The line of politicians making their way to meet Siddaramaiah, just days after calling him every possible vile name, is reassuring.

At Siddaramaiahs hospital bedside Kannada kalachara still going strongYediyurappa meeting Siddaramaiah at the hospital.
news Opinion Sunday, December 15, 2019 - 11:11

For political watchers in Karnataka who have been witnessing with gathering dismay the plummeting public debates among politicians during elections, the pictures from the hospital bedside of former Chief Minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiah are a reassurance: the old ‘accommodative’ and ‘generous’ tags, that were considered characteristic of the Kannada people, is not completely dead yet.

Siddaramaiah, subject of much vituperative diatribe from opposition leaders in the last few elections, has been inundated with visits from his friends in the political class, including Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa and over half his cabinet, as he recovers from an angioplasty. This is just days after he resigned as Opposition Leader following the poor showing by his party in the recent bye-elections in Karnataka. The visits should not have been surprising, or indeed the subject of an article; but given that political divides are now splitting up long-standing friends, families, and couples across the country, a show of warmth and affection towards a rival politician by those that abused him with choice words, at the very basic level, is now assuming shades of novelty.

Sreeramulu meeting Siddaramaiah at the hospital

A senior political journalist from Delhi, who was visiting Karnataka during the 2018 polls, was rather surprised that Yediyurappa, Siddaramaiah and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda of the JD(S) – strong political rivals and mass leaders who have fought pitched electoral battles against each other – spoke about each other with tolerance, ease, comfort, and even affection in private conversations. “This does not really happen in other states,” he told this reporter.

For years, the general public has seen this private comfort zone of politicians as an exclusive club of I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine. That is probably even true to an extent, but Karnataka politics and political debate had, until the early 2000s, mostly been characterised by mutual politeness among the political class. The barbs and political points would be as sharp as elsewhere, but the way it was expressed was in keeping with what is called “Kannada kalachaara” or Kannada’s cultural ways.

Some of the most famous proponents of this art of using barbs without crossing the limits of public decorum include former Chief Ministers Ramakrishna Hegde, SM Krishna, JH Patel, and former deputy CM MP Prakash. Patel used wit to deadly effect, so much so that even those against whom he applied it, would double up with laughter and have no option but to concede defeat.

The floor of the Legislative Assembly that now very rarely sees any real exchange of wit – though there are plenty of political barbs – was a battleground that the stalwarts mentioned above used to slice their opponents down with none of the knives visible. I recall an incident in the 2000s, when PGR Sindhia, then floor leader of the Janata Dal (United), the second largest opposition party after the BJP in that SM Krishna-led Congress government, was ripping apart some government policies during a debate.

After listening to Sindhia’s speech with patience, Krishna got up. “I have listened to our esteemed leader and friend, Sindhia,” he began and started to respond point by point. He repeatedly referred to “the esteemed mass leader Sindhia.” When he said it for the third time, Sindhia could no longer tolerate it. “Abuse me if you will, but please stop these sarcastic digs!” he said as the Assembly laughed and Krishna maintained his poker face, having succeeded in what he set out to do.

Patel, a Chief Minister from the Janata Dal in the late 1990s, was dealing with the issue of a High Court bench for North Karnataka, which was a major demand of those days that got fulfilled later. The Karnataka government had asked the Union government and the Supreme Court to fulfil this demand, but it hadn’t happened and Patel was being harangued in the Assembly by politicians from North Karnataka, mostly from the Congress.   

Patel listened to all that was said about his ineffectiveness in getting the Union government to move on the issue. The debate went on for most of the day and he sat through it. At the end, when he got up to respond, the MLAs were hoping he would say or outline some concrete counter to what had been said so far against him and his government. Patel looked speculatively around the Assembly, turned to the legislature marshall and staff standing around and said: “These people seem to want a bench. Please will some of you go, get one, and give it to them, so that they will leave me in peace and we can actually do whatever work we are in a position to do?”

His timing was such that the entire Assembly, including the MLAs who were going hammer and tongs against him, started laughing. He got his point across – that he was not in a position to do anything more – and did it in such a way that nobody was offended and all points were answered in just that one line.

For a state with this kind of tradition, the last decade has been rather daunting as the vile abuse and the use of the singular rather than plural by politicians in public speeches has been nothing short of distressing. In the wake of that, the line of politicians making their way to Siddaramaiah’s hospital bedside, just days after calling him every possible vile name, is reassuring in the sense that the basic nature of the Kannada sensibility still appears to be what it was, over 10 years ago.

Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years. Views expressed are author's own.

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