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Power and pain

Print edition : Aug 10, 2012

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Jagadish Shettar becomes the third BJP Chief Minister in four years helped by caste politics, but the party is not free from crisis.

in Bangalore

It took the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) well over a quarter of a century of political sweat and tears, not to mention machinations, to come to power in a southern State. But when it was finally elected to power in Karnataka in May 2008, it took the partys central and State leaderships only a fraction of that time to realise that staying in power and holding on to it by keeping the myriad groups together is much more difficult. The BJP government has survived for four years, but only just, limping from one crisis to another. As outgoing Chief Minister, D.V. Sadananda Gowda, said, The BJP must thank its political opponents, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), for its survival. The two major opposition parties are in deeper disarray and are unable to take advantage of the dissidence in the BJP.

Sadananda Gowda, who was B.S. Yeddyurappas choice for the post of Chief Minister when he stepped down in August 2011, was removed from office in July following dissidence and, ironically, at Yeddyurappas instance. Karnataka got its third BJP Chief Minister in little more than four years when Yeddyurappa loyalist Jagadish Shivappa Shettar, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister in the previous Cabinet, was appointed to the post on July 12 amid protests and political pantomime. But the crisis was not over. Party MLAs soon started to wrangle for plum posts. Two Deputy Chief Ministers were foisted on Shettar: K.S. Eshwarappa, who was the State party president, and R. Ashoka. This is a first for Karnataka and a surprise considering that it is a single-party government. In a 34-member Ministry, the BJP central leadership, it appears, wanted to placate Sadananda Gowda and also give representation to all caste groups.

For a start, Shettars ascent to the top of the political heap in Karnataka has not been convincing with the BJP explaining that political expediency and an eye on the next elections had forced it to remove Sadananda Gowda. This has hardly cut any ice with party supporters. Sadananda Gowda is seen as an honest politician who, in the words of Governor H.R. Bhardwaj, was trying to slowly and steadily clean up the administration in right earnest. Shettar will have to be content with the fact that he has just 10 months in office, provided the Assembly completes its full term in May 2013, and crucially, dissidence does not once again cause a leadership change.

After prevaricating for long, the BJP central leadership succumbed to threats from a group of dissidents, including 10 Ministers, of whom seven belong to the politically powerful Lingayat community and owe allegiance to Yeddyurappa. On June 29, in a clear indication of a vertical split in the Sadananda Gowda Cabinet, nine Ministers submitted their resignation to the Chief Minister, sending the BJP into a tizzy. The dissidents, who had been unsuccessfully demanding a meeting of the BJP Legislature Party, wanted Sadananda Gowda to be replaced by Shettar, their leader. The belligerent Ministers claimed that they had the support of 51 of the partys 115 MLAs in the 224-member State Assembly.

Yeddyurappas choice of Shettar was ironical as much as it smacked of opportunism. Both of them are Lingayats and have been at daggers drawn for most, if not all, of their political lives. Yeddyurappa wanted to be the undisputed leader of the Lingayat community and did not want the rise of a rival power centre. When he formed his Cabinet in May 2008, he ensured that Shettar was denied a ministership. (However, Yeddyurappa pacified Shettar by making him the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.) Yeddyurappa opposed Shettars candidature for the Chief Ministers post in 2011, preferring Sadananda Gowda, a Vokkaliga, instead, as he hoped to return to power after he was cleared of the corruption charges made by the Lokayukta (ombudsman). Since his moves in March to stage a comeback were resisted by Sadananda Gowda, Yeddyurappa did a volte-face and pitched for Shettar as Chief Minister, in another attempt to grab power.

A hurt Sadananda Gowda confided that leaders who wanted him out had resorted to blackmailing the leadership. He said: When I resigned I had 61 of the BJPs 115 MLAs supporting me. Yeddyurappa is one of the tallest leaders in Karnataka, but his desire to control the party alone is hurting it.

Not surprisingly, Shettars rule also began with a dissenting note. Around 20 legislators from the coastal districts of Udipi and Dakshina Kannada, which have traditionally been BJP strongholds, raised the banner of revolt, unhappy over the denial of ministerial berths. Halady Srinivasa Shetty, who represents Kundapur, resigned his Assembly seat in protest. Shettar, who rebelled against Sadananda Gowda, got a taste of dissidence when on his first visit to Hubli, his home town, after assuming power, he faced a boycott by some key party legislators. They had been denied Cabinet berths and so decided to stay away from the reception accorded to him. Shettar will need to douse the fire of rebellion fast if he has to count on the support of all the legislators for the passage of the Finance Bill on July 30.

Trouble came from other quarters, too. Justice Vikramjit Sen, the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, chastised the government for the inordinate delay in meeting the constitutional requirement of appointing a Lokayukta, a post that fell vacant in September last year. Justice Sen even cautioned the government that he may be forced to write to the Governor citing a constitutional crisis in the State if the government did not act fast. Governor Bhardwaj is unhappy with Shettar for not heeding his advice to keep out of the Cabinet legislators against whom cases had been filed either in the High Court or with the Lokayukta. The tainted legislators, Murugesh R. Nirani, V. Somanna, C.P. Yogeshwar, M.P. Renukacharya (who were Ministers in the Sadananda Gowda government as well) and C.T. Ravi, have been given key portfolios.

As the cauldron of caste politics boiled over, there was little that an indecisive BJP leadership could do to avoid appointing two Deputy Chief Ministers. While Eshwarappa, the State BJP president, hails from the Kuruba community, Ashoka is a Vokkaliga. Both appointments were made to balance the caste equations and keep the BJPs vote banks and brood, and the two senior leaders themselves, happy. The Yeddyurappa group, much to the exasperation of Sadananda Gowda loyalists, has cornered key portfolios such as Finance, Home, Public Works, Water Resources and Industries.

