In his first interview after becoming Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah says the Karnataka election result is an indicator for the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Only S. Nijalingappa and Devraj Urs before you have served a full five-year term as Chief Minister and become Chief Ministers twice (although Nijalingappa’s first term was truncated, he completed five years in his second stint). Do you consider this a personal achievement in your political career?
It is wrong to term this a personal achievement. I see this as a victory of the people of Karnataka. The recent verdict is not only a negative vote against the BJP but also a positive vote for the Congress. The 40 per cent corruption, communalism, price rise, and maladministration during the BJP regime are what contributed to our victory.
People also want a stable government. There was a single [Congress] government between 1999 and 2004, but there were five Chief Ministers between 2004 and 2013. From 2013 to 2018, one party was in power, with me as Chief Minister. Between 2018 and 2023, there were three Chief Ministers again.
The sentiment among voters is that the State needs a stable government and a strong leader, and this was one of the main reasons for our victory; the credibility of the leader and the party matters a lot. This verdict is an endorsement of my previous tenure as Chief Minister, when the promises made in the manifesto were fulfilled and there were no allegations of corruption. Voters regretted their choice of electing a hung Assembly in 2018, and I see this mandate as a vote for the continuance of my previous government.
In an interview with Frontline in early April, you said the Congress will win more than 130 seats with over 40 per cent vote share. What made you so confident?
Between 2018 and 2023, I did not sit idle at home. I was travelling for five to six days a week and visited every constituency and was constantly in touch with people. Our campaign, too, was very systematic. The BJP has been on the offensive in its campaigns in elections after Modi came to power, but for the first time they were defensive in Karnataka. Our focus was on highlighting the BJP’s corruption, the Amul-Nandini issue, the neglect of Lingayats, and so on. In all these issues, the BJP was on the defensive.
The BJP faced double anti-incumbency against it, against the State government and then against the Central government because of issues such as price rise. In 2018, Modi was at the peak of his popularity, and Lingayats were with the BJP because of [former Chief Minister] Yediyurappa, but things changed considerably this time. There has been a decline in Modi’s popularity; Lingayats were not with the BJP this time, and [former BJP Chief Minister] Jagadish Shettar was with us. If Modi was an advantage for the BJP in 2018, he was a burden for it in this election. Modi’s campaigning did not help the BJP as the party performed poorly wherever he campaigned.
Our campaign commenced the day Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra entered Karnataka. While Modi’s image has taken a hit, the image of our leader has soared. Our five guarantees assured voters that a vote for the Congress would mean that their lives would improve. Communal issues played a huge role in this election; people have realised that the BJP keeps raising communal issues to hide their incompetence. Hindutva’s expiry date has come. For all these reasons, I was confident that we would win with a huge margin.
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What will be the impact of the Congress’ victory in Karnataka on the opposition to the BJP nationally?
With its defeat in Karnataka, the BJP has been rejected in all the south Indian States. This is a huge victory in my opinion. Modi participated in many rallies in Karnataka, but the BJP did not gain because of his presence. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019, the BJP won more than 50 per cent of the votes from Karnataka, but in next year’s election, their vote share will decline substantially because Modi’s popularity is declining. Our victory in Karnataka is an indicator for the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Much has been written about your “socialist” past and Ram Manohar Lohia’s influence on your politics. How do you identify yourself as a socialist?
Ram Manohar Lohia had a huge impact on Karnataka, and I was attracted to his philosophy of socialism. Most of the writers and intellectuals in the State were influenced by his ideology. Dr Lohia advocated land reforms, reservation, and decentralisation. The Congress implemented all these in Karnataka. When I shifted from the Janata Dal to the Congress, it was not such a big decision because there were no serious ideological conflicts.
“Communal issues played a huge role in this election; people have realised that the BJP keeps raising communal issues to hide their incompetence. Hindutva’s expiry date has come. ”SiddaramaiahKarnataka Chief Minister
Karnataka witnessed a lot of communal disharmony over the past four years.The BJP government introduced The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, 2020, and The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2022, apart from banning the hijab in classrooms. It also scrapped the reservation for Muslims. Will your government reverse these decisions?
We will reverse all anti-people decisions taken by the BJP government. We have already announced that we will rescind the anti cow slaughter law. The hijab issue is now in the Supreme Court, but our position on that is clear and we will consult our legal team before we take the next step. We had also opposed the anti-conversion law and we will take steps to withdraw this legislation.
The 4 per cent reservation for Muslims was scrapped without any study by the Backward Classes Commission. Legally, this is not tenable, and we will take steps to withdraw that order. Karnataka is known as sarva janaangada shantiya thota [garden where all communities live in harmony] and in the true sense we are a party that practises the philosophy of sabka saath, sabka vikas [development for all]. If you notice the profile of Congress MLAs, you will see that the Congress is the only party that provides representation to all castes and communities. This is not appeasement but social justice as everyone must get political representation.
In your first term as Chief Minister, you undertook a caste census (Social and Educational Survey) as part of your stated commitment to social justice, but its findings were never tabled in the Assembly. Will your government make this information public this time?
The caste census was incomplete in my term and was submitted during the term of the [Congress-Janata Dal (Secular)] coalition government. We will take steps to table the findings of the caste census in the Assembly, and this empirical data will help my government in formulating a scientific reservation policy in Karnataka. It was not merely a caste census but a survey that scientifically records the educational and social information of Karnataka’s population. Taking this survey as a first step, we will work towards enhancing reservation in the State.
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Several people have said that implementing the Congress’ five guarantees will be a burden on the State’s economy. It is estimated to cost more than Rs.50,000 crore annually. Is the State’s exchequer robust enough to bear this additional expenditure?
The State budget for 2023-24 is more than Rs.3,10,000 crore. Of this, about Rs.1,05,000 crore is spent for Operations & Maintenance, and Capital Expenditure. This is where the BJP looted more than 40 per cent commission. Our government will save about Rs.45,000 crore, which was looted by the BJP, and use it to implement our guarantees. That is one source.
Along with this, there is tremendous scope for administrative reforms in the governance structure, which will also increase the resources available to us. Improving the efficiency of State government-run companies and increasing their profits by at least 50 per cent will help mobilise another Rs.5,000-7,000 crore. Improving the collection of taxes will also bring in additional revenue. We can raise taxes in the form of excise duty on liquor. We will see how much tax we can appropriately increase on “sin” goods to mobilise more funds.
One of the main reasons for the funds crunch in Karnataka is the injustice from the Union government. The BJP-led government at the Centre reduced the devolution of taxes to Karnataka from 4.72 per cent to 3.64 per cent, which resulted in a reduction of Rs.15,000 crore. We will fight to restore the funds to Karnataka.
We will increase the forest cover and take other necessary measures to improve our score as required by the 15th Finance Commission, which will help us get a better share. The 15th Finance Commission also recommended additional special grants of Rs.5,490 crore to Karnataka, but Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman denied this. We will fight to get this also back. With all these, we will be able to mobilise up to Rs.70,000 crore annually and comfortably implement our five guarantees. I am confident of this because of my experience as Finance Minister.
What are your government’s immediate priorities?
Our government’s priority is to implement the five guarantees as those were promises we gave the voters. We will also focus on resolving the BJP’s mischief with regard to reservation in Karnataka. Anti-people’s legislation passed by the BJP government will also be reversed. These policy matters, which are ideological, can be dealt with easily as there is no budgetary grant required, and the party high command is with us.