Politics Perverted

As the recent crisis shows, governance in Karnataka does not even pretend to be incorruptible; politicians have declared themselves for sale

Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa and BJP leader Sushma Swaraj address their supporters at a rally in Bangalore in June 2010. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo
01 November, 2010

POLITICS IN KARNATAKA HAS TOUCHED A NADIR, and governance has been reduced to a parody by corruption and opportunism. The open venality in the workings of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government headed by Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa—the first state in southern India to be governed entirely by the right-wing Hindu nationalist party without a coalition—has overshadowed the almost equally corrupt coalition and Congress governments that preceded it. Since its incumbency two years and four months ago, the state government in Bangalore has lurched from one shameful political crisis to another.

As the rest of the country celebrated the festive season, Karnataka was crippled by a constitutional crisis. Uniformed policemen entered the precincts of the Vidhana Soudha, the state assembly, to control unruly legislators, one of whom rather primally jumped on a table, tore his shirt and bared his chest for the media’s cameras. Then, whole batches of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) were deposited in fancy resorts in Goa to prevent them from getting ‘enticed’—which is rather transparent politesse for ‘horse-trading’—by rival affiliations. It came to light that the MLAs had hardly been shanghaied: they had made themselves available to the highest bidder.

The worst in politics emerges when there’s a fight for survival, and the BJP hit back by repeatedly questioning the neutrality of Governor Hans Raj Bhardwaj, a former Union law minister and long-term Gandhi-family loyalist, who had made clear his intentions to dismiss the state government. To the BJP’s delight, Bhardwaj and the Congress high command fell out on the issue of autonomy. (Of course, a Constitutional functionary such as a governor is, in theory, supposed to be above party affiliations, but history shows that few governors have been deterred by such niceties.)

On 10 October, just a day ahead of a trust vote by Yeddyurappa, the Speaker of the Karnataka assembly had disqualified 11 purportedly ‘rogue’ BJP MLAs and five Independent MLAs under the provisions of the anti-defection law. Amidst a cacophonic, chaotic legislative session, the speaker then went on to declare the chief minister’s confidence motion carried by a voice vote. This was challenged by the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) led by HD Deve Gowda.

The governor called the proceedings unconstitutional and recommended President’s rule in the state. The next day, however, he gave Yeddyurappa a second opportunity to prove his majority, which the chief minister did on 14 October, scraping through by a thin majority (106 to 100) in a thinned assembly. Taken aback by this flicker of unexpected gubernatorial independence, the Congress high command then washed its hands of Bhardwaj.

The genesis of the sorry mess in Karnataka can be traced to the 2004 assembly elections, which had left no party with sufficient legislators to form a government on its own. Of the 224 seats in the state assembly, the BJP had won 79, the Congress 65 and the JD(S) 58. Both the BJP and the Congress were initially reluctant to rule by coalition. But to keep the BJP out of power, Deve Gowda of the JD(S) decided to tie-up with the Congress. The resulting coalition government, headed by the Congress’ N Dharam Singh, survived for all of 20 months. Deve Gowda’s son, HD Kumaraswamy, then switched back and struck a deal with the BJP in February 2006 to form a government with him as chief minister and Yeddyurappa as his deputy.

The two parties entered into an informal power-sharing agreement in which the post of chief minister would be rotated, with each party holding it for 20 months, until the next elections. It was unique to a parliamentary democracy that in this period the Karnataka government was headed by three different political parties—the Congress, the JD(S) and the BJP—without any elections to decide incumbency. The state assembly was eventually suspended on October 2007 and federal rule imposed after Kumaraswamy refused to honour the bargain and make way for Yeddyurappa. A month later, though, the BJP and the JD(S) formed a government, now with the former heading the coalition. A week later, the coalition fell apart when the two parties failed to come to an agreement over power-sharing. Fresh elections were called.

A snafu of this kind is hardly a new thing in Karnataka politics. In May 2008, when the BJP had realised that it was three seats short of a majority in the state assembly, it had had no qualms about buying over independent MLAs using money from the infamous Gali Reddy brothers and their associates, who control major iron ore mining and export operations in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Blind to irony, the BJP crowed that it had formed, for the first time, a government in a south Indian state “on its own.”

In November 2009, after Chief Minister Yeddyurappa called for a ‘contribution’ of 1,000 rupees—ostensibly meant for the flood-affected—from the owners of each truck that carried iron ore out of Bellary district, the Gali Reddy brothers, two of whom had by then become influential ministers, precipitated a political crisis that threatened the survival of the state government. The crisis was resolved only after the BJP leadership in New Delhi intervened and after the chief minister removed one of his confidantes (Shobha Karandlaje, former minister for rural development and panchayati raj) and transferred key government officials.

Yeddyurappa’s payback wasn’t late in coming, though, as subsequent investigations of the Gali Reddy brothers by various agencies, including the state Lokayukta (People’s Ombudsman), revealed that their cronies were involved in large-scale illegal mining. Yeddyurappa decided to reshuffle his cabinet and re-induct Karandlaje. In the process, he offended another set of MLAs (including some Independents) that had become attached to the unofficial perks of office. The state government teetered yet again. To a large extent, Yeddyurappa has no one to blame but himself for the capriciousness of his legislators: it is no secret that members of his family and his associates are themselves embroiled in land scams.

So, the developments in Karnataka have left observers shocked, but not surprised. State politics has long been overrun by lobbies. Not too long ago, the liquor lobby and education barons, who took hefty ‘donations’ (capitation fees) to give admission to students, controlled the levers of power in the state. It’s a state in which corporate entities that create state-of-the-art computer software co-exist with a mining mafia of stunning rapacity. It is a state that has governance of the kind that defies the logic of democracy.