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Rahul Gandhi will be Congress’s prime ministerial face in 2024, says Siddaramaiah

In exclusive interview, Karnataka ex-CM talks about Congress strategy for assembly polls, his equation with Shivakumar, and why he believes Modi's popularity can't undo anti-incumbency.

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Bengaluru: Siddaramaiah, the leader of opposition in the Karnataka Vidhana Soudha, is gearing up for what he calls the “last election” of his political career spanning four decades.

In an exclusive hour-long chat with ThePrint’s political editor D.K. Singh (DKS) and Karnataka correspondent Sharan Poovanna (SP), the former chief minister shares insights about the Congress’s strategy for the assembly polls, his equation with D.K. Shivakumar, how he views the role of Janata Dal (Secular) and why he thinks Rahul Gandhi is “prime minister material”. 

The veteran Congressman also responds to allegations of corruption levelled against the Congress by the BJP, why he thinks the Tipu vs Savarkar debate is “not relevant”, and why he believes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity will not erase the anti-incumbency building up against the Basavaraj Bommai-led government.

Siddaramaiah (75) also opened up about his views on god, and why he is looking to contest the assembly polls from a “nearby” constituency and why he has no plans to pivot towards national politics.

Excerpts from the interview:

Also Read: With Bommai on ropes, Yediyurappa is BJP’s brahmastra in Karnataka. But he drives hard bargain

‘Corruption main poll plank’

DKS: Everyone is of the opinion that the Congress will come to power (in Karnataka). Give us three or four reasons that give you so much hope…

Siddaramaiah: The main reason is that, this BJP government in Karnataka is facing strong anti-incumbency. Because of their misrule, because of corruption, and non-performance, the people are fed up with this government. Contractors are fed up. Poor people, farmers, unemployed youths, women, Dalits, backward classes and minorities are all fed up. 

So far, all of their programmes are not implemented at all. As a matter of fact, for pre-matric students, the scholarships have not been given for two years. We started giving bathroom kits to every student. Now, there is no toothpaste, no soap, no hair oil, no bed. Nothing is given. Then how can they tolerate this government? 

That is why people are openly saying that this government is a corrupt government, anti-poor, anti-farmer, anti-Dalits, anti-backward classes and anti-minorities.

DKS: Since Narendra Modi became prime minister and started appointing his people as chief ministers in different states, it is probably the first time corruption has become the main plank of the opposition against a BJP government…

Siddaramaiah: Yeah. Corruption, of course, is the main (poll) plank against the BJP government. See, I don’t know whether you remember or not but during the 2018 (Karnataka assembly) election, Narendra Modi came here for campaigning and in his speech, he made one wild allegation, that the Siddaramaiah government is a 10 per cent government. Without any document or basis, he made a wild allegation against our government. The BJP people were in opposition for five years. Did they raise this issue at any point in time? Basavaraj Bommai, Jagadish Shettar, who was the leader of the opposition, why did they not raise the issue? 

If our government was a 10 per cent government, did the BJP raise this issue at any point in time during our tenure? Now, they are saying that Siddaramaiah’s government was also corrupt. Can anybody believe this? 

And they have been in power for more than three-and-a-half years. What were they doing? If there are documents to show that our government was a corrupt government, they should have taken action. Why are they keeping quiet? Now, they are saying this as a form of defence that Siddaramaiah’s government was also corrupt. It is a baseless allegation and in order to cover up their corruption charges, they are making these allegations. 

DKS: Are these allegations of corruption sticking with the people because corruption as an issue has not stuck to the BJP since Modi actually started virtually running the party and governments across the country. Will it stick to the BJP in Karnataka?

Siddaramaiah: Definitely. The people will not tolerate corruption because they are coming to terms with the serious nature of corruption. Every day, people of the farming community go to the tehsildar’s office, police station, agriculture office. Like this, wherever they go no public office works without money. No work will be done. 

Not that this corruption started during BJP’s tenure, but it was never like this.

