Although Karnataka is considered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “gateway to the south”, the party has never been able to come to power in the State with a clear mandate. The only time it managed to stay in power and complete its term was between 2008 and 2013, when it used “Operation Lotus” to lure independents and opposition MLAs after falling short of the majority to form a stable government. The man who engineered this strategy at the time was the party’s long-time mass leader B.S. Yediyurappa.
The Lingayat strongman repeated this in a far more dramatic and spectacular way in 2019, when he lured 17 MLAs of the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress to form the government.
From the beginning of his tenure, it was clear that Yediyurappa had a strained relationship with the BJP’s central leadership. At 76 then, he was well past the unofficial age limit of 75 for occupying active positions in the BJP. What also set Yediyurappa apart from other BJP Chief Ministers at the time was the fact that he had single-handedly built up the party in Karnataka over the previous two decades by anchoring it among Lingayats and gaining support from sections of the backward castes, the Scheduled Castes, and the Scheduled Tribes. He did so without resorting to the hawkish allure of Hindutva in an era that preceded the meteoric rise of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
Even during his most recent tenure as Chief Minister, Yediyurappa engaged in only two actions that can be considered to have been dictated by Hindutva interests: first, he cancelled the celebrations associated with the birthday of 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan; and second, he ensured the passage of the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act. To his credit, he ensured that the more rabid elements within the BJP did not run amok during his tenure.
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Saddled with three Deputy Chief Ministers against his will and a part of his tenure imperilled by the COVID pandemic, Yediyurappa lurched from one crisis to the other while stubbornly holding on to his chair even as he made ineffective policy interventions. He also had to ward off dissidence within the party and deal with neophyte MLAs who had joined the BJP solely for the prospect of power.
The Yediyurappa stint was also marked by charges of corruption and accusations that his son, B.Y. Vijayendra, was interfering in party affairs. In a widely criticised move, he also set up the Veerashaiva-Lingayat Development Corporation for the benefit of his dominant fellow caste members even though such boards have in the past been set up only for marginalised caste groups. It was in these circumstances that Yediyurappa resigned as Chief Minister after two years in power, but not before he ensured that a fellow Lingayat succeeded him.
When Basavaraj Bommai emerged as the dark horse Chief Minister in July 2021, political journalists expected that aggressive communalism, as seen in other BJP-ruled States, would remain contained in the State. They wrote extensively about the antecedents of Bommai, and his father, S.R. Bommai, who was a staunch socialist influenced by the radical humanist M.N. Roy. These commentators supported their argument by pointing out that Basavaraj Bommai was initiated into politics in the company of secular Janata parivar stalwarts such as Ramakrishna Hegde and J.H. Patel.
Bommai, also a Lingayat, is a three-time MLA from Shiggaon in Haveri district, and his appointment seemed to signify that the politics of caste had triumphed over the politics of communalism in Karnataka once again. Even though members of the politically dominant and numerically significant Lingayat community are reputed to be ardent BJP supporters, Bommai was not a home-grown leader of the BJP with roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) but had only moved over to the saffron party from the Janata Dal (United) in 2008. Given this legacy, political observers felt that Bommai would not easily toe the hard right-wing line.
In contrast, Bommai’s tenure has seen a consistent rise in the communal temperature. This has been accompanied by serious allegations of corruption against his government. While corruption charges were levelled against the Yediyurappa government too, they have escalated now, with the opposition and ordinary people derisively referring to the government as the “40 per cent sarkara [government]”, alluding to the percentage of bribes demanded by elected representatives of the ruling party.
Muzaffar Assadi, professor of political science at the University of Mysore, said, “There is a premise that large-scale corruption cannot take place along with the aggressive spread of a communal ideology. Yediyurappa’s tenure was marked by a series of corruption allegations but there was no state endorsement of a communal ideology. Bommai’s tenure has seen the aggressive implementation of Hindutva ideology and large-scale systematic corruption go hand in hand.”
D. Kempanna, the 80-year-old president of the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association (KSCA), representing more than one lakh Class I and II contractors, has made shocking allegations of corruption against the government. According to him, the amount of bribes given to various elected representatives and officials across government departments has skyrocketed since the BJP government came to power in the State in 2019.
“There was corruption earlier too, but it was restricted to 5-10 per cent of the project cost; now it is 35-40 per cent. We have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi [in 2021], the Governor, Chief Ministers [both Yediyurappa and Bommai] and other important political leaders regarding this issue, but it has not had any effect,” said Kempanna. “Before we even do the puja to commence any project such as road works or any other work allotted to us, we are supposed to pay 10-15 per cent of the project cost as bribe to the MLAs. When the tender is approved, we have to pay 3 to 4 per cent of the cost. Similarly, graft has to be paid at every level as the project progresses. To get the payment due to us after completing the work, we have to pay a bribe of 5 to 10 per cent. Totally, it comes up to around 35 to 40 per cent of the project cost.”
Corruption exists in all departments, and rules regarding the tendering process are not followed, he said. “How will contractors do quality work?” Kempanna asked, pointing to how Bengaluru’s infrastructure collapsed in parts during the recent heavy rains. The name of Santosh Patil, a contractor from Belagavi district, came up often. Patil committed suicide in April this year alleging non-payment of dues and blaming Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister K.S. Eshwarappa, who later resigned.
