The Congress government, led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, is completing four years in office on Saturday. So it is time for the last annual assessment of the government’s performance. Next year, it will be the turn of voters to do it. Assessing the performance of a government is a difficult task. State governments perform certain routine tasks — law and order, fiscal management, building basic infrastructure, and delivering of basic services. These do not count as performance unless they go terribly wrong. In normal times, what counts as performance is a positive deviation from the routine, something unique, something which will have a lasting impact on the lives of the people. And, the compulsions of electoral politics requires politicians to idiomatically re-invent “development.”
What then is the one thing that the Siddaramaiah regime will be remembered for? For the first three years, besides the routine, the Chief Minister quietly pushed forward an unnamed agenda of social justice. It impressed none. It paled before juicy tales of his regime’s administrative bungling, part real, part media construction. Into the fourth year, the government still sticks to the same agenda of social justice. However, now it begins to seem unique not so much because there is something terribly innovative about it, but simply because the government has steadfastly stuck to it. Mr. Siddaramaiah now calls it the “Karnataka Model of Development”. An election year demands new idioms for old achievements.
Mr. Siddaramaiah’s Karnataka Model of Development might not be a model in the strictest sense of the term, but at the same it is not all rhetoric. The idea of redistribution inherent to this model, however narrowly it might have been imagined, has defined everything that the Siddaramaiah government has planned and implemented, from the populist schemes to the more substantive measures such as an industrial policy, which seeks to move the pressure of industrialisation from Bangaluru to the under-developed regions of the State.
Despite Karnataka’s unique position in the national economy, a Karnataka Model of Development has not been part of political discourse as the “Gujarath Model” had once become. The only earlier attempt was by a group of World Bank economists and academics, who described the Karnataka Model as “a technology-led growth model coupled with local government reforms”. In Siddaramaiah’s conception of Karnataka Model of Development, technology-led growth, local governance and the like are reduced to the routine, while redistribution schemes of all hues have occupied centre stage. The Chief Minister makes every attempt to dispel any doubt that his social agenda is at the cost of growth. His budget speech (2017-18) states: “…the same government, which has been acknowledged as pro-social justice, has propelled the State to the first position in the country in terms of investment intention.”
The most striking feature of Mr. Siddaramaiah’s redistribution agenda is the manifold increase in the budgetary allocation to the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Tribes. His government has spent a whopping ₹60,349 crore for this purpose as against ₹26,840 crore spent during the Bharatiya Janata Party rule (2008-2013). A mind-boggling variety of schemes — which can be termed populist or welfare depending upon how one sees it — have been launched. These include caste-specific allocation to places of worship, to more socially broad-based and eclectic poverty alleviation schemes. It was a sort of the end of imagination when this year’s budget announced Indira Canteens a la Amma canteens of Tamil Nadu. However, media reports suggest that schemes once dubbed as “populist” or “insignificant” have been highly effective in reducing the severity of the drought in parts of the State.
Mr. Siddaramaiah is accused of pursuing an exclusionary development agenda as, the critics say, it disproportionately targets only a few social groups — SC, STs, OBCs and the minorities. This has to some extent led to a sense of alienation among the dominant castes despite the government’s assertions to the contrary. In a society where poverty is closely correlated with certain social identities, even a serious social justice agenda cannot escape such a reproach. What seems a valid critique of Mr. Siddaramaiah’s attempts at fast-tracking social justice, however, is that it is a conservative strategy based solely on the distribution of doles, rather than addressing the larger structural factors that perpetuate caste-specific disadvantages. The educational support extended to the disadvantages sections, for example, does not imagine beyond free hostels and fee reimbursement.
Institutional decay that started during the BJP regime gained momentum under Mr. Siddaramaiah. While being apparently free of blemish of big-ticket corruption of the kind that the BJP rule had witnessed, Mr. Siddaramaiah’s regime has both tolerated and encouraged the highly debilitating retail corruption. The State’s notorious bureaucratic-transfer industry seems to thrive unabated. The Karnataka Lokayukta has been made ineffective. The Karnataka Public Service Commission’s reputation has suffered further with the kind of persons that Mr. Siddaramaiah picked as its members and chairperson. No wonder, a national survey has placed Karnataka at the top of the nation’s corruption graph.
Mr. Siddaramaiah knows full well that institution building and reforms will not fetch him votes. It also seems to be his thinking that corruption does not matter in elections as long as big scams are kept at bay. However, what goes unrecognised is that no innovation in genuine redistributive justice or equitable economic development is possible if the public institutions are left unreformed and public recruitments and postings remain patronage-based. Finally, that the Siddaramaiah government is yet to strike a chord with the urban middle class also makes a statement on the politics and governance of the past four years.
(Narayana A. is faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.)