Also Read: Karnataka Congress’s women leaders are ‘invisible’. 0 MLCs, 6 MLAs & none in key party posts

‘Nothing wrong with there being two CM aspirants’

DKS: Do you think the BJP made a mistake by replacing B.S.Yediyurappa with Bommai? 

Siddaramaiah: I do not want to comment on that. It is their internal party decision.

DKS: Everyone thinks the Congress has an edge, provided D.K. Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah do not fight. We know you have been denying it but there is no smoke without fire.

Siddaramaiah: It (the fight) is the creation of the media and I am making this statement with all responsibility. D.K. Shivakumar and myself are good friends only. There are no differences between us. Of course, he is also one of the aspirants for chief minister and I am also an aspirant. There is nothing wrong with it. 

In a democracy, if anybody wants to become something, there is nothing wrong. It is for the (party) high command to decide. It is for the newly-elected MLAs to decide. It is not that D.K. Shivakumar and I will decide who will become the chief minister.

DKS: Are you saying that if D.K. Shivakumar becomes the chief minister, you will have no issues or if you become the chief minister, D.K. Shivakumar will have no issues? 

Siddaramaiah: You are asking me this (same question) in a different form. Ultimately, newly-elected MLAs have to elect the leader of the legislature party to which the high command has to agree with and we have to go by the high command. 

DKS: Coming to the BJP’s election strategy. Now, they are making it a Tipu (Sultan) vs (Vinayak Damodar) Savarkar contest.

Siddaramaiah: They (BJP) are unnecessarily making this an issue. It is not the issue to be discussed with the public. It is not an election issue at all. People want this type of issue to be discussed in the public? Tipu vs Savarkar, Tipu vs Abakka (Chowta), Mahatma Gandhi vs Godse. Are they relevant issues? They are not at all relevant… 

Development of the state, corruption which is sucking the blood of the people, those issues we will have to discuss. The problems of students, youths, unemployment, those issues  are relevant. This is only (being raised) in order to polarise the votes. These are emotional issues and will not solve the problem of the state.

SP: What solution does the Congress have for the problems of the state?

Siddaramaiah: We are going to place before the people the issues concerning the people.

DKS: Why is Tipu Sultan such a hated figure for the BJP? Is it getting any resonance on the ground?

Siddaramaiah: See, I don’t know. Do they know about Tipu or not, I do not know. What does history say? Tipu fought four wars against the British. Is that not a fact? Four Anglo-Mysore wars (and) he was killed by the British in 1799. Till then, he fought four wars against the British. I don’t know whether they (BJP) have read this history or not.

DKS: What is your current stand vis-a-vis Tipu Sultan. When you were chief minister, the BJP was very critical of the government’s decision to celebrate Tipu Jayanti.

Siddaramaiah: Not only did I celebrate Tipu Jayanti, I celebrated Kempe Gowda Jayanti, Kittur Rani Chennamma Jayanti, and some other saint’s jayati. Why are they targeting only Tipu Jayanti? Tipu was also a freedom fighter. He also fought against the British when he was the king of Mysore. 

DKS: They (BJP) call the Congress a party of ‘Tipu believers’.

Siddaramaiah: Those who know history, they all say that Tipu, as king of Mysore, fought against the British. Those who do not know history are saying Tipu was not a freedom fighter. 

DKS: If you come back to power, are you saying that you will resume those (Tipu Jayanti) celebrations again? 

Siddaramaiah: If we come back to power, we will decide in the cabinet. We will make a decision. I am not a dictator. We are in a democratic setup and have to take the cabinet into confidence. 

SP: You are hopeful that the Congress will come back to power. What will the Congress do differently this time? 

Siddaramaiah: According to my assessment of the situation in Karnataka, the Congress party will 100 per cent come back to power because we are not raising negative issues. We are raising positive issues. What we have done during our time in government, what the BJP is doing and what we will do if we come to power — that is what we are placing before the people.

Also Read: How BJP’s Bommai gamble threatens to backfire in Karnataka — caste anger, corruption, ‘no control’

‘Modi’s face will not work in all states’

DKS: What are your big promises to the people this time? 

