Siddaramaiah, the outgoing chief minister of Karnataka, often compared himself to Devaraj Urs, the longest serving chief minister of Karnataka, and a champion of the backward classes. He thought he would inherit his legacy and become a two-term chief minister.
In fact, during the birth centenary of Urs in 2015, he had travelled a short distance in his predecessor’s official Mercedes, now a restored state artefact. Some thought this was preposterous, but many forgave him for his vanity. They thought he had trekked a long path from humble beginnings to holding the reigns of the state. Aspiring to Urs’ social justice legacy was not such a bad thing after all.
Even when the Congress was putting up a spectacular fight, and on the day of voting when turnout touched a record high of 72.36 %, people thought that it would be a repeat of 1978. That was the year when Urs had bucked anti-incumbency, and the overall anti-Emergency mood across the nation to retain power with a splendid majority of 149 seats. In the Modi era, there were too many deceptive parallels for a regional satrap like Siddaramaiah to believe that he was the chosen one to change the national narrative like Urs, and to simultaneously revive the Gandhis, like Indira Gandhi had been revived under his watch.
But unfortunately, Siddaramaiah’s run has ended rather abruptly. If he had won this election, or even if the Congress had touched a near majority figure, he would have become a national hero. It was not an easy sight to see him keep his empty arms crossed against his chest at a presser conceding defeat. Nobody has seen him like that before. But what is it that blew him off the pedestal?
There was one warning from his hero that he should have perhaps reflected over more often while in power. In the aftermath of losing power, and after having been deserted by backward class masses and leaders whom he had limitlessly empowered in nearly a decade, Urs had lamented in his loneliness thus: The backward castes at best function as a CLASS grouping that comes together to enjoy economic benefits, but will not stick together like a CASTE to offer consistent political support to their benefactor.
If he had won this election or even if the Congress had touched a near majority figure, Siddaramaiah would have become a national hero. It was not an easy sight to see him keep his empty arms crossed against his chest at a presser conceding defeat. Nobody has seen him like that before
Urs belonged to a micro-minority Kshatriya community from royal Mysore, but Siddaramaiah came from a numerically significant Kuruba (shepherd) community, which realized its demographic strength and independent identity in the 1980s. But Kurubas are not Vokkaligas or like the Lingayats, who are concentrated in large pockets across districts of South and North Karnataka. On the contrary, they are spread thinly across the state and most often play a supporting cast in election victories. This is precisely why Siddaramaiah tried to bring together all backward castes, Dalits and minorities (acronym AHINDA) under an umbrella to create a formidable political force that would take on dominant caste groups of Vokkaligas and Lingayats.
This grouping in its imagination and arithmetic has more than half of the state’s population on its side. But, the only problem is that there are too many contradictions, multiple worldviews and diverse viewpoints in this assorted grouping for it to remain a group at all times, and circumstances of history. It looked like it was holding together in 2013 when Siddaramaiah won with 122 seats, but there was also a palpable anti-incumbency for the then BJP government.
This time, as part of his party’s electoral strategy Siddaramaiah assumed that AHINDA groups would be with him anyway, and thought he had to work on splitting the Lingayat vote, which seemed to be going back to the BJP with the return of Yeddyurappa. He worked on an age-old division in the community between the priestly and proletariat Lingayat sub-castes and gave it a formal structure by demanding a separate Lingayat religion. There too, it was about the splintering of the backward sub-castes within the Lingayats. The formula at work here too was something that was driving the AHINDA imagination. Urs too through his reservation policy had benefitted a number of neglected sub-castes among the Lingayats. It is not that this effort backfired, but it came rather hurriedly and only a few months before the elections were called. It will remain to be exploited as a political keg in the future, when Siddaramaiah, like Urs, will be regarded retrospectively.
A hurried conjecture could be that Siddaramaiah was felled by his own imagination, the AHINDA groups did not stay loyal to him like the Vokkaligas remained loyal to Deve Gowda and Lingayats to Yeddyurappa
Anyway, things not only did not go as planned with the Lingayat strategy, but with the AHINDA vote too. The Dalit (Left) groups split, the backward castes split, and the Muslims split. It was assumed that there would be a reverse consolidation for Siddaramaiah as the major communities were breathing fire at him, but that alas did not happen. All that he was left with was the traditional Congress quota of vote share across communities, which did not deliver enough seats. So, a hurried conjecture could be that Siddaramaiah was felled by his own imagination, the AHINDA groups did not stay loyal to him like the Vokkaligas remained loyal to Deve Gowda and Lingayats to Yeddyurappa. Class and caste are not the same. Blood is thicker than water.
(First published in the Hindustan Times)