Siddharamaiah: The new face of Karnataka | Sunday Observer

Siddharamaiah: The new face of Karnataka

28 May, 2023

Following a four-day tense struggle to choose a Chief Minister for Karnataka after the Congress Party’s victory in the May 10 State Assembly elections, the Party High Command said that 75-year-old Siddharamaiah will be the Chief Minister.

The High Command made his rival, D.K. Shivakumar, Deputy Chief Minister.  Shivakmar is already State Party President. After accepting the Deputy Chief Ministership, he said: “It gives me added responsibility.” Apparently, he will continue as the State party President.

Though disappointed, Shivakumar should be happy because earlier, he was offered only the continuation in the post of State Party President. The party had contemplated three Deputy Chief Ministerial positions, but these were to go to a Lingayat, a Vokkaliga and a Muslim. Shivakumar is a Vokkaliga, but his name was not mentioned. 

The older Siddharamaiah was preferred to the younger Shivakumar though a lot of credit should go to the younger man for getting the party machinery to grind ceaselessly to snatch victory against the unconcealed skepticism of arm-chair pundits and the media.

Shivakumar helmed the party machinery as the State President in the campaign while Siddharamaiah was the star campaigner using his political experience and wider caste and territorial acceptability to good effect.

Siddharamaiah had put together a coalition of different castes and religious communities from different regions of Karnataka. He had an appeal among the small backward castes as he himself belongs to the Kuruba caste (herdsmen). Shivakumar on the other hand is a Vokkaliga, a dominant caste though only in the Old Mysore region. Choosing between the two would not have been easy.

Both fought hard to get their due. But the Grand Old Party (GOP), as usual, went by its traditional preference for seniority and broad social/caste acceptability rather than youth. Siddhramaiah is undoubtedly a very senior man, having been the Chief Minister between 2013 and 2018 and the author of 13 annual Budgets as a Minister in previous Governments.

Siddharamaiah is an example of a common man rising to great heights by his own efforts.  Born in an indigent family, he went to college earning degrees in Science and Law. He is also untainted by corruption charges, despite his long innings in politics and Regional Government.

Although Shivakumar was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he became a very rich man worth billions. Although political vendetta may have been a factor in investigations by Central agencies, he had been charged with corruption and money laundering and had been in jail for a month.

Shivakumar has been more politically loyal than Siddharamaiah. He began his career in the student and youth wings of the Congress and has stuck to the Party ever since. Siddharamaiah, on the contrary, began as an anti-Congress ‘Lohia’ socialist, became a member of the Janata Party, then the Deputy President of the breakaway Janata Dal (Secular) before joining the Congress in 2006. However, he has enjoyed the confidence of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

Shivakumar too has enjoyed the support of the Congress top brass in New Delhi having used his wide influence and money power to safeguard Congress Legislators in other States where the BJP had set in motion ‘Operation Lotus’ to engineer defections.

Though his failure to get the Chief Ministership now might look like a setback, Shivakumar has time on his side, at just 61. Siddharamaiah has already declared that this would be his last shot at the Chief Ministership. Shivakumar could make a bid for it in 2028, and more credibly too.

Master strategist

Traditionally, the Congress has considered itself to be a ‘mass-based’ party unlike the Communist parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which are defined as ‘cadre-based’ parties. While the Congress comes alive only during elections, the other two parties have permanent systems to study voting behaviour, establish and keep up voter links and carry on continuous propaganda.

Cadre-based parties also rely on voter sentiments as much as the Congress does, but they go beyond it to mobilise these sentiments in an organised way. That is why they often do better in elections than mass-based parties like the Congress especially these days when propaganda tools such as Facebook and other Social Media (SM) are available.  

For the Congress, which won the Assembly polls in Karnataka getting a majority with 135 seats, it was in no small measure due to the work of Sunil Kanugolu, a 41-year-old low-profile polls strategist and Congress Member. He meticulously crafted the campaign in association with  D.K. Shivakumar, the State Congress President who is now the Deputy Chief Minister.

Bangalore-based Kanugolu grew up in Chennai in a business family. After having worked for the BJP, DMK, and AIADMK in the past, he joined the Congress in 2022, following discussions with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, whose values he shared.

Kanugolu’s USP is not just his analytical ability but his penchant for personal interactions and the cultivation of personal relationships with key political personnel. He had a personal rapport with Randeep Surjewala, Siddaramaiah, D.K Shivakumar and K.C. Venugopal in Karnataka. Kanugolu is calm but firm, armed as he is with irrefutable data based on field surveys.

Strategists often get carried away by their expertise and spout theories like messiahs. But Kanugolu is not one of them. He prefers to be quietly persuasive and not grandstand. His background in market research has stood him in good stead. He swears by field surveys and modern-day analytics.

In Karnataka, Kanugolu came up with the “PayCM” campaign against the BJP Government to press home the point that the regime was a “40 percent Raj” where commissions on Government contracts were as high as 40 percent. This proved to be the Congress’ “Brahmastra” or the most potent weapon. 

Dravidian pride

Kanugolu’s mantra is: Never let your narrative flag. The carefully chosen party narrative must be kept up. In Tami Nadu, Kanugolu suggested ratcheting up propaganda about Dravidian and Tamil pride against the BJP’s Hindutva. It paid.

A seminal contribution of Kanugolu was in the area of candidate selection. He drove home the point that candidate selection should be based on hard data and not on personal likes and dislikes of party leaders. 

Kanugolu does not get carried away by talk of “waves” in pre-election voter sentiment. In Karnataka, he persuaded the Congress not to get perturbed by the BJP’s conflating the Bajrang Dal, a violent Hindutva organisation, with God Hanuman after the BJP portrayed the proposed ban on the Bajrang Dal as tantamount to banning Hanuman.

Kanugolu is unbiased. He had worked for the BJP in the 2018 elections in Karnataka itself when it won 104 seats on its own. He was part of the BJP’s successful national campaign in 2014.  He coined the catchy slogan ‘Namakku Naame’ (We for Ourselves) for the DMK in the Tamil Nadu Parliamentary Elections in 2019.

In 2021, he worked for the AIADMK in the State Assembly polls. The AIADMK lost the elections. Cross-Party and cross-State experience has clearly helped Kanugolu assess the pluses and minuses of various outfits in different socio-political settings. The Congress already has plans to use his expertise for several more upcoming State elections. P.K.B