Karnataka: Siddaramaiah gives away freebies with an eye on Assembly election

19 March 2016 is not a date Siddaramaiah would remember too fondly. The power supply snapped twice inside the Karnataka Assembly while he was presenting the state budget. The chief minister let his irritation show, muttering "what is happening here" even as his colleagues helped him read the speech with the help of a mobile phone torchlight.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

If 2016 was an embarrassing commentary on the power situation in Karnataka, the 2017 budget has been an effort to ensure power does not fail Siddaramaiah when he makes a bid to renew it next year. It was a please-all financial exercise from Siddaramaiah, who was presenting the budget for the 12th time in his career.

At the pre-budget dinner he hosted for the media on Tuesday, Siddaramaiah tucked in just two idlis. When asked why such a frugal meal, he replied, "My wife is waiting for me at home. And why eat too much when there are so many in Karnataka going without food.''

In hindsight, it was a broad hint at what was to follow the next morning, with Siddaramaiah borrowing a leaf from the late Jayalalithaa's book. Amma canteens that provide heavily subsidised and hygienic food through hundreds of outlets in Tamil Nadu, will be replicated as 'Namma Canteen' (our canteen) across the Cauvery. Siddaramaiah would hope this welfare move that will sell breakfast for Rs 5 and lunch for Rs 10, would be received well by the poor, even if it is clearly with an eye on their vote.

One idli, one vote, parcel!

Siddaramaiah, wearing his Santa Claus hat three months late, had something for everyone in his bag of goodies. If he pleased the urban Kannadiga by capping the price of tickets at multiplexes at Rs 200, as a sop to rural households he increased the food grains distribution under the subsidised Anna Bhagya scheme from 5 kg to 7 kg per person.

The agriculture sector that is in deep distress in Karnataka, with an unprecedented drought situation, received an allocation of Rs 5080 crore, up 16 percent from last year. On the other end of the spectrum, he gave the lovers of Bacchus a high by lifting VAT on wine, beer and hard liquor. As in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, Siddaramaiah also announced free laptops for first year engineering, medical and polytechnic students.

Bengaluru, for obvious reasons, came in for special attention. Siddaramaiah realises that the controversy over the steel flyover, now shelved, and the allegations of corruption at his doorstep will have a bearing on how the state capital votes next May. With 28 of the state's 224 Assembly seats, Bengaluru is critical to who becomes the next occupant of the Vidhana Soudha.

The CM is aware that anything that happens in Bengaluru gets magnified several times over, because of a hyperactive media reporting on the issues faced by 20 percent of Karnataka's 6 crore population.

With traffic a major concern for Bengalureans, who take to social media to give every problem a life of its own, his budget proposes widening the Hebbal flyover besides developing 150 km of road. Buses will go electric, especially in Mysuru, Siddaramaiah's backyard, which has seen political support eroding with the desertion by former colleagues.

From a garden city, Bengaluru is now internationally infamous as a city of burning and frothing lakes. The CM proposes to develop ten lakes, including Bellandur and Varthur lakes, at a cost of Rs 42 crore. The only hitch is that he had promised much the same last year, that he will dip into the lake development cess of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board to take up rejuvenation work of Bellandur and Varthur lakes. Promises were not worth the budget paper they were printed on.

Every government in an election year tends to dish out a non-taxing budget to soothe frayed nerves and Siddaramaiah is no exception. But the question is whether this has come too late in the day. It comes at a time when several political heavyweights — from SM Krishna to Srinivas Prasad to Kumar Bangarappa — have bid goodbye to the Congress. The perception that the government is not pro-citizen and is arrogant by nature, has not helped its cause.

With Uttar Pradesh giving fresh energy to the BJP wings, Siddaramaiah's budget betrays his nervousness. Karnataka, along with Punjab, are only the two big states ruled by the Congress. But the party interprets it as an exercise to show that it is able to give something to every section, indicating an inclusive governance agenda.

While the proposals will give Siddaramaiah a chance to go on a foundation-stone laying spree to showcase intent, many other decisions are more band-aid in nature, rather than looking at long-term solutions. The crisis in the agrarian sector for instance, is linked to farm loans, availability of water in the Cauvery delta and providing subsidised food in the districts through mobile canteens can at best be a soothener.

At a personal level, Siddaramaiah knows if the Congress loses, it will be tough for him to become chief minister again. Within the Congress, he is still seen as a Janata Dal import and the original Congressmen would try to push him out of the power race before 2023 comes calling. This budget, therefore comes gift-wrapped, with compliments from Siddaramaiah.

Given the position he is in, Siddaramaiah has put his best foot forward. What he needs to do next is to go in for an image makeover, to ensure his regime comes across as more receptive to problems faced by people on the ground. The nomenclature of 'Namma canteen' is fine, the government needs to be seen as `Namma sarkar' too.

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 15:28:46 IST

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