‘Electoral democracy is not an even playing field in India today’: Krishna Byre Gowda

Having weakened the idea of a liberal democracy, BJP is now systematically targeting electoral democracy, says Karnataka’s Revenue Minister.

Published : Mar 29, 2024 21:37 IST - 14 MINS READ

Krishna Byre Gowda says a witch-hunting of the opposition is happening across the country while a carte blanche has been provided for BJP politicians to indulge in any malpractice. 

Krishna Byre Gowda says a witch-hunting of the opposition is happening across the country while a carte blanche has been provided for BJP politicians to indulge in any malpractice.  | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In an exclusive interview with Frontline, senior Karnataka Congress leader and Revenue Minister Krishna Byre Gowda has voiced grave concerns over the erosion of democratic principles and economic injustice plaguing the country, particularly within Karnataka. Citing a systematic undermining of liberal democratic values, he highlights disparities in the application of law, the compromised integrity of institutions, and targeted political maneuvers by the ruling BJP. Gowda accuses the Modi government of deliberately neglecting Karnataka’s needs, pointing towards financial injustices and unfulfilled promises as evidence of biased governance. He also discusses the economic hardships faced by common citizens courtesy to the growing inequality, drawing stark parallels with the colonial era. Edited excerpts:

‘Electoral democracy is not an even playing field in India today’: Krishna Byre Gowda | Video Credit: Interview by Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed, Edited by Samson

We have seen the Central government using various tactics to intimidate the opposition. This includes the (mis)use of various institutions of the State such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED) or the Income Tax Department to target opposition leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal or to freeze the Congress’s bank accounts. In light of these developments can we call the forthcoming Lok Sabha election to be a free and fair democratic contest? 

We are not just a democracy but a liberal democracy which means that there is an equal treatment of all people as per law and that is what the Constitution also guarantees. Over the past few years, India has increasingly become an illiberal society. There is no equality of law for all citizens and institutions meant to safeguard this are getting compromised.

There has been a penetration of all the four pillars of democracy (including the media) and prejudices getting built into all these. Hence, institutions are not functioning the way they were meant to as the BJP has made serious efforts to bend all these institutions. Even the role of the Election Commission is questionable as they do not apply the law equally to all political players. Suddenly, an Election Commissioner resigns without any explanation and he is replaced by two other Commissioners. 

On the electoral front, frequent elections are happening and there has been a change of governments at least at the State level. You could argue that India has become an illiberal society, however it is still an electoral democracy.

But, while there have been elections, an unequal playing field has been created: 90 per cent of cases filed by ED, CBI, IT etc. are against opposition political figures; the freezing of accounts of Congress party for a frivolous 25-year-old case over a matter of few lakhs of rupees.

This is only intended to debilitate the strength of Congress on the eve of elections. While BJP leaders continue to indulge in all forms of corruption at all levels, opposition party CMs are targeted. A witch-hunting of the opposition is happening across the country and a carte blanche has been provided for BJP politicians to indulge in any malpractice.

Using institutions, the BJP is poaching opposition leaders. These are all intimidation tactics. We will see to what extent the BJP succeeds in demolishing the opposition but they intend to target and weaken the opposition.  

These developments show that electoral democracy is not an even playing field in India today. Having weakened the idea of a liberal democracy, the BJP is now systematically targeting electoral democracy. If this continues, we will end up being a superficial electoral democracy like Russia but I trust the people of this country who have a deep common sense.

They are the ultimate custodians of democracy in this country and that is what Jawaharlal Nehru meant when he said that eternal vigilance is the only guarantor of freedom and democracy. I hope and trust that the people of this country will deliver and save democracy in this country.  

Over the past four Lok Sabha elections since 2004, voters in Karnataka have been preferring the BJP over the Congress. In 2019, this incremental support for the BJP meant that the party secured a staggering 51.7 per cent of the vote share and 26 seats in Karnataka. Based on your interaction with voters and intra-party strategizing, how is the Congress going to ensure that this trend is broken.  

Whatever the efforts of a political party, ultimately it is the will of the people that prevails in an election and what I observe among people this time is a certain sense of fatigue. The electorate has given 10 years to the current Central government and they see that the economic conditions of common people have deteriorated.

The rich have gotten super rich whereas the working class is struggling to hold their lives together. Job prospects have gone down while unemployment and inequality are at a historic high as evident in the findings by the World Inequality Lab.

