New Delhi: Former Karnataka Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah has emerged as the tallest Congress leader in the state and hopes to bring his party back to power in the 2023 Assembly elections. However, he has also been engaged in a turf war with his bête noire and Pradesh PCC chief, D.K. Shivakumar, who is positioning himself as a possible challenger to his leadership. Siddaramaiah is both astute and perceptive and enjoys considerable support amongst the masses. In an interview to The Sunday Guardian, after his meeting with interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he spoke on various issues including on the consequences of B.S. Yeddiuruppa’s resignation. Excerpts:

Q: You had a meeting with Congress interim president, Mrs Sonia Gandhi for nearly 40 minutes on Tuesday in Delhi. Was the future blueprint of the party on the agenda?

A: I have met Smt Sonia Gandhi many times in the last 15 years. She does not seem like a politician to me but like a committed social worker with strong concern towards the common man and his livelihood.

Her knowledge about contemporary politics and current events has always impressed me. Her assessment of any issue is from the common man’s perspective, instead of like a seasoned politician. This perspective is highly valuable for us and the party.

Even during our recent meeting with the AICC president, she discussed the farmers’ protest, pandemic crisis, inflation, unemployment and other pressing issues. I also briefed her about the initiatives taken as opposition in Karnataka to protest against the failure of BJP. She conveyed her appreciation for our efforts to raise people’s concerns.

Q: Karnataka is perhaps the only southern state where the Congress can make a comeback. Do you see that happening in 2023?

A: There is no doubt about Congress coming back to power again in Karnataka. Karnataka voters are enlightened about the issues here. They will compare the mismanagement by the central and state BJP now with the inclusive development and corruption-free governance of our five-year term between 2013 and 2018. Usually, political parties forget the election manifesto after coming to power. During 2013-18, when I was CM of Karnataka, we delivered all 165 promises that were made in our election manifesto. I am ready to debate about this in any forum. Along with the promises made in manifesto, about 25 more programs were implemented. For example, Indira Canteen.

Immediately after being sworn in as the CM of Karnataka, I implemented Anna Bhagya to provide 5 kg of free rice to each member of 1 crore BPL card beneficiary families. Later the quantum was increased to 7 kg. It was this Anna Bhagya program that helped our people during the pandemic. Narendra Modi government has just copied this.

After seeing the mismanagement of the present BJP government, people are regretting their choice in 2018 elections. After Congress’ defeat in 2004, Karnataka saw 5 Chief Ministers in 10 years. After 2018, Karnataka again saw 3 CMs in 4 years. People are frustrated with unstable government, mismanagement and extreme corruption. People will definitely bless Congress.

Q: I believe that the Lingayats are very unhappy with the BJP for replacing B.S. Yeddiurappa, the tallest leader of their community. How does the Congress propose to exploit this situation to its advantage?

A: Not just Lingayats but everyone from different castes and religions is frustrated by the miserable administration of BJP in the last 2 years. Our party will not attempt to take any political benefit from dissatisfaction within Lingayats.

It is in the blood of BJP to neglect people after squeezing all the benefits from them. People of our country are observing the way their leaders like Lal Krishna Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and others were ill-treated. The tears that rolled down BSY’s eyes during his farewell meet shows how much pain he may have suffered. He should find courage to say it openly.

Q: Should the Congress not prop up a prominent Lingayat face at the state or at the national level?

A: Ours is an inclusive and secular party. We have leaders from all religions and all castes. We will not try to appease any one caste or religion. Shyamnur Shivashankarappa, S.R. Patil, M.B. Patil, Eshwar Khandre and other leaders are also there in our party. In reality, it is the Congress which follows “Sabka saath, Sabka vikas” in both letter and spirit.

Q: You are accused of having a turf war with the PCC president D.K. Shivakumar, who belongs to the Vokkaliga community. However, this community continues to heavily support H.D. Deve Gowda and his son, Kumaraswamy. Would it not make more sense to have a Lingayat as the state president and Mr Shivakumar can be accommodated at the national level?

A: There is no competition or war with KPCC president D.K. Shivakumar. BJP is just trying to create rumours as part of their dirty politics. We have a healthy relationship between us. He was in the cabinet when I was CM. He is a dynamic and creative leader. BJP is trying to trouble him with the help of investigating agencies. We stand strong with D.K. Shivakumar.

