On October 10, 2019, Govind Karjol of the Bharatiya Janata Party, newly-appointed deputy chief minister, was talking to a bunch of journalists near the legislator’s entrance of the Karnataka Assembly, when he heard that Congress Legislative Party leader Siddaramaiah was heading that way.
Karjol, a five-time MLA, decided to wait, and as soon as he glimpsed Siddaramaiah, walked up to the former chief minister with folded hands to inform him about his new assignment. With a pat on Karjol’s back and an arm around his shoulder, Siddaramaiah wished him well and told him it was richly deserved.
In the corridors of the Vidhana Soudha, many such anecdotes abound about the veteran leader, who is revered as perhaps the most approachable senior by almost all the MLAs.
It was this ability to connect with MLAs big and, especially, small on both sides of the aisle, and his vast experience that ensured that Siddaramaiah, who hails from the shepherd Kuruba caste, won the support of the Congress’ new legislators after its decisive victory in the elections, a senior Congress MLA said.
And so, exactly 40 years after he first entered the Karnataka Assembly, the Congress leader is set to become the chief minister for the second time. He is only the second person in Karnataka’s history to complete a full five-year term. Should he complete three years in the post, he will be the longest serving chief minister, and if he finishes the term at the head of the government, he will be the first person to do so in the state’s history.
Over the past four decades, the 75-year-old first-generation graduate and lawyer has remade himself into an expert in political management and budget making.
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All about numbers
Siddaramaiah holds the record for presenting the highest number of Budgets in Karnataka – 13 so far – and is likely to retain the finance portfolio like last time.
He has often spoken about how he was mocked in 1994 before he presented his first Budget. “Some people asked, ‘Can he count sheep?’” Siddaramaiah told a regional news channel.
A senior bureaucrat, who was part of the previous Siddaramaiah administration, said the former chief minister very strictly abides by three principles in the budget-making exercise: The fiscal deficit must not exceed 3 per cent of gross state domestic product (GSDP), the debt-to-GSDP ratio must not exceed 25 per cent, and there has to be a revenue surplus. “Except for some core welfare schemes that he introduced, he is willing to listen to concerns aired by the finance department,” the bureaucrat said.
The IAS officer said Siddaramaiah’s approach is deliberative, and he holds extensive consultations with departments and a wide array of stakeholders, particularly eliciting contrarian views. “He is present in every one of those meetings over the whole month of the budget making process,” the officer said.
In its election campaign, the Congress announced five guarantees for voters — Rs 2,000 a month to each woman who heads a household; unemployment assistance of Rs 3,000 per month for graduates and Rs 1,500 per month for diploma holders; 200 units of free electricity to all households; 10 kg of foodgrain free for every person in a BPL household; and, free bus travel for women.
The party has promised to implement these measures in the first Cabinet meeting. A senior Congress leader said the party has estimated that the total cost could be around Rs 50,000 crore.
The bureaucrat quoted above said the guarantees would be hard to implement at one shot, considering the immense cost. “They might be introduced in a phased manner,” he added.
The party will bank on these schemes to reduce the BJP’s tally in the Lok Sabha elections next year. The saffron party won 25 of the 28 seats in the state in 2019.
Besides, Siddaramaiah also has his task cut out in managing intra-party disagreements, which were visible over the past three days, when both he and Congress Karnataka chief DK Shivakumar jostled for the top spot. He switched to the Congress from the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2006, and has been viewed by old Congress leaders as an outsider.
There is also the matter of the caste Census that the party has promised to release. The Congress had conducted the Census during its previous term, but did not release it because of pressure from the dominant Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities, whose numbers it had apparently reduced, according to a leaked report.
Indeed, state leaders of the party blamed a backlash from these two dominant groups for its poor performance in the 2018 elections. Siddaramaiah has called that election the most disappointing one in his career, because he lost in one of the two seats he contested, despite introducing a slew of welfare measures. He is looking to rectify that and cement his legacy this time, a close aide of his said.