With Populist Development and 'Humanist Hinduism', Siddaramaiah Consolidates Political Mantle

In run-up to Karnataka Elections, a confident chief minister is now holding sway.

Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah arrives in Nagavalli village for his speech. Credit: C.R. Venkatramu

As the countdown to Karnataka’s assembly election begins, the Congress has started an undeclared election campaign. Supposedly meant to be a ‘Sadhana Sambrama’ (celebration of achievements) of the government and to inaugurate a slew of development projects, chief minister Siddaramaiah and his entourage arrived by helicopter to Nagavalli village, Chamarajanagara district on December 10, 2017, and in a dazzling display of political acumen, aided by high-tech audio and video systems, proclaimed his achievements and threw challenges to his main political rivals.

As the constituency’s legislators said in their speeches, this was Siddaramaiah’s 23rd visit to the district and credit was owed to him for erasing the myth that Chamarajanagar’s curse would lead to visiting chief ministers losing their power. ‘Have I lost power?’ Siddaramaiah asked, as he drew on a mix of colloquialisms, humour, facts, sarcasm and rhetoric to deliver a speech that was filled with assertions of his brand of developmentalism and his challenge to his main political rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As he noted with pride, he had been “40 years in politics, completed 12 budgets and worked under five chief ministers,” and he stood on the stage as a man who had arrived, despite the hiccups to his initial tenure and the strange vicissitudes of Indian politics. In his speech lay much of Siddaramaiah’s political philosophy and strategy, and the crafting of his government into what his legislators claimed was a ‘people’s government’ (janara sarkara) and a ‘government that served the masses’ (janata seve sarkara).

“We have allocated four thousand crores for this backward district’s development programmes. Most important has been the multi-village drinking water scheme. …this is a historic event.”

While the slew of development programmes cover a range of departments and sectors, the flagship scheme that Siddaramaiah sought to celebrate in the district is the Rs 219 crore Multi-Village Drinking Water Scheme which consists of pumping water from the Kabini (a tributary of the Kaveri) river to 116 villages. Seen as a technical feat, the scheme overlooks local water resources and the need to conserve and recharge them and instead promotes a construction lobby’s blueprint of laying a vast array of pipes, tanks and delivery systems whose management is yet to be fine-tuned. In a rain-shadow region where climate change has induced significant disruptions, the failure to imagine and emphasise localised forms of resource conservation is a glaring mark of the Congress regime. Development is increasingly drawn on a capital-technology-construction delivery paradigm and had it not been for objections from environmentalists and advice from scientists, the government’s ‘patal ganga’ scheme to access even deep-lying and ancient aquifers would have turned into a nightmarish reality. In addition to these, a vast array of populist welfare programmes have been deployed and they now form the foundation of a competitive populism whose implications have significance not only for the state exchequer but also for the real conditions of the population.

“It is our resolve to make Karnataka free from hunger, open defecation, malnutrition and debt. Has any government even kept its promises? It is our government that has not only kept its 165 election promises but we have delivered even more. We now have arogya (health) bhagya, anna (rice) bhagya, anila (gas) bhagya, shoe bhagya, and pashu (cattle) bhagya.”

In celebrating these multiple bhagya schemes, Siddaramaiah was highlighting what has become the foundation of his political administration. From rice to shoes, text-books, cycles, laptops, cattle, gas and more recently even dentures for old people – the past four years has seen a steady growth of goods that are promised to various beneficiaries. The establishment of Indira canteens, a close clone of the Amma canteens in Tamil Nadu, clearly showed where the inspiration for such competitive populism came from. While there are no official reviews of these schemes, the strengthening of welfare bureaucracy and political entrepreneurs has become visible.  The implications of such welfarism that render citizens into supplicant subjects and the toll on the nature of democracy are yet to be fathomed. While these have become celebrated and well-publicised schemes, the attention to resolving the extant forms of agrarian distress, evident in the continued retrogression of the agrarian economy, the reports of suicides by farmers, the loss of crops from extreme climatic events, and the fluctuations in agricultural prices are issues that remain unresolved. While it is to the credit of the Congress government that there has been recognition of the importance of millets and its promotion in the state and its inclusion into the Public Distribution System, there has been the failure to address the increasing abandonment of cultivable land; a sure sign of growing rural distress.

Also read: How the Lingayat Demand for Religion Status Became a Pre-Election Issue in Karnataka

If the slew of development projects and programmes has won widespread appreciation, it is Siddaramaiah’s sharp ripostes to the BJP that have positioned him as a strongman of the Congress.

“The BJP has little to say against us. Their refrain has been ‘hindutva, hindutva’. I am also a Hindu but one with humanism (‘manaviyate’). They are without humanism. I am a Hindu and was always one but I do not use religion in politics. Religion should not be used in politics. There should be dharma in politics. Politics should be with principles (‘siddhanta’).”

Siddaramaiah’s assertive stances against the BJP’s communal sloganeering have become the much-needed balm in an increasingly communalised state. His riposte to the visiting Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath’s challenge to him, saying that Siddaramaiah should show his Hindu credentials by saving cows and prohibiting cow slaughter, was to say that he had looked after cattle and knew how to serve them and it was the BJP that needed to learn how to care for both cattle and people. Here Siddaramaiah deftly drew on his caste background that as a Kuruba (shepherd) he knew the moral and practical value of cows.

