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Slow rise, sudden fall

Print edition : Nov 05, 2010 T+T-
B.S. YEDDYURAPPA taking the oath of office as the 25th Chief Minister of Karnataka in Bangalore on May 30, 2008.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

B.S. YEDDYURAPPA taking the oath of office as the 25th Chief Minister of Karnataka in Bangalore on May 30, 2008.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The first BJP government in South India has proved to be no different from any other, in the past two and a half years.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) proudly proclaims itself as the party with a difference on its official website www.bjp.org. Two things set the party apart from other national parties as its popularity soared in the country through the 1980s and 1990s. One, its faithful adherence to Hindutva' and second, its disciplined party workers, many of whom were groomed as cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

The website also has the slogan Good Governance, Development & Security emblazoned across its home page. An examination of the performance of the first BJP government in Karnataka, which was sworn in on May 30, 2008, shows that it has failed to live up to either of its much-hyped slogans. Such an examination is also necessary to provide a backdrop to the current political crisis that has engulfed Karnataka.

Gradual growth

The growth of the BJP in Karnataka, as in the rest of the country, was slow and gradual. In its earlier avatar as the Jan Sangh, the party fared miserably with legislative representation only once, in 1967, when four of its candidates were elected. In the 1980s, the party (now the BJP) had minimal representation, with 18 of its candidates being elected to the Assembly in 1983, two in 1985 and four in 1989. It is interesting to note that Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa has won continuously from his constituency of Shikaripur in Shimoga district since 1983 (the only time he lost was in 1999). Through the four Assembly elections that took place during the 1990s and the 2000s, the BJP managed to increase consistently its presence in the Assembly.

The BJP's gains in the legislature were accompanied by a growth of communalism in the State. The coastal region, consisting of the districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada, has often been described as the laboratory of Hindutva in the State. This region provided a great boost to the growth of the party and its many allied organisations such as the Bajrang Dal.

The syncretic shrine of Bababudangiri in the picturesque hills of Chikmagalur was made an issue in the late 1990s, and the BJP gained popularity by the aggressive Hindutva propaganda to convert the shrine into exclusive Hindu property. The issue of a contested idgah (prayer ground) in Hubli through the 1990s also helped the party expand its power base.

From 2004 to 2008

The BJP has always had a relatively strong presence in urban areas across the country, popular as it is with the petty bourgeoisie. With the slight cleavage of religious society that its various causes' brought about and with a refiguring of traditional caste equations in Karnataka (the forward castes and the Lingayats moving towards the BJP), the party increased its political presence in the 2004 elections, winning 78 seats. The Congress won 65 seats, while the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), had to be content with 58.

The Congress and the JD(S) allied to form the government with the Congress' Dharam Singh as Chief Minister. But the coalition lasted only until January 2006 when H.D. Kumaraswamy, JD(S) leader and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda's son, withdrew support along with a chunk of the party's MLAs. Kumaraswamy cited the junior role of the party in the alliance to justify the move, and chose, instead, to ally with the BJP. Kumaraswamy was sworn in as Chief Minister after the two parties reached an agreement to keep the chief ministership for 20 months each. Yeddyurappa was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister under this agreement. Kumaraswamy, the main actor in the current political crisis, had been questioned about his commitment to secularism while partnering with the BJP. His response that he was still seeking the meaning of secularism smacked of indifference.

This was the first time the BJP was part of a government in any South Indian State, but the joy lasted only until October 2007 when the JD(S) bloc formally withdrew from the coalition. After hectic parleying, a coalition government headed by the BJP was formed in November 2007 with Yeddyurappa as Chief Minister, but it soon collapsed and President's rule was imposed in the State. Fresh elections took place in May 2008.

Kumaraswamy's move to withdraw support to the BJP government stating that his party did not want to give it a chance to implement its communal agenda proved to be a miscalculation. The move was slammed as one of gross opportunism because Kumaraswamy chose to walk out of the coalition after the completion of his tenure as Chief Minister, brazenly violating the agreement under which the JD(S)-BJP coalition had come to power. The share of the JD(S) in the Karnataka Assembly fell from 58 to 28, while the BJP rode on the wave of this backstabbing', increasing its tally to 110, still short of the 113 required for a simple majority in the 224-member house (225 including a nominated Anglo-Indian member). The Congress increased its seats marginally, to 80. It is commonly argued, and a clear link can be established, that the JD(S)'s withdrawal of support to the BJP-led government in 2007 gave the BJP a chance to re-emerge stronger in the 2008 elections.

