Congress' Siddaramiah: Rise of the 'Outsider'
It was an extremely sultry afternoon by Bangalore standards. The Congress office on Queens's road, deserted till the second half of the counting day, was teeming with people. Inside the ugly concrete structure, elected politicians were in a huddle to choose a chief minister. And outside the building, party workers, journalists and the police were anxiously waiting for the announcement. The anticipation and speculation filled the airwaves. There were two possible outcomes at the end of that day. One was that a Congress leader might come out and parrot lines that we have so often heard after a CLP meeting, "The CLP unanimously authorises the Congress president to choose its leader". But this time it was the rare other that happened - the announcement that Siddaramaiah will be CLP leader and, hence, the CM was decided.
In a party where loyalty to the 'high command' is of tantamount importance, Siddaramaiah has often been described as an outsider. He is a leader in his own right - someone who was born and flourished on the platform of anti-Congress politics of the Janata Party and only recently in 2006 fell out with Deve Gowda and joined the Congress. I am still searching to find an example when a politician like Siddaramaiah was given the top job in a state's now ruling party. In fact, the 'outsider' factor was repeatedly emphasised by the other CM hopefuls as all other yardsticks pointed to Siddaramaiah as the most obvious choice.
When I met Siddaramaiah at the end of counting day, he tried very hard to hide his suspicion about someone close to the high command outsmarting him. That's why it seems interesting that he was the final choice to be appointed as the Karnataka CM and more interestingly the decision was announced in Bangalore after the CLP meet and not by the 'High Command'. This is a rare feature in a party that runs to the high command over every little issue and thereby destroys the very concept of a federal structure. It is also a rare feature in a party where 'loyalty' to the masters is more important than 'calibre and performance'.
I refuse to believe that it was the wish of the MLAs alone that saw Siddaramaiah through, it must be seen as the wish of the high command ratified by the voice of its MLAs. What's interesting is the manner in which the 'high command' chose to keep away from the issue and backed Siddaramaiah decisively. They kept away from Karnataka and even on the day of the swearing-in ceremony, it was the CM who was the focus and not the Congress President or the 'Yuvraj'. There was even a clear indication that the 'loyalists' who were contenders for the CM post were asked to be present at the swearing-in ceremony to send a message of unity. Most importantly an impression was given that the victory was credited to the man who fought the battle and not to the satraps in Delhi.
The Congress is always weary of creating a regional power that could challenge the authority of the high command. YSR Reddy in Andra Pradesh was one example in the last decade of a strong regional leader being given enormous control but what it created for the party was Jagan Mohan Reddy. Its DNA, in a sense, is to dread the thought of anyone, even 'insiders' growing powerful enough to consider the top job their natural entitlement. Those who did consider it an entitlement, when denied, have left the party to form their own outfit and in the Congress's prism, Siddaramaiah will always be seen as a leader who can grow above it in the state.
It is in putting those inherent fears aside and by giving him charge that the party seems to have sent a message of changing attitudes. Having won a decisive mandate it would have been extremely unfortunate if there was internal rebellion and instability. More importantly, the party seems to be suggesting that the 'outsider' versus 'old loyalist' debate was redundant in this case. I have researched hard but have failed to find another instance when an old Janata or any other party entrant into the Congress has been given the top job. So, should this be construed as the start of 'inner party democracy' and 'changing criteria for leadership' in Congress's decision making?
It's hard for individuals to change and even harder for political parties to transform. That is precisely why we need to wait before coming to a conclusion. At the moment, Siddaramaiah is an exception and not the rule. One very important reason for his choice is because the Congress wants to hold on to a consolidated OBC, Dalit and the minority vote bank. It needs those three votes in one block to counter the BJP's (plus KJP's) Lingayat vote and Gowda's Vockaliga base in the parliamentary elections. Siddaramiah is seen as the only man for the job and his resume has shown administrative experience which would go well in a state which has suffered from political chaos.
So, given the electoral considerations, the real test of whether 'inner party democracy' and 'outsider acceptability' exists within the Congress would be in backing Siddaramaiah after the 2014 elections. The only yardstick to judge him must be his performance but, will it be just that. History has often seen Congress infighting and 'the high command's loss of faith' resulting in instability in the Congress even after decisive verdicts. It would be terrible if Karnataka goes that way. The key is to ensure that, as one friend put it, "let Karnataka be governed from Bangalore and Delhi must stay as far away as possible".
More about Veeraraghav T MVeeraraghav has been a TV journalist for over a decade, during which he has worked primarily outside the corridors of power in New Delhi. While he's focussed on reportage of political affairs and elections, he has covered issues ranging from the tsunami, the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, inter-state disputes, drought, floods, crime, terrorism and international conflict in Sri Lanka a country he has visited over 6 times. His focus is to attempt to understand India beyond the urban centers and media perceptions. He worked with New Delhi Television between 2000 and 2005 and joined CNN-IBN in 2005 as the channel's Tamil Nadu Bureau Chief. He shifted to the headquarters in Noida as Senior Edior in July 2009. In India he has closely followed and reported on eight Assembly elections in the four southern states and Gujarat and has also closely followed three General Elections. He was awarded the prestigious Chevening Scholarships for Broadcast Journalism in the year 2007 and trained with the BBC in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Veeraraghav sees journalism and imperfections in the society as a tool in the pursuit to work towards absolute honesty and building genuine relationships. His favourite moments in life are with his wife, son and parents. His obsessions in life include his Enfield Bullet, vegetarian food and readings on International and Indian politics and society.
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