Members of the KSCA raised their concerns with Bommai in April. Following this, the Finance Department issued a circular stating that there should be greater transparency in the procedure for calling tenders and the payments made to contractors. This official order has not been implemented, said Kempanna.
“Instead of addressing the issue, the Chief Minister and other Ministers are accusing us [KSCA] of having a political agenda and are dividing our association. One of the Ministers said he intended to file a defamation case against me. Let him do that, I welcome the move and we will reveal all our evidence of corruption in the court,” said Kempanna. (Since this interview was conducted, Horticulture Minister Muniratna has filed a defamation suit against 19 members of the KSCA.)
Asked why he was not showing proofs of corruption in his possession, Kempanna said, “Do you get a receipt when you pay a bribe? No! In spite of this, we have managed to gather evidence of graft in 30-40 cases. If the evidence is revealed now, the contractors who have trusted us with this material will be targeted. Let the government appoint a commission of inquiry and we will ensure that all the evidence is provided to it.” He admitted that corruption had always existed, but the extent to which it has risen now is what compelled the KSCA to go public.
Members of the Registered Unaided Private Schools Management Association in Karnataka have also spoken out against corruption in the Education Department. In another case, the government was embarrassed when it came to light that senior police officials were involved in a recruitment scam to rig the examination for the appointment of Sub Inspectors. This was alleged to be done in collusion with BJP Ministers.
“Corruption has been a serious issue for the BJP in the past in Karnataka, and Yediyurappa had to step down as Chief Minister [in 2011] because of allegations of corruption, said A. Narayana, political commentator. “BJP members have been waiting to come to power for many years and the party’s profile has changed. In the past, it was people like the Reddy brothers [Ballari-based iron ore mining barons] who were known for their corrupt practices, but this time even those MLAs whom the BJP has lured from the Congress and the JD(S) want to make money.”
Citing the case of the contractors, Narayana said: “Contractors are the geese that lay golden eggs. It is a symbiotic relationship, but for the first time in the country, contractors have come out against a government because they are fed up. Can you imagine the level of graft being demanded in such a scenario? The BJP is killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Assadi believes the rise in communal tensions since Bommai took over is “a tried and tested strategy of the BJP to distract the people’s attention from issues of corruption and misgovernance”. The number of flashpoints in the past year has increased to the point where each instance can be summed up in a single word: hijab, halal, boycott, anti-conversion, textbook, murders, Idgah maidan.
Bommai’s attitude towards the rising cases of Hindutva vigilante activism became clear early in his tenure, when in October last year he justified these instances by calling them a “reaction”.
The spate of attacks on churches by Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad towards the end of 2021 was reportedly not investigated thoroughly as a consensus was being built for the passage of the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, or what is popularly known as the anti-conversion law. It was passed in December 2021 in the Legislative Assembly and in the Legislative Council in September this year.
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The disturbances around the wearing of hijab in classrooms began at one government college in Udupi, but the situation spiralled in February when the government issued a government order (GO) banning all garments and accessories that were not part of the prescribed uniform.
The GO thus created a false equivalence between Muslim girls who wear headscarves as part of their faith and Hindu students who took to wearing saffron shawls as a counter-measure.
Next, Hindutva organisations issued calls to boycott Muslim traders in temple fairs in coastal Karnataka and districts in the Malnad region of the State. Around the time of Ugadi celebrations in April, a calculated effort was made by the Hindu Janajagruti Vedike to ensure that Hindus shunned halal meat; many of them cook a special non-vegetarian meal to celebrate the festival.
Around the same time, the government also effected major changes in school textbooks in the State. Certain revised chapters are said to further the Hindu supremacist ideas of the RSS.
Three communally provoked murders took place in Dakshina Kannada district in July. Of the three victims, two were Muslim, while one, Praveen Nettaru, was Hindu. Bommai chose to visit only Nettaru’s family and even compensated them monetarily. Hindutva groups have also made concerted efforts to take over the Chamarajapet Idgah Maidan, which has historically been used by the Muslim community for congregational Eid prayers.
Speaking to Frontline, P.S. Jayaramu, former professor of political science at Bangalore University, said, “Looking at all these developments, it is clear that the Bommai government’s larger design is to win the 2023 Assembly election by aggressively advancing the Hindutva agenda, but I wonder whether Bommai has ever thought about how history will judge him.”
According to Assadi, Bommai has failed to contain both corruption and communalism and is, by his silence, tacitly supporting both. “For the first time in the history of Karnataka, we have a symbolic leader. He does not have an independent voice; he cannot even shuffle his Cabinet or remove or appoint a single Minister,” he said.
The BJP seems to be increasingly on the defensive. The fact that it felt compelled to bring back Yediyurappa, who was relegated to an undefined role after his resignation, as a member of the BJP’s national parliamentary board and central election committee since August this year is a clear indication of the pressure on the party to also assuage the Lingayats before the elections.
- In his tenure, B.S. Yediyurappa lurched from one crisis to the other while stubbornly holding on to his chair even as he made ineffective policy interventions.
- Although he cancelled the celebrations associated with the birthday of 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan; and ensured the passage of the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, he ensured that the more rabid elements within the BJP did not run amok during his tenure.
- In contrast, Bommai’s tenure has seen a consistent rise in the communal temperature.
- While corruption charges were levelled against the Yediyurappa government too, they have escalated now. The government is derisively referred to as the “40 per cent sarkara [government]”, alluding to the percentage of bribes demanded by elected representatives of the ruling party.