Vokkaligas are supporters of Congress party in South Karnataka. History shows that Congress has more Chief Ministers and Ministers from Vokkaliga community. JD(S) is just a family centric party. The feeling that Vokkaligas support JD(S) is just an illusion. We have to remember that in the last Lok Sabha elections, H.D. Devegowda lost in Tumkur where the number of Vokkaligas are high in population. It is also wrong to brand D.K. Shivakumar as just the leader of Vokkaligas.

Q: Did your discussion with Sonia Gandhi factor in the change of leadership in the PCC?

A: There was no discussion with Smt Sonia Gandhi about the change of leadership.

Q: You have been one of the longest serving Chief Ministers of the state and the only one after Devraj Urs who has mastered the art of balancing caste equations? Any comments?

A: Thanks and yes it is true that after Shri Devaraj Urs, only I completed the full 5-year term as Chief Minister of Karnataka. It was the people of Karnataka who voted us to power, and the present AICC president Smt Sonia Gandhi and previous AICC president Shri Rahul Gandhi fully supported and gave me the opportunity to serve as CM.

I have always believed in social justice. Social justice means justice for all, equality and equal distribution of political and economic power. We may have to give preferential distribution for historically marginalised sections due to hierarchy in social (caste) structures. This is necessary to realise equality in our society.

In India, caste system is a reality. It will be hypocrisy if we say that there is no caste. We have to accept that there is caste and then fight against it. Caste balancing does not mean appeasing the leaders of various castes, it means showing concern for everyone from all castes and working to implement programs for the development of everyone. I did the same.

Generally, I am branded as AHINDA leader. But when I was CM of Karnataka, the flagship and popular programs like Anna Bhagya, Ksheera Bhagya, Ksheera Dhare, Krishi Bhagya benefited families from all castes and religions. Also as promised, during my tenure, I implemented irrigation projects worth more than Rs 50,000 Cr.

Q: There have been two former Karnataka CMs who have made it big at the national level. B.D. Jatti became the Vice President of the country and Deve Gowda the Prime Minister. Do you have Prime Ministerial ambitions?

A: I have no interest in national politics and I had made it clear before also. When Shri Rahul Gandhi was AICC president, he invited me to take the charge of AICC general secretary. I had contested in Lok Sabha elections for 2 times before, but people did not support me. Maybe the people of Karnataka want me to continue in state politics. I have never dreamt of Prime Minister’s post. There are many eligible leaders in our party.

Q: There has been a demand by several senior leaders to have an elected AICC president as also an elected Working Committee. Do you have any views on this subject since the Congress does not have a full time chief after Rahul Gandhi resigned, owning moral responsibility for the 2019 Parliamentary election debacle.

A: As a senior journalist, you know more about the history of Congress party than me. In the party’s internal election for the post of AICC president, Smt Social Gandhi participated and won against Jitendra Prasada. Has there ever been an election in BJP to elect their president?

A few of our senior leaders have expressed their opinion to conduct elections to elect AICC president. This is not the opinion of crores of our party workers and our supporters. We have to be proud that there is democracy within our party to express such opinions. Did our party not select the Youth Congress president based on the election results? Have there been such internal elections in other parties?

Shri Rahul Gandhi has shown the courage and openly criticised the failure of the Narendra Modi government in spite of personal targets by BJP which are far from truth, harassment from investigating agencies at the behest of the ruling party and biased media. In my opinion, not just in the interest of our party but also in the interest of the people of our country, Rahul Gandhi should continue to be the president of Indian National Congress. Even if the elections are conducted, the choice of all the Congressmen will be Rahul Gandhi. When we already know the outcome, there is no meaning to the elections.

Q: Do you think that without Yediyurappa campaigning for the party, the BJP would be on the defensive in 2023 Assembly polls. What should be the Congress strategy?

A: BJP has never formed government in Karnataka on its own. BJP went to the Assembly elections in 2018 under the leadership of B.S. Yediyurappa. Though we did not get the majority, Congress got 2% more vote share compared to BJP.

Both people of our state and their own party have rejected the leadership of B.S. Yediyurappa. Many Lingayat leaders within BJP have openly criticised the leadership of B.S. Yediyurappa. There were news reports every day about BJP’s own Lingayat MLA speaking against their own the then CM Yediyurappa.

BJP, in the last 2 years, has taken our state back to where we were 20 years earlier. BJP has entered into defensive mode due to rampant corruption, miserable administration, anti-farmer laws, anti-student new education policy and their own internal conflict. They have always come to power due to unethical Operation Kamala. People are waiting to remove BJP from power.