Governing – not ruling – Karnataka

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So it’s K Siddaramaiah – and not the quiet senior citizen and Union Labour Minister, Mallikarjun Kharge – who has become the chief minister of Karnataka. Apart from the fact that Kharge would have had to resign a precious Lok Sabha seat (Gulbarga) and seek election from the Karnataka Assembly, the idea was to have a local person who would have identified with the Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs).

Siddaramaiah is a relatively new entrant to the Congress, having left H D Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S) in 2005. Gowda was extremely fond of this maverick politician and brilliant speaker. While he made him deputy chief minister, he refused to make him chief minister – not unnaturally, preferring his son for the job. Siddaramaiah walked out of the JD(S) to be welcomed into the Congress along with a handful of MLAs, all of whom had to be accommodated in subsequent elections. It is on the strength of these MLAs that he is now claiming the support of the “all 121 members of the Congress legislature party”.

Now, Siddaramaiah will have to get down to it – to govern and not just rule Karnataka – which badly needs steering.

The challenges facing the state are many. It isn’t just the manifesto promises: the one kg rice at Rs 1 with a maximum of 30 kg to BPL card holders, interest-free loans to farmers, free laptops to pre-university students, an eight-lane expressway between Bidar in the north to Chamarajanagar in the south to promote industrial development; connectivity with major ports and airports, industrial townships; promotion of garments, textiles, engineering, automobile industries and creation of five million jobs… It is also the slowdown in the state’s agricultural growth and the huge power deficit.

During its tenure, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government took one laudable step: it set up a large number of thermal power projects in the state. These, in Raichur, Bellary and elsewhere, which have now also got environmental clearances, will add as much as 5,000 Mw to the state kitty, making it power surplus once they are operational. This is where the problem lies. There is no coal linkage. The Yermarus thermal power plant, for instance, which still needs coal linkage will alone add 1,600 Mw. The upside is that for the first time in recent history, the same party that’s in power in Bangalore will be in power in New Delhi. So, for at least one year, the state would ask and the Centre would give.

Another problem is slow agricultural growth. Karnataka has had a drought two years in a row. It reported a stupendous agricultural growth, powered largely by South Karnataka’s cotton- and sugarcane-rich fields, of 13 per cent growth in 2010-11. But 2011-12 growth in agriculture was minus 2.9 per cent. This is because of lack of water – most parts have no water two months in a year – and power so farmers can’t operate borewells.

But other than this, Karnataka’s finances are in better shape than most other states. In 2011-12, its fiscal deficit was 2.9 per cent. The state’s debt-to-GDP ratio is also declining, enabling it to reduce expenditure on interest payments. This financial security has emboldened it to undertake a series of reforms, including in the health sector, which should be the envy of most states across India.

Siddaramaiah was a successful finance minister. But he has rough edges that MLAs are apprehensive about. Seventy out of 121 seats that the Congress has won are from the urban areas that have rejected the BJP. But Siddaramaiah has an exaggerated anti-urban bias, the hallmark of his younger days and the tutelage of strong farmer lobbies that had leaders like M D Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha. It is an open secret that Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee chief and Dalit leader Parameshwara was his closest rival – and that the Kuruba community in his constituency sabotaged his election. “We kept telling Parameshwara: ‘Be careful, there is a plan afoot to defeat you’. He said he had to work for the party, not for himself,” a top leader in the state said. Parameshwara is likely to be brought to the Centre as a member of Parliament, maybe even as a junior minister.

However rustic Siddaramaiah may be, no scams are reported about him. What could be a problem is his belief that there is no God – he is an atheist. As a result, two years ago, he announced in Udupi that the government would take over the famous Krishna temple in Udupi, started by one of his forbears in medieval India, Kanakadasa, also revered by the Kurubas as their kuladevata.

In Karnataka, the Congress is going to have its hands full.

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