A point of view has gained ground that the Congress’s victory in the Karnataka assembly elections is because of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. There is no doubt that the yatra played an important role, but without a strong mass leader at the state level, no national party can win assembly elections. If not for the presence of a strong mass leader like Siddaramaiah, who proved to be a good administrator and above corruption politics – which afflicted the Karnataka state BJP leadership – it would have been impossible to win in the manner that the Congress did in 2023. Though D.K. Shivakumar played an important role as the Karnataka Congress president, he does not have a significant mass base in the state. It is Siddharamaiah’s mature and unwavering secular leadership, backed up by his ability to mobilise people, that should be hailed above everything else as the reason for the Congress’s victory. The party’s nationalist leadership should see the benefit of replicating the same model in every state.
Siddaramaiah becoming the chief minister of Karnataka for the second time is good news for India as a whole. His second term, though, poses challenges of keeping the BJP in check and running the administration to the satisfaction of the people, who delivered a defeat not just to the BJP but also to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was an election between Siddaramaiah’s people’s welfare politics and Modi’s ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ communal politics. Siddaramaiah’s grassroots popularity and his consistent secular democratic strategies have made him a real mass leader. This election in Karnataka has an important lesson at a moment when the country is at a crossroads between communalism and democratic welfarism. This shift would have serious implications for the Hindutva ideological apparatus.
Karnataka is the home state of Dattatreya Hosabale, the next prospective RSS chief. He would have wanted to get a majority by using all possible resources. It is said that Hosabale was among those who pushed for Modi to be the BJP’s PM candidate in 2013. Hence, Modi also used his government’s strength, time and energy to win Karnataka, using the OBC card and sharpening communal divides. The BJP government in Karnataka has made some of its most critical anti-Muslim policies – like banning the hijab in government schools and scrapping the quota for Muslims – during Bsavaraj Bommai’s time as chief minister to appease RSS leaders like Hosabale and B.L. Santosh.
But Siddaramaiah countered all those efforts with his mass contact, his proven administrative abilities as a chief minister between 2013 and 2018. The poor, the Shudras, OBCs, Dalits and Adiavsis were eager to bring him back. Of course, the Muslims were also with him as he had a strong and vocal stand on the positive role of Tipu Sultan.
Sidda, as he is popularly known, has not come from an urban business background, big or small, or a community that has been granted OBC status for political purposes. He is from a historical Shudra shepherd family that was denied the right to education and human dignity from the days of ancient Hindu texts.
Having realised that the OBC vote is going to decide the power equation in Delhi, the RSS/BJP and affiliated forces have been minting many non-Shudra leaders as OBCs. This was because of the realisation – after having opposed the Mandal reservation at first – that without OBC votes, it was not possible for them to capture Delhi. Narendra Modi and Sushil Modi, the BJP leaders who now flaunt their OBC status, opposed the Mandal reservation and worked as leaders of the militant Kamandal movement!
Siddaramaiah was their nemesis. He was a strong leader of the Mandal movement. Having come from a shepherd family, with a family that has roots in the agrarian and animal economy, he went to school after he turned 10 and obtained BSc and LLB degrees. That was unexpected of a Kuruba boy in those days. After he completed his LLB, he started practising law while working as a social activist in the Mysore area. As a young lawyer, he caught the eye of M.D. Nanjundaswamy, a well-known leader of the farmers’ movement, in the early 1980s. It was he who gave Sidda the opportunity to contest in the assembly elections as the representative of the farmers’ organisation Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha. He won and walked into the state assembly in 1983. He later joined the Janata Party, emerging as a pro-poor faction leader in that khichdi party. He went on to win election after election and soon became a minister.
After the split in the Janata Dal, he joined Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) [JD(S)] vocally pro-poor and committed OBC, SC, Adivasi representative. He had hoped to become the chief minister after Deve Gowda, as he had worked as a deputy CM in his cabinet. But Deve Gowda picked his son.
Siddaramaiah then left the JD(S) and flirted with the idea of forming a regional party to champion the cause of the AHINDAs (an acronym for Alpasankhyaka, Hindulida, Dalita). Hindulida in Kannada means backwards.
But he entered the Congress instead, bringing his strong commitment to secularism and rationalism. One can see his commitment to secularism and rationalism in all his statements after the BJP came to power in Delhi. He never compromised with saffronism. The state president D.K. Shivakumar can be seen sporting a bundle of saffron threads on his wrist, but not Sidda.
The Congress’s national leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi also make a display of their Hindu faith by going to temples. But Siddaramaiah does not. He would quote Basava and Akka Mahadevi as his tradition of spiritual leaders.
How is he an original OBC?
The Shudras, who in the present society constitute about 52% of the population, got divided into Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and into the general category (Jats, Patels and Marathas, Reddys, Kammas, Nairs and so on). In Karnataka, Lingayats and Vokkaligas, who are like Jats and Reddys, are upper agrarian Shudras but they have a share in the reservation scheme. They are also known as Other Backward Classes or OBCs. Siddaramaiah, having come from a Kuruba (shepherd) background has lived a life steeped in agriculture, a characteristic he shares with Lingayats and Vokkaligas. His relationship with meat and milk producers and also grain producers is deep and intimate.
Modi, who came from an urban business Mod-Ganchi community background, has often tried to cast him as anti-Lingayat. But Siddaramaiah was a true representative of OBCs, who fought for reservations for Kannada Shudras. Lingayats and Vokkaligas know that. The poor of those castes are fully with him. After Devaraj Urs, he is the only leader to command such a popular vote base in the state.
The BJP, which tactically put forth Modi, playing up his OBC status has won two national elections. I believe he can be defeated only if the Shudra agrarian OBC leaders of the nation join hands. Siddaramaiah, Pinarayi Vijayan, M.K. Stalin, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, and Jagan Mohan Reddy, all the chief ministers in South India, are from Shudra agrarian and artisanal backgrounds. In the North, Akhilesh Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Bhupesh Bhagel, and Ashok Gehlot are also from Shudra agrarian backgrounds. If they power their respective parties to a majority of parliament seats in 2024, the BJP will lose. The Congress in Delhi must realise that the BJP’s urban business OBC agenda must be countered with the historical Shudra agrarian-peasant OBC agenda. Siddaramaiah’s model suits that party very well at the national level.
Once Modi as the PM used the religious slogan ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’, urging people to go to the election booths and chant it before they vote, he clearly put forth his aggressive communal positioning on the election scene. Morally, he has lost a lot of ground.
The time has come for Shudra-OBC leaders across the nation to unite and lead the country with positive democratic welfarism and putting a firm end to communalism in the name of OBC politics. Urban-communal OBC politics is a far cry from agrarian productive Shudra/OBC forces.
Articulating agriculturist nationalism and checking massively amassed crony capital mobilisation of non-OBC, Dalit, and Adivasi forces is critical. These forces have distorted the democratic capitalist path of India. Mahatma Phule, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar wanted a positive people’s democracy without involving religion in politics. Siddaramaiah has represented that ideology throughout his career. Congress intellectuals, if they know what is good for them, should study his path carefully and work out a comeback strategy at the national level.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and writer. His recent book The Shudras: Vision for a New Path, co-edited with Karthik Raja Karuppusamy shows a possible way out from the communal OBC morass that the RSS/BJP deploy.