Lingayats constitute around 18 per cent of the States population. Lingayats and Vokkaligas are the two most economically, politically and numerically dominant communities. Eight of the States last 11 Chief Ministers have been from these two communities. Lingayats have got 11 of 34 ministerial berths, Vokkaligas six, Other Backward Classes six, Dalits seven, Brahmins three, and Kodavas one. Central and northern Karnataka, which have been traditionally supporting the BJP, have been rewarded with 20 ministerial posts. For the first time in Karnataka, there is no Muslim representative in the Cabinet. It is also for the first time since the formation of the BJP government that all the 34 ministerial berths have been filled up.

Over the years, the BJP has drawn strong support from Lingayats and the community is undoubtedly the partys largest support base. But in recent years, the desire to overplay the Lingayat card has justifiably given rise to criticism that the BJP has overly favoured the Lingayat community, both in the Cabinet and in the administration, at the expense of other communities. Many senior partymen, including Sadananda Gowda, have pointed out that while this may be good politics it is bad for the partys image.

The BJP began facing troubles right from the time it formed the government in 2008, primarily because it was marginally short of a majority in the Assembly and hence had to lure non-BJP legislators to stay in power. Leading the way in wooing opposition legislators were the then all powerful Reddy brothers of Bellary. The three brothers, Gali Janardhana Reddy, G. Karunakara Reddy and G. Somashekara Reddy, had earlier bankrolled the election campaigns of quite a few legislators.

This was the start of the BJPs troubles. The Reddy brothers, mining barons of Bellary, aspired for more autonomy and higher offices in return for their services. The new entrants, too, demanded positions of power to keep the government afloat. Yeddyurappa spent the better part of his three years as Chief Minister fighting dissidence, primarily from disgruntled legislators wanting ministerial berths, the Bellary brothers, and a section of the party owing allegiance to his bete noire H.N. Ananth Kumar, the BJPs national general secretary.

Sulking ever since he was removed from office in July 2011 and piqued that the party did not support him although he is credited with leading the party to power in 2008, Yeddyurappa sought to destabilise the Sadananda Gowda government, handing out one threat after another. It was evident though, that he did not have the political gumption to walk out of the party. Paradoxically, it was Yeddyurappa who pitch-forked Sadananda Gowda, a nondescript, non-controversial, dyed-in-the-wool Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh worker and party loyalist, into the Chief Ministers saddle in August 2011, of course after extracting the promise that he would step down when Yeddyurappa wanted the post back.

Sadananda Gowdas reluctance to make way for Yeddyurappas return or to help him come out of the myriad legal tangles was the main reason for the latters ire and the ensuing dissidence. Said a senior Minister: Yeddyurappa and his supporters in the Cabinet wanted the Chief Minister to take decisions based on their advice, something Sadananda Gowda was not prepared to do.

Many BJP leaders had serious reservations about the central leaderships reading of the political situation in Karnataka. They averred that while Yeddyurappas appeal as a mass leader of the Lingayat sect could not be overlooked, it was also a fact that by unduly kow-towing to the Lingayat lobby the party was in danger of alienating itself from other sections of the electorate. The removal of Sadananda Gowda has triggered discontent in the party. Although the outgoing Chief Minister has no discernible base or substantial following, his ouster is seen as a snub to the equally powerful Vokkaliga community.

Party with differences

For the BJP, which claims to be a party with a difference, the past four years in Karnataka have been anything but that. Its own Ministers acknowledge that it is now a party with only differences. In the opinion of many political pundits, the party has lost its brand image and sacrificed its ideology at the altar of managing numbers to stay in power, with most of its representatives from Ministers to municipal corporators becoming an embarrassment not only to the party but also to its self-espoused cause of nationalism and Hindutva. An indication of the rot is the fact that since the formation of the BJP government no less than nine Ministers, including Yeddyurappa, have been forced to resign following allegations of offences ranging from rape, mala fide in staff recruitment, watching porn clips inside the State legislature, and, of course, shady real estate deals. Twelve others had to be dropped for other reasons, including political realignment. The government has come to be known more for scams than governance.

An indecisive and divided BJP central leadership must take the blame for the prevailing rot in Karnataka. For too long it gave Yeddyurappa free rein, not questioning his actions including that of projecting himself as the unassailable champion of the Lingayat community and furthering its interests over and above those of others. The leaders turned a deaf ear to the allegations of wrong-doing that were flying thick and fast against Yeddyurappa and his kith and kin. Yeddyurappa had unarguably been the partys tallest leader during the 2008 elections. His Lingayat tag helped woo voters from that community and there was also a soupcon of sympathy for the veteran politician. Under his leadership, the BJP won 110 seats and emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly.

But these factors hardly justified the leaderships failure to act on complaints or Yeddyurappas ensuing megalomania. In 2004, when Yeddyurappa was not projected as the partys chief ministerial candidate, the party won 79 seats. So, the jury is still out on whether Yeddyurappa merits the importance he has been demanding.

The war within the party has also resulted in a paralysis of governance. Despite tall claims after the much-touted Global Investors Meet in June, which attracted proposals for investments totalling Rs.8.27 lakh crore, the reality is that the government has failed on many fronts. It is unable to sufficiently enthuse industry, attract investment in key areas, create jobs, or even provide basic infrastructure.

Here is some tell-tale statistics. Against a promise of meeting for at least 100 days every year, the State legislature, during BJP rule, met for just 17 days in 2008, 42 days in 2009, 31 days each in 2010 and 2011, and 19 days (until the time of writing this report) in 2012.

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