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Power and pelf

Published : Nov 04, 2011 00:00 IST

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The BJP's image has taken a beating in Karnataka, with many of its senior leaders facing corruption charges.

in Bangalore

IN power for over 40 months and surviving more on a wing and a prayer, rather than because of political astuteness, good governance or administrative acumen. This could very well sum up the status of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka.

The factor that helped the party hold on to its only government in the south is its victory in all but one of the byelections to the State Assembly held over the past three years, aided by the non-functional, disjointed and sterile performance of the opposition parties. A senior Minister said: Lady Luck has certainly smiled on us every time we came up against a problem and it looked like we might be losing our government.

Political victory in the south had always been an avowed goal of the BJP ever since it was carved out of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. That wish came true in May 2008 when the Karnataka electorate catapulted the saffron party to power, relegating both the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) to the status of minor players. But victory at the hustings and the rise to power brought with it a fair share of troubles for the BJP.

Its administration has been lacklustre and its handling of key issues such as the power crisis and development of infrastructure poor. Faction fights, jockeying for political positions and, worse, the ignominy of being forced to jettison its Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa in July after he was indicted by the Karnataka Lokayukta in the illegal mining scam, have upset the party with a difference. The Lokayukta, N. Santhosh Hegde, indicted several seasoned and influential BJP politicians on charges ranging from corruption, nepotism and misuse of office for personal gain to criminal trespass and misconduct causing loss to the exchequer, forgery and stashing away of black money in tax havens abroad.

In August, a Bangalore city court issued summons to Yeddyurappa in connection with 16 cases of corruption. His two sons, one of whom is a BJP Member of Parliament, have been asked to appear before the court in connection with illegal land deals. The same court sent former Minister Katta Subramanya Naidu to judicial custody on charges of irregularities in the payment of compensation for land acquired by the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board. His son, Katta Jagadish, a Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike councillor, was also sent to judicial custody after his bail plea was rejected. Jagadish had been arrested in October last year for allegedly bribing a witness in the case, but was later bailed out.

Another BJP Minister, C.P. Yogeshwar, is in trouble with the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SIFO) of the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs, which has accused him of corporate fraud, criminal conspiracy, forgery and cheating. It has recommended criminal prosecution. The SIFO had been investigating complaints against Megacity (Bangalore) Developers and Builders Limited, of which Yogeshwar is the managing director. Calls for his resignation are getting louder.

The first week of September saw the party's already badly dented image take another beating, with the arrest by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of former Tourism Minister Gali Janardhana Reddy, one of the three influential Reddy brothers of Bellary. The mining businesses of the brothers Janardhana Reddy, G. Karunakara Reddy and G. Somashekhara Reddy and their confidant, B. Sriramulu, who have wielded considerable influence in the State party ever since they became part of BJP leader Sushma Swaraj's campaign team when she contested the Lok Sabha byelection from Bellary against Congress president Sonia Gandhi in 1999, are all under scrutiny by the CBI.

Recent investigations have revealed that a number of politicians (including some senior BJP leaders) in cahoots with private builders and housing societies flouted rules, acquired prime land including agricultural land, and defrauded genuine members of residential sites, all for personal considerations. The housing sites imbroglio has already taken its toll, with the BJP government's nominee for the post of Lokayukta, Justice Shivraj Patil (who faced allegations that he and his wife owned three sites in Bangalore in violation of rules), stepping down from his post hardly a month after assuming charge.

The BJP's woes can be traced to the May 2008 Assembly elections when it fell tantalisingly short of a simple majority and had to lure legislators from the opposition to rustle up a working majority. Through Operation Lotus, the BJP was able to woo members of other parties and boost its strength in the Assembly, but it found itself saddled with legislators not in tune with its ideology or hierarchy and seeking ministerial positions. Much to the irritation of party loyalists, these new entrants were obliged. This disconnect, according to many party men, resulted in unease at the grass roots.

The party's tenure in power has also been marked by internal clashes. Initially it was the Bellary mining barons who, having bankrolled the election expenses of a number of legislators, wanted to rule the roost. Yeddyurappa just about rode that storm out. But at every step of the way he had to contend with his bete noire, BJP general secretary Ananth Kumar, who, as party insiders aver, would love to lead the party.

The political tug-of-war between the two was all too evident during the acrimonious run-up to the secret ballot that decided who would succeed Yeddyurappa as Chief Minister. While the Yeddyurappa camp put up D.V. Sadananda Gowda (who was elected later), the Ananth Kumar faction's nominee was the Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Jagadish Shettar. Insiders said that although the proxy skirmishes between these two leaders for control of the party were still on, reality would make them see reason and call a truce.

Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda, whose style of functioning, utterances, body language and response to review meetings have been remarkably refreshing compared with that of his predecessor, is walking a tightrope between Yeddyurappa and Ananth Kumar. He has been frequently meeting Ananth Kumar in a bid to smoothen ties. Yeddyurappa, who is facing a number of court cases, is today surrounded more by legal experts than by party leaders.

Said a senior Minister: The central leadership looked the other way when Yeddyurappa was the Chief Minister and took no action despite a number of complaints against his style of functioning. Now it has become more proactive.

According to K.S. Eshwarappa, president of the BJP State unit, the high command has discussed and resolved issues between the various leaders and made it clear that there is no question of any single leader, rather all leaders are equal.

Senior Ministers told Frontline that Cabinet meetings, which were hitherto ritualistic or cursory, are now more involved, lively and detailed in nature, and that the feeling among legislators was that the Chief Minister is applying his mind and taking sincere steps at restoring the image of the party in Karnataka.

Leaders in private confessed that Yeddyurappa's legal predicament and the Bellary mining barons' tribulations were in many ways a blessing in disguise for the party. With both these groups preoccupied with these, Sadananda Gowda is allowed to chart his own course and hopefully clean up the image of the party.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 04, 2011.)

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