Why corruption isn’t a poll issue in Karnataka

If the BJP finds itself on the back foot today,it isn’t because of corruption scandals,but due to the splintering of its social coalition

Written by Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi | Published: April 11, 2013 3:16 am

If the BJP finds itself on the back foot today,it isn’t because of corruption scandals,but due to the splintering of its social coalition

As the stage is set for the state assembly elections in Karnataka,former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda recently made a surprising admission: corruption is not an issue in the upcoming elections,and the precipitous decline in political morality can only be arrested by the voting public.

That realism is the source of Gowda’s frankness,and not cynicism,is clear to any keen observer of Karnataka’s politics. But the veteran politician was also stating another essential truth: that the decline in political morality is a broader social phenomenon and not unique to the political class. Hence,corruption has come to be condoned as an acceptable political practice.

Consider the context of Gowda’s remarks. Over the past decade,Karnataka has acquired the dubious distinction of being among the most corrupt states,competing with the likes of Jharkhand. A former chief minister and three of his cabinet members are being prosecuted. Justice Santosh Hegde,in his capacity as Karnataka lokayukta,documented the plundering of natural resources and blatant violation of laws by politician-entrepreneurs. Numerous complaints have been filed with the Karnataka lokayukta against leading politicians from all parties,including former chief ministers,and investigations continue.

Yet,discomfort over the issue of corruption has been restricted largely to the English media,and possibly some upper-class activists. Politicians might invoke corruption rhetorically,but rarely do they propose concrete anti-corruption measures. The BJP government,whose national party donned the role of an anti-corruption crusader inside Parliament as the UPA’s scandals piled up and the debate over the Lokpal bill heated up,even stalled the appointments of the lokayukta for years,let alone strengthened the institution.

Why,then,has corruption not become a core electoral issue,despite the nationwide anti-corruption campaign in recent times?

Consider this: corruption is no longer a visible act,like bribe-taking or collecting commission on state projects. Rather,it has become broad-based manipulation of public policy for private profit and hence,invisible. Notions of the public good are absent from policymaking,as the politician-entrepreneur has taken centrestage. Perhaps this was true even two decades ago,when politicians began establishing capitation-fee-paying medical and technical institutions,or started mining granite. But now the scale of profits,especially from mining (iron ore in Bellary and surrounding districts),as well as the real estate industry in Bangalore,has transformed political culture and policymaking.

Note that the beneficiaries of this new corruption aren’t the old elite from the landowning castes,but upstarts from all caste and economic backgrounds. Invariably,they have entered politics to consolidate their burgeoning business interests and mould public policy for their benefit. Janardhan Reddy is perhaps the best known example of this new breed of politician.

If there hasn’t been vocal opposition to such manipulation of public policy,the reason is simple: this new corruption is often justified as a victimless crime,since only the natural resources owned by the state are being exploited,and no single individual is victimised. More significantly,the spoils of this new corruption are generously shared and percolate to different sections of society. Sharing the wealth of these illicit activities has become the basis for a new political populism in Karnataka.

For instance,apart from feeding people,distributing free rations,clothes and cash to the needy on a daily basis,politicians also offer a wide range of services: distributing sewing machines,pressure cookers,books and scholarships to students,sending people on pilgrimages and so on. Even access to government programmes such as health or crop insurance is mediated through the local politician who will do the paperwork and pay the premium from his pocket. The goal of such largesse is to cultivate loyalty to an individual politician,rather than to a party or an ideology. Not surprisingly,crossing party lines has become quite common,and the BJP’s “Operation Kamala” to seduce opposition party MLAs became a celebrated political tactic.

Unlike the Congress and the JD(S),the BJP in Karnataka was nimble enough to recognise this emerging political culture. Thus,the gateway to the south wasn’t opened by ideological purity or its Hindutva agenda. Instead,the BJP rose to power by diluting its ideology and providing political opportunities for mining barons like the Reddy brothers or the beneficiaries of the real estate boom in Bangalore. From 2004 on,these new entrants generated a new electoral paradigm of heavy spending from personal fortunes and building personal loyalty,both among party activists and voters. They came from several politically under-represented backward castes,which enabled the BJP to build a larger social coalition.

B.S. Yeddyurappa was the ideal conduit for facilitating this expansion. Moreover,he consolidated Lingayat votes for the BJP and recruited leaders from the Congress. In 2008 and afterward,Yeddyurappa emerged as a shrewd manager of elections,and his stewardship brought rich electoral rewards for the BJP. Since the 2008 elections,he had assiduously cultivated different caste groups by dispensing state resources lavishly.

If the BJP finds itself on the back foot today,it isn’t because of corruption scandals or bad governance; rather,it is the splintering of the social coalition the party had assembled. The departure of Yeddyurappa and the Sriramulu-Reddy factions is a severe blow,worse than anti-incumbency. The BJP’s leaders might celebrate their exits as a cleansing and proclaim the party’s ideological purity,but even they admit in private that if the party hadn’t splintered,and if Yeddyurappa had remained the chief minister,the BJP would have come back to power despite the internal dissent,corruption scandals and conspicuous absence of a governing philosophy.

To say corruption isn’t an issue in the upcoming elections is to recognise the changes in Karnataka’s political culture. Watch Congress leader and CM frontrunner Siddaramaiah gingerly navigate electoral politics as he is challenged by a political neophyte (a former aide to Yeddyurappa),who has spent enormous sums of money cultivating the former’s Varuna constituency just outside Mysore. That tells the story of the Karnataka elections.

The writer teaches history at the Karnataka State Open University,Mysore

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results