Sliding Rule

Karnataka’s new chief minister will have to deal with rampant indiscipline within a fractured party

Former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, (centre), with newly appointed CM Jagadish Shettar, (right), and Shettar’s predecessor DV Sadananda Gowda. AIJAZ RAHI / AP PHOTO
01 August, 2012

WHEN BS YEDDYURAPPA TOOK OATH as chief minister of Karnataka on 30 May 2008 in front of the imposing Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore, nearly every national leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began repeating the same refrain: that the state would become the party’s gateway in South India. A beaming Yeddyurappa said his next priority was to make LK Advani the prime minister. Now, four years later, the BJP’s southern gateway prediction seems to have met the same fate as the dream of Advani’s prime ministership. Karnataka is the BJP’s southern disaster. As Yeddyurappa’s friend-turned-rival-turned-friend, Jagadish Shettar, assumed office on 12 July as the party’s third chief minister in just over four years, neither the BJP nor Yeddyurappa seem to have any clue as to where the party is heading in the state.

After stepping down as chief minister in August last year following charges of corruption, Yeddyurappa had his trusted lieutenant DV Sadananda Gowda installed as his successor, but continued to function as a kind of de-facto chief minister with the help of MLAs loyal to him. But when Gowda, whose clean administration was a welcome reprieve from Yeddyurappa’s scam-tainted regime, began asserting his independence and refused to follow the dictates set forth by Yeddyurappa, it cost him his post. Bowing to Yeddyurappa’s demands once again, the BJP has given the chief minister’s seat to Jagadish Shettar, who belongs to Yeddyurappa’s Lingayat community. The BJP found it difficult to defend the leadership change, but indicated that aside from keeping Yeddyurappa in good humour, it wanted a Lingayat as chief minister in the election year—the party is banking on the support of the Lingayats, who constitute roughly 16 percent of the state’s population. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which claims to work for a casteless society, did not raise even a finger to protest this. It had no qualms replacing Gowda because he did not have the right caste tag to contest the 2013 Assembly elections. In asking Yeddyurappa to step down last year, the BJP had claimed that it did not tolerate corruption. But by replacing Gowda with Shettar, it sent out a message that when it suits the party’s electoral purposes, it would not shy away from caste-based discrimination. The hypocrisy within the party and its ideological wing was a sign of how desperate the BJP was to win.

The lengths to which the BJP has gone to remain in power, however, reveal how tenuous their hold in the state has been to begin with. In 2008, the party won 110 seats in the 224-member Assembly—the largest number that the BJP has ever held in Karnataka. However, these figures alone were not an indication of the party’s strength. The BJP government that came to power in 2008 was a single-party government only in a technical sense. In reality, it was a coalition made up of three incompatible partners. First, there were the politicians who migrated from the erstwhile Janata Dal, JD(S) and JD(U). These feudal lords, most of who are from the politically powerful Lingayat community, have in the past switched parties as it suited them—and this time around it was to the BJP. Second were the Reddys of Bellary who constituted the state’s new super-rich class, which could win elections by the sheer heft of their wallets. The original core of the BJP, led by Yeddyurappa, was the third partner, dependent on the other two groups for money and political support. All three benefited equally from the groundswell of Lingayat support that had come the BJP’s way in 2008, when the JD(S) chief minister HD Kumaraswamy reneged on his commitment to hand over the position to coalition leader Yeddyurappa after 20 months in power.

Looking back even further to the 1990s, a decade when the BJP’s fortunes began to improve all over the country, the party’s growth in Karnataka was positive but not significant. In 1994, the party went from a mere four seats in the Assembly to 40, but came nowhere near forming a government. In the 1999 elections, its performance improved only marginally, reaching 44 seats. In 2004, when the BJP’s popularity peaked at the national level, the party was able to win only 79 seats in the state, which helped it form a coalition government with a JD(S) faction. The 2004 performance was the best the BJP could achieve in Karnataka on the strength of its Hindutva ideology and nationalist image alone. The additional 25 seats it won in 2008 materialised out of the money-bag politics of the Reddys, the strength of politicians who migrated  from the JD and sympathy votes from the Lingayats.

Coming to power in Karnataka was one thing, but governing was altogether another—the BJP has been desperate to sustain the support of all the groups that helped it in 2008. But the party quickly learnt the limitations of the strategy that won them the state. For the first two years in office, the Yeddyurappa government was a virtual puppet in the hands of the Reddys. That is, until the Reddys got into legal trouble because of their alleged dubious business practices. In the meantime, Yeddyurappa’s own strategy of neutralising money-bag politics by making more money through illegal land and mining deals cost him the chief minister’s post. He was forced to resign after the Karnataka Lokayukta indicted him on charges of corruption. By that point, the BJP’s continued fortunes in the state rested solely on retaining the support of the migrants and the Lingayats. So it was only natural that when Gowda fell out of favour of Yeddyurappa and other Lingayat MLAs, he was sacrificed.

A disgruntled MLA who failed to make it to the new Karnataka cabinet headed by Jagadish Shettar remarked that he had not yet lost hope because he expected one of the ministers to land in jail soon, and that the chief minister might then be able to accommodate him in the cabinet, which has no vacancy at the moment.

Sarcasm apart, this statement points to something significant. The BJP’s story in Karnataka is not just that of corruption and caste politics. A closer observation of events that often escape the media’s attention points to some dangerous trends. What is generally considered unusual has become usual during the BJP’s reign. Scant regard for the rule of law and democratic procedures by MLAs and ministers has been so commonplace that such incidents are hardly frowned upon. In fact, the very legitimacy of the government has remained questionable from the moment the BJP took power. Having won three seats short of a simple majority in 2008, it first took the support of five independent MLAs to form the government. So far so good. But then the party began to consolidate its position by luring opposition MLAs to resign and re-contest as BJP candidates. And thanks to the power of funds, most of these candidates won the elections for the BJP. The government got the numbers it needed, but one could hardly consider it a genuine mandate of the people. Rather, it was a mandate obtained by mutating the genes of democratic polity.

The abuse of power by ministers and MLAs has never been so rampant in the past. When he was home minister in Yeddyurappa’s cabinet, the present Deputy Chief Minister R Ashok went to a movie with some of his minions at a multiplex in Bangalore. He was late and the movie had already begun. When Ashok promptly ordered that it be restarted, the theatre authorities obliged. In a more violent incident, Labour Minister BN Bachche Gowda once thrashed a youngster when he tried to overtake his car. Ruling party MLAs roughing up officials is routine. Yeddyurappa himself was caught on camera on several occasions slapping his staff. Even the otherwise sober and decent Sadananda Gowda surprised many by ordering the arrest of controversial godman Nityananda Swami as well as a lockout to his ashram, overstepping his powers as a chief minister. Under the BJP, Karnataka has virtually been taken back to the days of feudalism.

More importantly, if the BJP’s four years have exposed anything, it has been the double standards of the RSS. Openly associated with crucial political decisions, the RSS claims to be a cultural organisation, and is perfectly at ease with the new political culture that the BJP has created in Karnataka.