Siddaramaiah: Whatever promises we made to the people of Karnataka earlier we implemented. This time also, we’re going to implement all the promises which we are going to make. See, due to price rise, when Manmohan Singh was prime minister, one cylinder price was Rs 414, today it is Rs 1,150 which is more than Rs 700 higher. How can a family run a household like this when nearly two-three cylinders are required. Is it possible for a common man? Petrol, diesel, gas, cement, fertilisers…it is very difficult. 

SP: How will you try to resolve this issue if you come to power? 

Siddaramaiah: These are all in our hands. We are going to put pressure on the government of India whether it is a BJP government (at the Centre) or any other party’s government. We are going to put pressure on the government of India and they cannot give any more excuses. 

DKS: The BJP is making Prime Minister Narendra Modi the face in this election. You’re a seasoned politician and will not be so dismissive that Modi does not have any popularity here. 

Siddaramaiah: I will not say Modi is unpopular. But in Karnataka, Modi’s popularity will not erase anti-incumbency against the BJP government because people are suffering and feeling it in Karnataka. The issues in Karnataka are different. 

Why could Modi not bring the BJP back to power in Himachal Pradesh. He was there. Or in Punjab? Modi’s face will not work in all states. It is not the parliamentary election. Issues at state and national level elections are very different.

DKS: In Karnataka, at least for the last two years, the headlines coming out are about Hijab, Halal, Azaan……

Siddaramaiah: These are all creations of the BJP. Halal, Hijab, Azaan are not an issue at all. Are these real issues of the society? People will not vote on these issues. 

DKS: Basavaraj Bommai is committing Rs 1,000 crore for the redevelopment of temples and Mutts.

Siddaramaiah: This is an exit Budget, these promises, the people will not believe them. Why have they not given money to temples in all these four years? What made them wait? Nobody, including the Congress party, opposed money being given to temples. Why have you mentioned this only in the exit budget? Why in four years have you (BJP) not spent a single rupee for the development of temples?

SP: Are you saying that the Hindutva push will not work in Karnataka?

Siddaramaiah: Yes, it won’t.

DKS: In that context, some BJP leaders say Siddaramaiah is an atheist. Are you an atheist? 

Siddaramaiah: It is totally not correct. I’m not an atheist, I believe in God. I am a Hindu. I believe in Hindu Dharma. See, I’m not against Hindu dharma or Hinduism. I’m not against god. I also go to the temple. Whenever I go to my village, I go to my village temple. I sometimes go to Tirupati, Chamundeshwari temple and Srikanteshwara temple in Nanjangud. But I don’t have the habit of going in search of temples in the country. But I am not an atheist. 

DKS: So, you’re a believer?

Siddaramaiah: I believe in God. I believe in humanity. Does any Dharma say hate politics? Tell me, which dharma? Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Basava (Lingayatism)…which dharma? Which religion says this? Why are they doing this? 

SP: Are they doing this because they have no achievements to show and are deflecting attention from real issues? 

Siddaramaiah: Definitely. They’re raising this issue only to divert the attention of the public and polarise voters. See, they’re not the real issues concerning the people. You (BJP) are suppressing the real issues and advocating issues which are not relevant. It won’t help. 

DKS: We have been reading a lot of reports about how you are hunting for your constituency.

Siddaramaiah: It’s not that I am hunting. I contested twice from Varuna constituency and won. From Varuna, I shifted to Chamundeshwari and for 10 years I represented that constituency. I was defeated in the last elections. I selected one more constituency, that is Badami and people there are demanding that I should contest from Badami only.

I want to contest from a nearby place, because age is also not on my side. The other reason is that I will not be available to voters of the constituency. I can’t go (to Badami) every day, or two or three times a week. It is very difficult. People and leaders of Kolar are requesting me to contest from there. But this is subject to approval from the high command. 

