In choosing Siddaramaiah as its Chief Minister in Karnataka, the Congress party has made a good beginning. The 64-year old Lohiaite socialist scored over several other claimants, notably Union Labour Minister M. Mallikarjuna Kharge and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President G. Parameshwara, in a Congress-style ‘secret ballot’ — in which the number of votes each candidate receives is also kept a secret by the ‘High Command.’ The Congress government, however, is unlikely to enjoy the initial lease of public goodwill and patience that a new government normally gets. After all, its elevation to power was due to voter outrage against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s misrule rather than for its own appeal, a point established by the voting pattern. Though it won 121 out of the 223 Assembly seats for which polls were held, thereby giving it a comfortable majority, it could increase its vote share by just under 2 percentage points over the 2008 polls. It is the BJP that lost considerable ground, its vote share falling by 13.89 percentage points over the 2008 polls. The Congress wants to show that it means business in vesting responsibility in a clean leader with proven administrative acumen, for Mr. Siddaramaiah has presented seven State budgets as Finance Minister. A lawyer by training, Mr. Siddaramaiah is of Janata Parivar lineage. He left the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2006 and took up the cause of the AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for the minorities, backward classes, and Dalits) movement before joining the Congress. He was the Leader of the Opposition in the last Assembly, and perhaps its only effective voice, taking the then government to task over its failures on many fronts.
In defining his immediate future as “a bed of thorns” in an interview to this newspaper on Saturday, the Chief Minister-designate was perhaps referring to the formidable task of dismantling the old and re-constructing afresh. Undoubtedly, the last five years have seen a deep loss of public faith in government and its institutions. Mr. Siddaramaiah must be empowered by the Congress ‘High Command’: to choose a team free of those with tainted records, to deal firmly with factionalism that the Congress is known for; and to tackle key state sectors that have been neglected. These include agriculture, pro-poor human resource development (including fulfilling promises on the development of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region) and employment. Last but not least, the State’s voters expect the new government to ensure that the institution of the Lokayukta regains the position of authority and independence it enjoyed during the tenure of Justice Santosh Hegde.