From all international neutral objective studies, you can see that freedom has gone down in India and a democratic backslide has taken place. Studies have pointed out that the prevalent inequality is worse than during the British Raj and they call this as the Billionaire Raj. The British Raj under the BJP has been replaced by a Billionaire Raj.  

People may not speak, but they certainly feel all these factors and understand that the country is in a crisis. They are experiencing all this in their day to day lives and I believe they will speak through the elections. There is an unease amongst people with BJP rule. In the 10 years, the BJP has delivered only for the rich and not much for the common people. This is going to be the dominant factor.  

For our [Congress’s] part, after having come to power in Karnataka, we have delivered on the promises we made to people, particularly the economic promises of assisting people who are struggling to lead their day-to-day lives.

We had made five guarantees and we have delivered on those five promises so our credibility among the voters is quite high. On one side you have Congress which is coming to the aid and assistance of people who are struggling to lead their daily lives.

On the other side, you have a government which is catering to the rich and delivers price rises and unemployment to the common people. When this is contrasted, this will be the dominant factor in this election. 

I agree with you that by and large the voters in the State have been consistently giving more and more seats to BJP but this time, having given them enough opportunities, and considering that the State government’s credibility is quite high with the people we hope to fare far better. 

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“India has increasingly become an illiberal society. There is no equality of law for all citizens and institutions meant to safeguard this are getting compromised.”

The Congress seems to be banking heavily on two issues in Karnataka to attract voters. First, its successful implementation of the five guarantees, and second, the injustice in the devolution of funds from the Central government. The BJP even accuses the State government of having a revenue shortfall because of expenditure on the five guarantees which has also led to inadequate drought relief. How do you respond to this? 

The Central government has meted out severe injustice to Karnataka through various mechanisms. The 15th Finance Commission cut Karnataka’s share in devolution of taxes by 25 per cent and the Central government is refusing to extend GST compensation.

Together these two factors have led to a severe impact on the State’s finances as they have led to a shortfall of around Rs. 30,000 crores annually. Karnataka is the second-highest taxpaying State in the country and contributes enormous sums to the union exchequer.

For every rupee we contribute, we get only 12-13 paise in return. This is a dismal injustice to Karnataka and the Central government has even rejected special grant recommendations made by the 15th Finance Commission which amount to Rs. 11,495 crore and has even asked the FC to “reconsider its recommendation”. 

It appears that, for the BJP, they need only the notes and votes of Karnataka as if Karnataka has no needs of its own. We stand last in the ratio of how much we contribute to the exchequer and how much we get in return. The disparity between how much we contribute and what we get in return is so vast that there can only be one explanation which is injustice.

If the Central government is interested in addressing this issue, solutions will emerge but every time we raise the issue, they just dismiss us which shows that they are unwilling to engage showing that they are convinced about meting out injustice to Karnataka. 

Take the simple age-old practice of giving drought or flood relief to a State: Karnataka submitted its drought memorandum in September [2023] and we should have got our drought relief in two months. We are at the end of March now and still have not been granted drought relief.

Relief is mandated by the Disaster Management Act 2005. This is injustice meted out to Karnataka and the moment we raise this issue the Central government responds in a very aggressive and negative manner instead of engaging with the States.  

If you want federal unity to be strong, you have to engage with the States. You can’t have, ‘It is my way or the highway’ attitude and outrightly dismiss every concern of a State government like Karnataka. That cannot be a way to a stronger union.

The mutually acceptable solution may not be what Karnataka wants but every party to an issue must be ready for some form of a compromise but the Union government responds with vitriol to every concern raised by Karnataka. The federal system doesn’t work like that.

The Central government is dismissive of Karnataka’s concerns because of which the State’s fiscal position is under some stress. 

“BJP has made serious efforts to bend all these institutions. Even the role of the Election Commission is questionable as they do not apply the law equally to all political players.”

Having been privy to the discussions that took place when Karnataka presented its case before the 15th Finance Commission, what explains this fall in Karnataka’s share from the divisible pool of union taxes from 4.71 to 3.64 per cent? 

It fell because of the BJP’s intentional drive to do injustice to Karnataka because of prejudice. When the person sitting in the chair is prejudiced, what justice can you expect?

Karnataka made its case strongly and convincingly but since the BJP is intent on meting out injustice to Karnataka, we suffered a 25 per cent cut from the FC.

