Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Cauvery issue bungling aside, ousting Karnataka CM Siddaramiah won't be easy

On 6 September, Siddaramaiah agreed to release water to Tamil Nadu, on orders of the Supreme Court. It is with an equally heavy heart that his rivals in the Congress realise that his 'mismanagement' of the Cauvery crisis, won't help them unseat the chief minister.

It is no secret that letting hooligans take control of parts of state capital Bengaluru and incidents of assault on Tamils in other pockets of Karnataka, has not done Siddaramaiah's CV any good. Given that he presides over a faction-ridden Congress party and isn't exactly a Delhi durbar man, many within his own party saw this as a perfect opportunity to hand him a VRS. But then Siddaramaiah is a far better player of political chess than any of his colleagues.

The chief minister's mistake was that he let himself be convinced by his police top brass that "everything was under control". In keeping with the ghettoisation that has taken place in Bengaluru, like in many other cities, police protection was provided in areas like Malleswaram and Indira Nagar where Tamils are in sizeable number. Bengaluru is home to 35 lakh Tamil-speaking population.

That would be enough, he was assured on Monday morning. Brand Bengaluru suffered for taking a laidback thanedaar-like bandobast approach to the situation. This when the violence seemed to have been meticulously planned and concentrated in a limited zone to create maximum impact and attract eyeballs.

But compared to say, a year ago, Siddaramaiah has managed to neutralise the dissident camp within the party. Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge, who was a critic of the chief minister, was mollified with a ministry for his son Priyank Kharge in June. Former Union minister Janardhana Poojary who had accused Siddaramaiah of trying to make a Congress-mukt Karnataka, has no support base. Karnataka Congress president G Parameshwara who tried his best to be made deputy chief minister, had to contend with the home ministry.

In hindsight, making Parameshwara the home minister was a masterstroke. Now even though Siddaramaiah is in the firing line, law and order is essentially the home minister's domain. This will mean Parameswara cannot raise the banner of revolt against the chief minister, because he will have to answer far more serious questions.

In the last year that Parameshwara has been at the helm of affairs, the law and order machinery has been in the news only for the wrong reasons. From the suicide by the two DSPs to tension on the Karnataka-Goa border to the Cauvery crisis, the home minister has not come out of it smelling of roses. But in the typical tradition of the Congress, while the chief minister's stock is down in public perception, the home minister's Dalit credentials ensure he gets away.

But what is far more critical is whether Siddaramaiah is losing support among the electorate, with elections less than two years away. Yes and No. With the demolitions in Bengaluru as part of the effort to clear storm water drains last month, his popularity nosedived in the state capital. And the mayhem on Monday won't help his cause either.

"But in rural Karnataka, a reverse consolidation of backward classes is taking place who feel that just because Siddaramaiah does not belong to the Vokkaliga, Lingayat or Brahmin communities, he is targeted. They feel the upper class-dominated media is critical of him," says Sugata Raju, political analyst, adding, "So it works both ways because any effort to unseat him will lead to sympathy for him within his support base.

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