The BJP also got a head start in these elections by declaring its candidates early and projecting Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate. The Congress suffered as a result of its leaders acting independently. But its vote share was still marginally higher than the BJP's. The saffron party consolidated its support base among the forward castes and the Lingayats, as reflected in its strong performance in the two sub-regions of Mumbai-Karnataka and central Karnataka. The delimitation of constituencies helped the BJP as it increased its urban seats, winning the majority of seats in Bangalore and other urban centres. Ananth Kumar, a Brahmin, was also a contender for the Chief Minister's post, but his case was weakened because Yeddyurappa belonged to the politically empowered Lingayat caste, which had voted strongly for the BJP.

With a clear lead over the Congress, the BJP was invited to form the government, which it did with the support of six independents. The move to rope in these independent MLAs was called Operation Lotus', with the opposition parties complaining that MLAs were being lured to the BJP camp with the money power of the Reddy brothers, consisting of the trio of G. Janardhana Reddy, G. Karunakara Reddy and G. Somashekara Reddy, along with their trusted aide B. Sriramulu.

BJP forms the government

The BJP government was sworn in on May 30, 2008, with Yeddyurappa as Chief Minister. This was the first time the BJP was coming to power on its own in a State in the south and it marked the fulfilment of a long-cherished goal of the party.

The government faced its first challenge within a few days when agitating farmers demanding fertilizer were fired upon by the police in Haveri district, leading to the death of two farmers and injuries to 13. This was a major embarrassment for the BJP, considering that Yeddyurappa had taken his oath in the name of farmers. A one-man commission of inquiry appointed by the government submitted its report in April 2010, but its contents have not been made public yet.

Communalism

There was also a display of the BJP's commitment to Hindutva. To satisfy its far-Right supporters, the government attempted to effect changes in the Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act (KCOCA), first passed in 2000, and the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act (KPCSCPA), 1964.

The amended KCOCA Bill, revised in 2009, made the Act more draconian and was perceived as targeting certain Muslim groups. The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill (KPSPCB) of 2010 prescribed severe punishment for the slaughter of any cattle.

The changes in these Acts drew serious protests, especially the anti-cow slaughter Bill. Both Bills have been passed by the legislature and await the Governor's nod. The KPSPCB has become a personal project of the BJP as it figured in the party's manifesto in 2008. What the Bill ignores are the dietary habits of the majority of the local population and the economic loss its passage can cause to the farming community.

It was also during the BJP regime that Karnataka witnessed a series of attacks on churches, mainly in Dakshina Kannada district, in September 2008, and in other parts of the State through 2009. The intensity and consistency of these attacks were unprecedented. According to senior administration officials who spoke to Frontline at that time, members of the Sangh Parivar felt emboldened after the BJP came to power. While the Chief Minister assured the Christian community that it did not have any cause for worry, he also justified the attacks as a backlash against forced conversions. The government refused to act against the Bajrang Dal, which did not hide its role in the violence, and this callous attitude created insecurity among Christians.

The attacks on churches were followed by instances of moral policing by activists of the Sri Rama Sene (SRS), a right-wing organisation. They assaulted several young women in a pub in Mangalore and justified their actions as being those of custodians of Indian culture. Its chief, Pramod Muttalik, publicly accepted responsibility but was granted bail within a few days of his arrest.

There has also been a polarisation of communities along religious lines in coastal Karnataka and a marked rise in communal incidents after the BJP came to power. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP, also tried to impose a burkha ban in colleges across coastal Karnataka, and the Bajrang Dal tried to intimidate the editor of Karavali Ale, a Kannada newspaper published from Mangalore and popular throughout the coastal region . The Sangh Parivar also tried to restrict inter-communal mingling with a Taliban-like diktat that forbade youngsters from fraternising with Muslims in the region.

It is not surprising that the Sangh Parivar has been more active since the BJP came to power. The Chief Minister attributed great importance to the Sangh and is reported to have said, two days after he was sworn in, that the Sangh's guidance would help him make the right decisions.

In December 2008, the government withdrew the cases filed against members of the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the BJP and the SRS with regard to the illegal activities around the Bababudangiri shrine in Chikmagalur. Mysore, a relatively peaceful city, also saw its first communal riot after the new government took over, in July 2009, in which three people were killed.

Corruption and scandals

The BJP also has several other firsts to its credit in Karnataka. For the first time, a member of the Legislative Assembly, Y. Sampangi, was trapped accepting a bribe of Rs.5 lakh by the Lokayukta at the Legislators' Home. The whistleblower in the incident refused to appear before the House Committee citing a threat to his life. The Opposition parties' demand for suspension of the MLA was not accepted by the Speaker.

The sum in the Sampangi bribery case seems a trifle when compared with the massive loss the State government is supposedly facing from irregularities in the mining trade (running into hundreds of crores of rupees). It is no secret that the Reddy brothers' meteoric rise to the highest rung of the political echelons in the State is attributed to their iron ore mines in Bellary.