There was not a single member in the 15th Finance Commission from the whole of South India. How do you justify that? Today, top taxpaying States are from south India. These dynamic States are also attracting the highest foreign investment.

There is not a single member from these States in the Finance Commission. How can you expect justice from such a lopsided process? And every time we raise a concern, there is vitriolic dismissal.  

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman counters this charge by stating that the tax devolution to Karnataka has increased under the NDA government when compared to the UPA regime.  

I have a lot of respect for Madam Finance Minister but she is trying to defend the intentional injustice of the BJP regime. She is comparing two budgetary years where the budget varied between Rs. 5 lakh crore and Rs. 45 lakh crores. What is the intention of making such comparisons?

With every year, the budget size increases by 10 per cent. This is what I want to reiterate; instead of engaging with the issue, the Union government is intentionally obfuscating it. Their attitude seems to be to confuse if you cannot convince and this is a diversionary tactic.  

Coming to GST, prior to the introduction of GST, Karnataka was growing at a rate of 14-16 per cent. Post the introduction of GST, if the same rate had continued, Karnataka would have been getting another Rs.20-25 thousand crores a year as of today but we are short.

That is the gap we requested the GST Council to compensate and the Council, headed by the Union Finance Minister, is refusing to extend compensation. Post introduction of GST some States may have benefited but Karnataka has lost a lot of autonomy in taxation matters.

Karnataka also pays the highest cesses and surcharges and we don’t get money from that. No formula may be perfect for all times to come but as the head of the family, you must make sure that all members of the family are treated fairly. In return, what do we get-vitriol! 

Karnataka is also meted out injustice in the matter of river-related issues: For example, last year, the Union Finance Minister, announced 5000 crores for the Upper Bhadra project in the budget. Not a single pie of that budgetary announcement has been released to Karnataka.

It is a budgetary announcement of the Government of India. How can you not implement your own budget announcement? A promise made to the Parliament, which is as strong a promise as can be made in this country remains unimplemented. 

We have another issue, the Mahadayi River, where a simple environmental clearance is required from Government of India. The Supreme Court has passed orders on sharing of Mahadayi waters.

Karnataka has been given clearance by the court to go ahead with the drinking water project but the Union government is sitting on a simple environmental clearance. They are neither turning it down nor accepting our request.

Why would you hold up the Mahadayi project of Karnataka? For all these issues, the Union government not only gives evasive answers but are also aggressive in their responses.  

“Studies have pointed out that the prevalent inequality is worse than during the British Raj and they call this as the Billionaire Raj. ”

Of the State’s 28 MPs, 26 belong to the BJP. Are they adequately representing the State’s interests?

Not one of them has spoken on drought relief money not being released to Karnataka and the financial injustice to Karnataka. Not one has demanded an extension of GST compensation. Not one has demanded Central government to approve Mekedatu or Mahadayi or release a single pie for Upper Bhadra project.

So, these 26 MPsare elected only to surrender the interest of the people of Karnataka to the BJP’s national interest.They have no courage to open their mouth on behalf of Karnataka. In my view, these 26 MPs are the problembecause injustice is being done by them.

They are morally, legally bound to raisethe issues on behalf of the people who elected them when something is wrong but by supporting the injustice being meted out, they have become part of the problem.

Justice cannot be delivered without taking these 26 MPs head-onand replacing them with somebody who will at least raise the voice.

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I agree with you that these two issues (the implementation of the five guarantees and the injustice with regard to the devolution of funds) are significant. But has the Congress succeeded in building a successful campaign narrative centred around these themes? Are these issues not emotional enough to resonate among the voters?

No, they are certainly emotional issues and I believe, the guarantees that we are delivering to peopleare reaching approximately five crore people of Karnataka. These schemes are reaching people at a time of financial difficulties and are helping them.

When it comes to issues of injustice in Karnataka also, I think it is an emotional issue. On both fronts, these issues are very much relevant to the people of Karnataka but perhaps, we have...I don’t know what to say... we have not adequately articulated these issues and connected them to the people.

It can only mean that if it is not caught on, it’s because we have not explained it well to people. I cannot accept your proposition that they are not emotional issues. If they haven’t caught on with the people, then it’s only because of our inability to connect these issues with the lives of people.  

But having said that, I feel that there is a sizeable silent section of the people (In Indian democracy, there is always a silent majority and there is a vocal minority) for whom the only voice is the electoral process. In this election, you will see the silent majority speak. 

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