NEW DELHI: Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is the one person counter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the southern state that will be going to the polls soon. An old Janata Dal hand Siddaramaiah has taken the lead in directly confronting PM Modi on the social media even as he uses Kannada pride to cut into the communal campaign being run in the state by the BJP and its affiliates.

A visit to Bengaluru shows that despite an anti-incumbency strain, there is lurking admiration for the now outspoken Chief Minister who has become far more visible in the last several months. And is making up for average oratory skills with a language that is direct, and brutal at times insofar as the BJP is concerned. He is being helped by the BJP’s choice of CM candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa who is perceived as corrupt by the Karnataka street. A perception that Siddaramaiah has successfully fed into further.

Siddaramaiah is playing on Kannada pride. He has been speaking of a state flag ---like Jammu and Kashmir---and playing on the language issue that has become very sensitive in the state as against the Hindi aggressiveness of the BJP. Interestingly, the BJP given its larger ideology is finding it difficult to cut into this and the campaign so far has been skirting the issues of regionalism in a manner that has been noticed by the local electorate. The CM has made it very clear that a vote for the BJP would lead to hegemony of the Hindi heartland, and submerge Kannada pride in a deluge of Hindi nationalists from the north. This campaign has been cutting into the communal divisiveness of the BJP, with Siddaramaiah ---unlike the traditional Congress leaders---not at all hesitant to frontally attack the hate campaign.

The Congress central command has been reduced to bystanders with party president Rahul Gandhi reportedly having taken a decision to allow Siddaramaiah to remain in the lead. He has no real choice as the Chief Minister has emerged as the party’s most creditable campaigner, with a political acumen that is now visible to even his critics in the party. He has set the tone and the tenor of the election campaign, raised the decibels, and moved it into a direct anti Modi level that the BJP is finding difficult to counter. The CM has been extolling the achievements of his government to cut into the anti-incumbency factor, and at the same time urging the people not to make the mistake of voting for a party that is sunk deep in the north Hindi heartland with no understanding of Karnataka.

He played on this further during the visit of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to Karnataka, and following the Kerala pattern, showed up the visitor for his lack of knowledge about the southern state. At the same time, as the tweet below demonstrates, he took away the moral right of Adityanath to speak of a state that was doing well with Siddaramaiah urging him to first address the starvation deaths being reported from UP instead.These issues kindle Kannada pride, and have got the CM support at a time when he was expected to be in the electoral dock.

Interestingly, the CM has not shied away from the communal aspect of the BJP campaign. And has said that while Rahul Gandhi would visit temples in Karnataka, he would also visit mosques and churches as part of India’s composite culture. He has made it clear that the Congress respects “all religions” and would not be directed by the BJP agenda.

The Congress party seems to have decided to work under Siddaramaiah’s leadership and not rock the boat as it tried in Punjab where Amarinder Singh had to jump obstacles from within the party. The Karnataka CM comes from a different stock, and does not have the servility associated with the traditional Congressperson. He was with the Janata Dal initially, fought and left after differences with HD Deve Gowda, was going to form his own regional party, but then joined the Congress on his own terms. Siddaramaiah is not likely to stay in the party if he is not given a free hand, and given his knowledge of his home state and his political instincts New Delhi has decided to go along with him.

The CM is also playing very successfully on the sharing of waters issue, that is a burning concern in Karnataka. From the ordinary taxi driver to the affected farmer, the BJP is not seen on the side of Karnataka and Siddaramaiah has been very shrewdly addressing this, maintaining just last month in response to a letter to him by the Tamil Nadu government, that it would not be possible to release the water. “We do not have enough how can we release it to Tamil Nadu,” he said with yet another tick in the box next to his name on this. The BJP being in power at the centre cannot take a definitive stand on what is now a major topic for discussion in the state, with a bearing on the polls.

In attacking PM Modi, the Chief Minister is not restricting himself to local issues. He has been speaking of the government’s failures at the national level, such as the PM’s failure to realise his promise to bring back black money. He has attacked the BJP on communalism making it very clear that while he was a Hindu, he believed in tolerance and not hate and violence of the kind the BJP was trying to drum up. He said that instead of development the BJP was trying to drive a wedge amongst the people on communal lines.

It is reported that Rahul Gandhi has put together a 100 member team for Karnataka but unlike Gujarat where he called the shots, this time around Siddaramaiah will be in charge. The older troublemakers in the party have been sidelined since the Gujarat polls, and Karnataka will be an election run and managed by the CM with support from the Congress president.