The brothers showed scant respect to the Chief Minister, who bowed to their demands, which included a change of leadership. They had secured the support of almost 50 legislators in October 2009. Yeddyurappa was forced to compromise or risk losing power. He had to sacrifice his close aide and ministerial colleague Shobha Karandlaje in the bargain.

The other demands of the Reddys included transfer of several officials from their home turf, Bellary. Crying in front of the camera, the Chief Minister demonstrated his helplessness while acceding to these demands. Many commentators felt that he should have resigned rather than accept public humiliation.

The extent of the Reddys' power was demonstrated again in June this year when huge quantities of iron ore impounded at Belekeri port by the Lokayukta disappeared. The Lokayukta, Santosh Hegde, sent in his resignation to the Chief Minister and also went public with it. Senior leader L.K. Advani had to intervene and request him to withdraw his resignation. But there was no denying that Yeddyurappa's reputation as Chief Minister and leader of the BJP in the Assembly had taken a severe beating.

Resignations

Allegations of corruption also saw two Ministers resigning. S.N. Krishniah Shetty, Minister for Religious Endowment (Muzrai), quit following allegations of his involvement in the purchase of land and its subsequent sale to the Karnataka Housing Board. Ramachandra Gowda, Minister for Medical Education, resigned after his role in the alleged irregularities in the recruitment of staff in two State-run medical colleges came under the scanner.

More recently, allegations have been made against Katta Subramaniam Naidu, former Industries Minister and a close aide of the Chief Minister, and his son, that they illegally purchased land belonging to the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board (KIADB). While the Opposition has demanded his resignation, Subramaniam Naidu denied all charges even though his son was trapped by the Lokayukta offering a bribe to a farmer.

One of the leading members among the dissident MLAs in the recent political drama in the State was Renukacharya, Minister for Excise and a protege of Yeddyurappa. In media interviews during the recent crisis, he flip-flopped between dissenting and supporting the government. His rise to notoriety began earlier when a nurse accused him of harassing her for sexual favours. In a press conference in Bangalore in 2007, the nurse alleged that the married MLA had intimidated her into posing for photographs. She also made public some of the photographs.

Another member of Yeddyurappa's Cabinet, H. Halappa, quit his post in May 2010 after an allegation that he had raped his friend's wife in November 2009. The many scandals that the BJP government in Karnataka has faced have not spared even the Chief Minister, with the Opposition questioning his signature on the Government Order directing denotification of 7.5 acres (three hectares) of land acquired by the Bangalore Development Authority. This action allegedly benefited Yeddyurappa's son.

There have also been accusations that the Chief Minister tried to favour the Lingayat community. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 (when the BJP won 19 of Karnataka's 28 seats) Yeddyurappa had added 19 sub-sects of the Lingayat community to the list of Backward Castes in Karnataka. He had also doled out generous amounts to the various Lingayat maths across the State.

Droughts and floods

Since the summer of 2009 several taluks in 20 districts of Karnataka have been declared as drought-hit with loss of crops, unemployment, distress migration and generally poor economic and social conditions visible in these areas.

The floods in north-east Karnataka in September and October of 2009 severely affected life; at least 150 people died. The rehabilitation of people living in the flood-affected areas remains incomplete and media reports suggested that the much-publicised chief ministerial drive to raise a thousand crores, in addition to the relief granted by the State and Central governments, was a sham.

The much-hyped Global Investors' Meet held in Bangalore in June was touted as a huge success by the BJP, but a deeper examination showed that the optimism was uncalled for. There was a serious disconnect between the number of memorandums of understanding signed at the meet and the actual infrastructure capabilities of the State.

Inefficiency

Daksh, a civil society organisation based in Bangalore, says in its Report on Review of Democracy and Performance of the Government of Karnataka' that Central schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) in Karnataka have not been as efficient as they have been in other States.

In its assessment of the government's vision for Karnataka, the report states: In addition to the formation of a Karnataka Vision Group', a number (eleven in total) of missions and task forces such as the agricultural mission, Karnataka education mission, [and] ABIDE (Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure Task Force) have been formed to oversee the development of the State.

However, most of these are not representative of various groups (such as Dalits, agriculturists, religious minorities, et. al.) and are largely dominated by corporate interests and those close to the BJP and its affiliated groups, and the functioning of most of these groups is irregular.

Indeed, the BJP's claim of being the party with a difference or of providing good governance, development and security appears hollow. The recent political crisis only reinforces the weakness of rectitude the BJP members have demonstrated in Karnataka over the past two and a half years.