Midway through Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s term, which began in 2013, a television channel commissioned a survey – “If elections were held tomorrow, what would be the outcome?” C-Fore, the agency that conducted the survey announced that the Congress party could take as many as 120 to 132 seats in the 224-seat state Assembly. The channel that had commissioned it would not believe the results, so it decided not to telecast the survey, leaving it to C-Fore to make the results public.
But, surely, you have to concede that the outcome was unexpected – both because of who Siddaramaiah is and what he has done in Karnataka.
Siddaramaiah’s political lineage is well-known. He was in the JD(S), as one of HD Deve Gowda’s young lieutenants, until he began to feel his rise in the party was limited because Deve Gowda was promoting his sons. He joined the Congress, and he transformed it in many ways, with a combination of social justice and distributive justice tools. He projected himself as anti-intellectual (many in his own party used to refer to him as "Nidde Ramaiah" or ‘Sleepy Ramaiah’, and Kumbhakarna, after Ravan's somnolent brother”). But Siddaramaiah begged, borrowed and stole ideas to bed the Congress down to a model of development different from other states in the country.
The supply of rice to families below the poverty line at Re 1 a kg was a manifesto promise made by the Congress ahead of the 2013 polls. But its launch had to be postponed twice because the rate at which the government was getting rice was too high. Finally, the scheme was launched in June 2013 – 30 kg of rice at Re 1 per kg to nearly 10 million below poverty line (BPL) families across the state, entailing an annual cost of Rs 4,400 crore to the state exchequer.
Rice was ‘imported’ from Chhattisgarh to meet the additional demand. In the 2017-18 budget, recognising that the scheme was a vote-getter, the CM revised it upwards from 5 kg per individual to 7 kg, but with a cap of 35 kg per household. True, there have been complaints about corruption in procurement. But as far as food security goes, Karnataka is one of the most secure in India; despite droughts, no deaths have been reported from rural areas. To take this further, urban poverty was addressed through the Indiramma canteens, a concept borrowed from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, to serve cheap cooked food to everyone.
Siddramaiah’s other focus areas have been housing and roads. The 2017-18 budget had an allocation of Rs 53 billion for housing alone, and Rs 80 billion for road and port development. Bengaluru has a humungous traffic problem. But that is a function of traffic management rather than the state of the roads. Of all development resources in Karnataka, 24.1 per cent are earmarked for scheduled castes and tribes. The state has had a record in attracting investment (proposals worth Rs 1.54 trillion were received in the past 18 months alone). Karnataka's 2 per cent unemployment rate is less than the national average of 3.7 per cent.
But if the state is the land of milk and honey, why are psephologists now saying that the Assembly elections could throw up a ‘hung’ verdict?
That’s largely because of heightened levels of corruption and inefficiency. While going beyond standard Vokkaliga-Lingayat formula Siddaramaiah has reached out to other castes, the utilisation of money allocated to the development of the socially backward has been inadequate and faulty. Leakages are rampant. What was needed was a tight control and monitoring. There is no evidence this is being done with any rigour. So, add this to the anti-incumbency problem, and this could be the answer to why Siddaramaiah, despite being a popular leader, might not be able to get the same level of votes in 2018 as he did in 2013.