Also Read: Education, justice, poll tickets — what are Karnataka’s mutts & how they became power centres

‘Rahul Gandhi has political will’

SP: Is there any advantage the Congress has in the Old Mysuru region? The JD(S) is there and the BJP is also trying very hard in this region. Will you contesting from southern Karnataka also be a factor?

Siddaramaiah: In southern Karnataka, there will be a triangular fight but not in northern Karnataka. JD(S) has a base in 7-8 districts. In the last elections, what happened was in Mandya, there are seven assembly constituencies, they (JDS) won all seven. In Hassan, they won all six, and the BJP won one seat. (But) this will not be repeated. This time, we (Congress) will win 4-5 seats from Mandya and a minimum of four in Hassan. 

DKS: What about the Aam Aadmi Party in Karnataka? 

Siddaramaiah: It has no roots here. Only the BJP, the JD(S) and the Congress are here. The JD(S) is also not there in all 31 districts but just about seven to eight. 

DKS: You were talking about your age. Is this going to be your last election? 

Siddaramaiah: Of course. I have made a decision that this will be my last election. 

DKS: About the Congress, the AICC (All India Congress Committee) plenary session is happening (from 24 February). I’m sure you must be going there. Will you contest if elections are held to the CWC (Congress Working Committee)?

Siddaramaiah: I’m not contesting. I was a CWC member but I resigned. I do not want to contest nor want to pivot towards national politics.

SP: You’re very confident that the Congress will return to power in Karnataka. Do you think that this will spark a national revival of the Congress? 

Siddaramaiah: That is my assessment of the situation. Because if you go to the people, you will understand. You ask anybody in Karnataka and they will tell you that the BJP is staring at defeat. Congress will come to power again. This is what the people of Karnataka are talking about. The result of the 2023 assembly election will certainly have an impact on the 2024 parliamentary elections. 

DKS: Bharat Jodo Yatra, you were part of it. How has the yatra, in your opinion, changed Rahul Gandhi’s public image?

Siddaramaiah: Rahul Gandhi, we can say, has political will. Without political will, it’s very difficult to take out this padayatra from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, around 3,500 km…it’s not easy or a joke. Only Chandra Shekhar did this padayatra before he became prime minister of the country but not in this manner. Vinoba Bhave did padayatra across the country over many years. 

Rahul Gandhi did this continuously from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. So according to me, according to the people’s opinion, Rahul Gandhi’s image is enhanced now. Now, maturity has come to Rahul Gandhi. Because BJP people are making unnecessary allegations against Rahul Gandhi. As I have understood Rahul Gandhi, he is a straightforward, simple and honest man. 

DKS: Is he a prime ministerial candidate in 2024?

Siddaramaiah: Yes, he will be the PM candidate. He is prime minister-material. 

DKS: Talking about the yatra, his (Rahul’s) detractors say by focusing on it, somehow the party did not claim the credit it could have for electing a Dalit as its party president. Was the election for Congress president overshadowed by the yatra? 

Siddaramaiah: Don’t say that he is a shadow. He is a senior leader of the Congress. Mallikarjun Kharge is a very, very senior leader in the Congress party. He has been in Karnataka politics since 1972. He first got elected in 1972. For more than 50 years, he has served in the Congress party, he is the most deserving man for the post of Congress president. 

SP: Is he (Kharge) also a chief ministerial candidate in Karnataka?  

Siddaramaiah: Not like that. It is again the high command that has to decide. Anybody wants to become CM, the high command is there, they have to make a decision. It is only in the Congress party that people from all sections of society can occupy any post. 

DKS: The bigger challenge for you will be from the BJP or from within your own party? 

Siddaramaiah: Within our party, there is unanimity and we are all together. The challenge will be a communal party in Karnataka. But we have to defeat communal politics.   

SP: How is your relationship with the JD(S) after you had a fallout with them?

Siddaramaiah: As far as politics is concerned, they are in the JD(S) party and I am in the Congress party. Where personal equations are concerned, I don’t hate anybody.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: ‘Countering BJP’s Hindutva narrative’: Why Kumaraswamy has gone after Peshwa Brahmins


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