Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses supporters in New Delhi in 2017. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Until a few months ago, most Indians outside the southern state of Karnataka would not have been familiar with the name of Siddaramaiah, the province’s chief minister. He grew up in a community of poor shepherds and did not attend formal school until he was about 10 years old.  But an election later this week in what is home to India’s Silicon Valley has catapulted the 69-year-old Siddaramaiah to center stage.  The contest carries high stakes for both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s opposition parties, which are hoping to unseat him in 2019.

Here’s what makes Siddaramaiah (who belongs to the Indian National Congress, or Congress party) interesting: His campaign has countered the muscular hypernationalism of Modi and his party, the BJP, with sub-nationalism — a strong assertion of regional identity and state pride. He has advocated for a separate state flag and personally ordered that signs in Hindi on city subways be taken down and replaced with those in the region’s own language — Kannada.

And at a time when the rise of the right wing across the world is partly explained by the frou-frou, clubby smugness of liberals, Siddaramaiah offers a fascinating case study of what a non-elite, subaltern liberal can look like.

In some ways, Siddaramaiah’s tough childhood mirrors that of Modi, who grew up as the son of a tea seller. Siddaramaiah told me that the free rice scheme he introduced in his state is rooted in personal memories of going hungry as a kid. Modi has effectively used his extraordinary rise from poverty to power as a weapon to taunt the Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi and the pedigree he inherited as the great-grandson of the country’s first prime minister. With Siddaramaiah, the BJP is unable to play that card.

Siddaramaiah has also borrowed from Modi’s playbook in another way. Before Modi became prime minister, he governed the western state of Gujarat, where he won election after election by framing the fight in terms of Gujarati “asmita” (pride).  Siddaramaiah has attempted to make this election about Kannada pride. But the political similarities between the two men largely end there.

When the right wing made the sale and consumption of beef a dangerous subject, almost no mainstream politician was willing to admit that they ate it, for fear of offending majority Hindu sentiments. Siddaramaiah declared that while he didn’t eat cow meat, if he wished to he most certainly would. When Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed priest who rules the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, attacked him for this position, he hit back. Siddaramaiah reminded him that he had actually reared cattle and cleaned dung, unlike Adityanath. With his  libertarian streak, Siddaramaiah is hoping that he stands as an effective counter to the intrusiveness of far-right Hindu groups.

In a state where rationalists who question religion have been murdered, Siddaramaiah has not hesitated to describe himself as one. In a deeply religious country, liberal elites have often struggled with how to handle questions of faith and secularism. Siddaramaiah’s party, Congress, has belatedly tried to shrug off its anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim tag by attempting to reclaim Hinduism. Siddaramaiah, too, has been photographed bowing before pontiffs or walking about with a lemon gifted to him a by a voter who believed it warded off evil. But later, he has described these moments as examples of mere courtesy rather than conviction. His aides tell me that even when he was repeatedly attacked for being an atheist — a costly label in politics– he did not hesitate to say that while he is a believing Hindu, he did not believe that “God lives in temples.”

So how does he get away with these proclamations in an age of populism? Possibly because, unlike the Westernized, English-speaking progressives in India who have challenged the stranglehold of religion over politics, Siddaramaiah is not rootless. He has located his politics in regional identity and ethnic pride instead of religious triumphalism. All of this is different from itinerant liberals like us who cannot speak in idioms that are understandable to the vast majority of Indians. “His approach to identity is more modern than many educated liberals who feel there is a stigma in talking about language, culture and community,” said one of his closest aides in an on-background conversation with me.

Of course, none of this means that Siddaramaiah gets a pass on issues of governance, law and order, or corruption. Or even that he is beyond dabbling in realpolitik. One of his most contentious decisions was to recommend that the Lingayats, one of the state’s most influential subcommunities, be recognized as a separate religion.

Indians sometimes joke that culturally, the north of the country has more in common with bitter adversary Pakistan (intersections in language, music, food habits) than it does with the south. But linguistics and customs are not all that separates two geographies of India; politics is completely different as well.

Karnataka is among the five southern states standing as the last fortification against the conquering sweep of Modi and the BJP. The South bloc outshines the North in both economic growth and social development indices. The BJP, which has been able to win elections in Karnataka only once, has never been victorious in any other southern state. The ruling party is no doubt hoping that Karnataka can be the key to the South and end its reputation as a party of the Hindi and Hindu heartland.

But whether Siddaramaiah wins or loses this election, liberal politicians generally, and the Congress party in particular, could borrow a lesson from the Karnataka chief minister whose back-to-his-roots identity politics serves as an intriguing counter to the era of populist strongmen.

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