Deve Gowda, Kumaraswamy mutely watch Siddaramaiah's rise

If HD Deve Gowda spends a sleepless night tonight, blame it on Siddaramaiah. Because it was after a bitter falling out with the former prime minister that Siddaramaiah walked out of the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2006 and decided to turn a Congressman. And when the opportunity came tantalisingly close for the two-time deputy chief minister to occupy the top job, Siddaramaiah ensured he won the battle of the secret ballot at the Congress office in Bangalore. In the election today, two in every three MLAs reportedly voted in his favour over Mallikarjun Kharge, the Dalit strongman from the Hyderabad-Karnataka region of the state.

Not that the road to the chief minister's office was easy for this MLA from Varuna constituency in Mysore. The outsider and new entrant tags came into play as the Kharge camp stressed on the loyalty factor in the Union minister's CV. The caste arithmetic also was brought into the calculations as the Kuruba community that Siddaramaiah belongs to is 8 percent of Karnataka's population as compared to the Dalits who comprise 23 percent. A Dalit chief minister in the run-up to general elections, it was argued during the campaign period and after the victory, will be a good selling point to the votebank across India.

Future Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

Future Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

But Siddaramaiah played an aggressive game. In sharp contrast to a typical Congressman who is generally given to acting coy in public, leaving it to the Congress high command to decide on his fortunes, Siddharamaiah even before the counting had begun had thrown his hat into the ring. "Yes, I am one of the frontrunners for the post of CM,'' he declared early on Wednesday morning.

But if he was tense about the results, he showed it. He skipped breakfast that morning and occasionally got annoyed when reports trickled in about some of his key supporters trailing in their constituencies. The poor security at his residence and huge rush of supporters meant he became his own chief security officer, pushing people around, gesticulating angrily.

However, by noon when it became clear that the Congress had secured a clear majority, Siddaramaiah was beginning to enjoy all the jostling and the sweets thrust into his mouth. What must have added to his joy, though he concealed it well, was the defeat of KPCC chief G Parameshwara who too was batting for the chief minister's chair.

What also helped Siddaramaiah's cause is that the Congress leadership is on the back foot now, thanks to Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar episodes and in no position to thrust its choice on the state, a la Vijay Bahuguna in Uttarakhand.

Siddaramaiah who is likely to be sworn in as chief minister by Monday, will bring to the office rich administrative experience. He has held key portfolios under various chief ministers, that will help him put Karnataka back on rails. Governance deficit was a key factor in the BJP's resounding defeat in the assembly elections and Siddaramaiah has seen how the people react when politicians in power put themselves above people.

However, there are many who also point to his feudal nature and acerbic tongue and how he is given to being curt. His critics warn that the knives would be out for him in no time if he rubs his colleagues the wrong way.

If you know how the Congress party works, it would also be naive to imagine that Siddaramaiah would be given a free hand in running the state. Given the number of former chief ministers who are part of the Congress power structure—from Dharam Singh to Veerappa Moily to SM Krishna—Siddaramaiah would have to be a Chanakya of political management to guard against those who will carry tales about him to New Delhi. His freedom could be curtailed by appointing a deputy CM to represent another community and packing his cabinet with ministers who owe their allegiance to different power groups within the party.

Siddaramaiah's immediate political task would be to ensure Karnataka returns a handsome number of MPs to the Congress kitty next April-May. The other important job would be to fund a significant part of the general election.

Meanwhile, all is not lost for Kharge. Reports from New Delhi indicate that with Bansal calling it a day at Rail Bhavan, Kharge's ticket as rail minister will get confirmed in the Emergency quota by 7 Race Course Road.

And back in Bangalore, if you find Siddaramaiah smiling while looking at Deve Gowda's son, HD Kumaraswamy in the opposition benches, you know what must be going through his mind. Never a dull moment in Karnataka's political natakas.