rakesh’s death that Yathindra was brought into politics. “His wife too has never taken interest in politics. He has never stopped people from coming and meeting him, which is his biggest strength,” a party worker said.