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Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah takes the path of populism before assembly elections

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-10-2017 Sharan Poovanna

Bengaluru: Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah has launched an initiative to provide nutritious meals to expecting and new mothers for almost 15 months, the latest in a series of populist measures ahead of assembly elections next year.

Under Matru Poorna, as the scheme is called, women will be fed from the time they become pregnant until six months after a child is born. It has a budgetary allocation of Rs302 crore.

Karnataka’s Siddaramaiah-led Congress government has launched several populist schemes targeted at poor, and economically and socially disadvantaged sections to help consolidate his image as a pro-poor politician heading into next year’s assembly elections.

From his first year in office (2013), Siddaramaiah has announced schemes benefiting sections including students, transgenders, backward classes, urban poor and even specific caste groups.

They include Anna Bhagya (free rice), Ksheera Bhagya (free milk for students), Pashu Bhagya (cattle subsidies and assistance), Aarogya Bhagya (free healthcare), Mythri (monthly pension for transgenders) and Manswini (monetary help for poor, unmarried and divorced women). The government also announced a farm loan waiver this year to help farmers hit by drought.

The state is also looking to launch a scheme to provide residential flats (25-30 sq. metres) at Rs1 lakh for the socially weaker sections, the Deccan Herald reported on Tuesday.

Sumanth Raman, a Tamil Nadu-based political analyst, said social security fared high in the populist scheme of things.

“For the poor, getting food into their stomachs is first. Second is having some kind of social security in place,” Raman said.

Tamil Nadu—especially under former chief minister, the late J. Jayalalithaa—introduced a flurry of populist schemes under the “Amma” (mother) brand which included setting up canteens to sell low-priced food, medical pharmacies, gymnasiums and even parks.

In Karnataka, Siddaramaiah’s government recently opened Indira canteens to serve subsidized food, a scheme named after the late Congress leader and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The idea was obviously borrowed from Tamil Nadu.

Daily-wage workers who frequent the Indira canteens say who they vote for will depend on the development—or lack of it—in their own constituencies. The canteens won’t influence their vote.

Siddaramaiah’s populist schemes have not been limited to food and nutrition. In successive budgets, he has maintained his focus on minorities, backward classes and dalits. Apart from talking about plans to increase reservations from the existing 50% to 72%, Siddaramaiah commissioned a caste census in 2015—the first since 1932—which experts say would (when released) challenge the dominant community status enjoyed traditionally by the Lingayats and Vokkaligas in the state.

Then there are loan subsidies for business units and for purchase of vehicles, and financial assistance and incentives to students from underprivileged communities.

Raman says the populist schemes may not yield results next year. “Eventually the success of the government is reducing the number of people who need support, which means that you give them the buying power to actually lift them above poverty line and give them a decent life,” he said, highlighting the fact that social security is an important factor.

“Unbridled populism” in the long run can, in fact, make a government unpopular as it will have no money to pay for other important projects, he said.

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