Over his tenure, carefully balancing demands from varied caste groups and religious minorities, Siddaramaiah has deployed a strategy to co-opt and silence possible dissenters both within the Congress and outside. From demands for a Dalit chief minister to recognising Lingayats as a separate and minority religious community, Siddaramaiah has either stalled these political squalls or sought to avoid them with internal political manoeuvring. But, it is his invocation of mythological and historical figures as celebratory icons and the pacification of caste and religious identities that will have long-term significance for the state’s caste and religious fabric.

“We have recognised all caste groups including the Uppara (a backward caste that is primarily in agricultural labour) and the Besta (fishing community). We have recognised Ambigara Chowdaiah, Kempe Gowda, Kittur Rani Chenamma and Akka Mahadevi. We instructed to have Basavanna’s photo in all public offices. We celebrate 26 Jayanthis of all great persons. We celebrate Tipu Jayanthi. Is it a sin? Was he not a patriot?”

In the longer run, the key challenge for the chief minister is how he curbs the entrenched saffron groups that include a vast network of low-level bureaucrats. Credit: C.R. Venkatramu

In invoking and institutionalising mythical and historical caste and religious figures, the Siddaramaiah Congress has brought forth and consolidated a rainbow coalition of supporters. While his assertive support for Tipu Sultan as an icon has assured Muslims’ support, it is the strengthening of caste-based identities and politics that may have serious repercussions over the years. Recognising the Lingayat demand for a separate religious identity pulled the rug under the BJP and has fragmented the Lingayat-Virashaiva community. How a state-appointed committee (whose final report is being postponed to a post-election period) can resolve a religious identity issue is a matter that needs serious consideration. While this may be a successful political strategy for now, the social and cultural implications of a separate religious identity for a dominant group forebode a possible Khalistan-like future.

“Modi has promised us ache din! ache din! Where is this ache din? In 2014, the price of crude oil was 110 dollars per barrel. In 2018, it is $43 per barrel. Why have oil prices not decreased? Where is the $67 that have been saved? …Why are farmers not being given loan waivers? Why not have ache din for farmers, women and the poor?”

As a former finance minister and deputy chief minister who oversaw the establishment of the VAT regime in the state, Siddaramaiah is well-versed with the complexities of national and international economies. While his sarcasm reinforces popular resentment against the Modi government’s economic policies (including the punitive regimes of demonetisation and GST), Siddaramaiah also panders to the agricultural constituency and supports loan waivers. Despite financial caution and the fact that loan waivers do not resolve the agricultural problems of small and marginal farmers, the Siddaramaiah government has also initiated loan waivers. Feeding into the larger populist development strategies, these loan waivers have only consolidated the hold of established, rural dominant castes and have failed to address the systemic disadvantages of rural Karnataka. The fact that the deep underdevelopment of the northeastern region has created one of the most disadvantaged regions in India with low human development indicators, high out-migration, and extant ecological devastation indicates the failure of the populist development model in the state. The failure to implement the ban on plastics, to curtail the vast network of illegal economies, including the new extractive and water economies, and the easy capitulation to the private medical establishment, over regulating them, indicate submission to capital interests.

“Yeddiyurappa had mission 150 and thought he could get 150 seats. It is now all tuss..tuss! He may be happy with mission 50. JDS (Janata Dal (Secular)) will get 20 seats. I have been to Chamarajanagar 23 times. Now I guarantee you that I will come again as CM. I have removed the curse on the district.”

A confident Siddaramaiah is now holding sway on an electoral campaign that seeks votes for another term. Handouts and publicity brochures for the government’s schemes and programmes now have a byline which says ‘Sadaa Siddha Sarkara’, an ‘Every Ready Government’, a bold play on Siddaramaiah’s name. With a much weakened opposition and the growing credibility of his own capabilities, Siddaramaiah is firmly in the saddle and may continue to wear the mantle of political power for the next five years. In the longer run, how he will curb the entrenched saffron groups, that include a vast network of low-level bureaucrats, a mixed group of lumpen and extortionist elements, and a small coterie of committed sanghvadis will be his main challenge. If a ‘humanist hinduism’ can be deployed against the wave of Hindutva, it will be his and the state’s contribution to the larger national condition. His current success lies in his unusual continuity of Devraj Urs’ political co-option of all disadvantaged groups, a continuation of neo-liberal policies initiated by S.M.Krishna, and his own witty ripostes and smart strategies against the BJP and RSS. Siddaramaiah has now welded together an unusual amalgam of a populist developmentalism that may not address structural inequities, a celebratory iconisation of caste and religious heroes and heroines that may strengthen caste and religious identities and a befitting reclaiming of Hinduism and a rebuttal to vicious and parochial communalisation by the BJP. The impact of such a political cocktail will be manifested over a longer period. Until then, the electorate and people of Karnataka will hail this witty kuruba (shepherd) who now cocks a snook at all his detractors.

A.R. Vasavi, a social anthropologist, is with the Punarchith Collective (punarchith.org) that is based in Nagavalli Village, Chamarajanangar District, Karnataka, where the chief minister’s  ‘Sadhana Sambrama’ was held on December 10, 2017.