The Chief Minister-designate has a multifaceted backlog of issues to address

The elevation of Siddaramaiah as Chief Minister-designate offers hope that he will address the woes of the slackening economy of the State. After all, no political contemporary of his in the State, from any side of the political spectrum, can stake a claim to the expertise he has had as a manager of the State’s fisc, having presented seven editions of the State budget. But the problems are many, and had been mounting under BJP-rule.

Tokenism as a mantra

First, despite the promise of “farmer-friendly” policies during the BJP rule, it is evident that output, and, more importantly, rural employment, has slackened significantly. As the recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) points out, the government failed to effectively utilise the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) to counter the effects of a prolonged drought on rural income and employment.

And, despite all the fanfare surrounding the two editions of the Global Investors Meet since 2010, the grandiose promises of investment have remained on paper. It is evident that the dream run of the IT industry, with the resulting positive spinoffs to the wider economy, is well and truly over. The pace of growth of jobs as well as incomes in the industry has definitely slackened in the last few years. Mr. Siddaramaiah thus has a multifaceted backlog to address, which he will presumably undertake by assuming charge of the Finance Department when he is sworn in on Monday.

The BJP’s approach to the gathering momentum of economic problems was to adopt tokenism as a mantra. The problems of agriculture were to be waved away with the wand of a separate agricultural budget. And, the problems of industrialisation, especially the slackening pace of manufacturing and its particularly harsh impact on small scale manufacturing, were to be addressed by conducting GIMs, what one industrialist described as being “jamborees.”

The social justice platform

Ironically, the reason for hope in the ascent of Mr. Siddaramaiah lies in the burdensome tag of being an “outsider” that he wore in the run-up to his election on Friday as leader of the Congress Legislative Party. His political antecedents as one who came from the social justice tradition of the “Janata Parivar” mark him as one who would not be constrained by the policy straitjacket of the “reform” agenda that would otherwise hinder the manoeuvrability of Congressmen of pedigree.

For instance, if Mr. Siddaramaiah is allowed by the party to heed his affinity for the social justice agenda, he may well use a scheme like the MNREGA in a more expansive and less bureaucratic manner. At the height of the drought last year, when the State was going through what the incumbent Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar described as “the worst in 40 years,” Mr. Siddaramaiah alleged that the BJP government had not even spent the allocations it had received from the Centre for the MNREGS. The multiple counts on which the CAG indicted the implementation of the scheme in the State point to a deep malaise. The CAG pointed out that the government had failed to ensure democratic participation, transparency and accountability and in detected several “cases of suspected misappropriation.” It noted that the government had failed to set up a panel of accredited engineers even as more than 80 per cent of the posts of engineers remained vacant last year. It also detected “diversion” of funds to “unauthorised” schemes. It also detected “tampering” of muster rolls, engagement of “ghost workers,” cases of “short payment” to workers.

The same attitude for other schemes and programmes such as education, health, the public distribution system and other social welfare schemes could be used to attack other pressing challenges. In the field of education, for instance, there would be greater expectation that the new government use the provisions of the Right to Education Act more imaginatively and firmly to get more children from less privileged children into their preferred schools. However, a key test of intent would the first budget, which would show whether Mr. Siddaramaiah is willing to put money where his mouth is.

Positive populism

Of course, Mr. Siddaramaiah runs the risk of being pejoratively dismissed as being “populist” if he chooses to follow such a track. Not only would his government appear very different from the current regime, it would also set him on a course that would be very different from what a regular Congressman of pedigree would have chosen. The Congress’s choice of Mr. Siddaramaiah has obviously been made with an eye on the next Lok Sabha elections. Whether it would allow him to pursue an agenda that would not only make it popular but also address the wider range of problems posed by the faltering economy is the moot question.