Bengaluru: Sometime in April 2016, BS Yeddyurappa was made Karnataka state BJP president. A month later, the Lingayat strongman and former chief minister was interacting with a “select” media persons in New Delhi. Someone asked him about the possibility of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah being replaced with an “original” Congress leader. Yeddyurappa said it would be better for the BJP if Siddaramaiah was not removed as the CM.
Elaborating on that, he said, “Siddaramaiah is unpopular as CM. His own party feels that the Congress has no chance if he continues till the 2018 polls. Moreover, he himself has declared that he would not be contesting in the next elections. We want him to complete full-term. So that we don’t need to campaign much to win the elections.”
According to his close circle, Yeddyurappa was totally wrong and must be “regretting” not mounting enough pressure for the removal Siddaramaiah as the Chief Minister because things changed rapidly in the last two years in favour of Siddaramaiah and against Yeddyurappa in Karnataka politics.
Many senior leaders of the Congress admit that Siddaramaiah is the last man standing between the BJP and Karnataka in this Assembly election. The same man who was considered a “liability” for the Congress by both the ruling party and the BJP has now become Congress’ saviour and BJP’s formidable rival.
When Siddaramaiah, a former Janata Parivar leader and HD Deve Gowda’s one-time blue-eyed boy, was made Karnataka CM side-lining party stalwart M Mallikarjuna Kharge in 2013, many eyebrows were raised. His meteoric rise in the highly hierarchical Congress set-up is truly amazing.
After a serious disagreement with Deve Gowda and his sons, Siddaramaiah was dismissed as deputy chief minister by the former prime minister in mid-2005.
Siddaramaiah-led AHINDA (Minorities, Backward Classes and Dalits mobilization movement) was the tipping point in their relationship. After he lost power, many hastily wrote his political obituary. Till then, Siddaramaiah was known more for his administrative abilities than political leadership.
He did something unthinkable by joining his sworn enemy, the Congress, a few months later and won a tough by-election from Chamundeshwari in Mysore. In 2009, he became the leader of the opposition in the state Assembly — a big achievement for someone who had joined the Congress just three years before.
Siddaramaiah’s long-time friend Professor BK Ravi disagrees that he was not known for political leadership. “He is an astute politician. He is a highly knowledgeable leader who understands the issues in seconds. He is a born leader. He has made the Congress stronger in Karnataka. He has taken on a formidable BJP at the Centre. He has earned the power. Nobody has given it to him on a platter,” said Ravi.
Sometime in 2010, during a debate on alleged corruption in the Yeddyurappa government, Siddaramaiah had thundered in the Assembly that he would become the Chief Minister and nobody could stop that.
In the first three years of his government, Siddaramaiah had focused more on populist schemes even earning the “title” a ‘chief minister of bhagyas’ (gifts or rewards).
He was inaccessible to the media and had no presence on social media. Surprisingly, all that changed after the sudden death of his 38-year-old son Rakesh in Belgium in July 2016. A few days after the tragedy, Siddaramaiah told his close friends that he would be seeking a second term in office and would lead the party in the next election.
“After that, everything has changed so suddenly. We thought that he would retire from politics. It was a huge blow to him. But he swallowed the pain and decided to take on the BJP,” said a personal assistant.
Siddaramaiah started interacting with the media often, opened Facebook and Twitter accounts. In the last one year, he has emerged as the most active chief minister on social media.
“Normally, the BJP sets the agenda and the rest react to it. In his case, he sets the agenda and the BJP is forced to react. He is brave and has taken on the BJP courageously. He has clarity,” said state Congress working president Dinesh Gundurao.
From backing a movement for the primacy of Kannada to separate religion tag to Lingayats, Siddaramaiah has taken several bold steps to put the BJP on the back foot.
Speaking to News18, Siddaramaiah said, “I am all for Kannada and Karnataka. It does not mean that I am against outsiders. We want Kannada to get first priority in our state.”
Talking about the Lingayat religion issue, he said, “It is not our idea. The demand came from within the community. We have just forwarded it to the Centre.”
Over the years, he has established a good personal rapport with Congress president Rahul Gandhi and it is now helping him in Karnataka elections. According to leaders close to Rahul Gandhi, he has full faith in Siddaramaiah and has given him full power to ensure that the party returns to power again.
Even though the party has not officially named him the chief ministerial candidate, few have doubts over Siddaramaiah continuing as the chief minister if the Congress is voted back to power.
Siddaramaiah knows that he is up against the formidable election machinery of the BJP and it is not going to be easy for him. He must be feeling the pressure of saving the Congress from BJP.
If he wins, Siddaramaiah will create history. If he loses, perhaps he will be history.