PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes: The protracted and acrimonious power tussle in Bangalore, quite reminiscent of several episodes in recent years, demolishes Bharatiya Janata Party’s claim to be a party with a difference.
In fact, after taking office 38 months ago, the Yediyurappa government, has hurtled from one crisis to another – be it due to internal dissidence, scandals of abuse of power and corruption involving BJP politicians, repeated episodes of the infamous ‘Operation Kamala’ to bring opposition party MLAs into BJP and the efforts by the opposition parties to destabilize BJP and remove it from power – leaving no time for governing.
Any wonder Yediyurappa famously said any other person in his position would have gone mad?
Political analysts have thus far tended to see this as a failure of leadership and have often blamed B.S. Yediyurappa for his failings. There is some truth to this charge.
While Yediyurappa has been the key figure in BJP’s rise to power, his character flaws have also been obvious.
His street fighter instincts as well as perpetual campaign mode have been advantageous for BJP, the political party, but the same personality appears ill suited to handle the rigors of governance. He is short tempered, doesn’t listen to advice or contrarian perspectives, and is rarely challenged, especially on policy within his party.
Further, he seems to exist within a bubble, believes in his own rhetorical hubris of development and is very intolerant of opposition, which is surprising given that Yediyurappa spent many decades in opposition benches.
By all accounts, he wasn’t detail oriented and didn’t have the stamina or the patience to fulfill the innumerable tall promises he makes to all and sundry, everyday.
His well documented nepotism and authoritarian tendencies have not only alienated his own party men but far more significantly show a lack of understanding of how discretionary power should be used.
Yet, even if he had been a nicer person, more efficient administrator and accommodating leader, Yeddyurappa, and indeed the state of Karnataka, couldn’t have escaped from the current predicament – scandals and abuse of power, the loss to exchequer from mining, and widespread corruption.
Therefore, this personality oriented analysis misses the structural transformations that have taken place in Karnataka politics, leading to a fundamental change in the political culture of the state.
At the heart of this change is the emergence of a new politician – brash and covetous, with no inhibitions on the use of public policy as an instrument of personal profit.
He is rarely guided by any notion of public good – even one based on narrow considerations of religion or caste; rather business interests seem to motivate this politician-entrepreneur.
Despite Yediyurappa’s rhetoric about development, or for that matter the populism of his predecessor H. D. Kumaraswamy state policy has rarely had any notion of public good as its guiding principle in the Oughts.
On the contrary, there has been a substantial convergence of business and politics, a paradigmatic shift that not only explains the birth of this new politician-entrepreneur but also shows corruption to be a new form of activity that resides in his persona.
Note that caste and class backgrounds have been quite remarkably insignificant in his rise.
The principal focus of politician-entrepreneur’s business activity has been mining and real estate, the two land-based business ventures. Note that both require access to political power, in order to change or to seek exemption from or violate regulatory mechanisms.
Bangalore and Bellary have been the epicentres of this process.
As a significant beneficiary of globalization and ever expanding IT industry, Bangalore has grown leading to unreal profits for those engaged in real estate ventures. However, Bellary’s dramatic transformation, economically and ecologically, has made the Bangalore story seem less significant although similar processes are taking place in both places.
Bellary has been the harbinger of change not simply for the exploitation of mineral wealth and destruction of environment but for the new political culture that has taken root in Karnataka. It burst into national consciousness when Sonia Gandhi contested for Loksabha in 1999.
Ironically, it also marked the dramatic rise of Gali Janardhan Reddy, who managed the BJP campaign for Sushma Swaraj, Gandhi’s opponent in that election. Even though he ended up on the losing side, Reddy and his cohort filled the political vacuum in Bellary BJP and effectively challenged the hegemony of Congress.
Reddy took to mining, where the increasing global demand for iron ore, brought in unexpected riches, which were quickly ploughed back into electoral politics. Political analysts attribute BJP’s remarkable electoral success in this region in 2004 elections to outspending opponents by five to as many as ten times.
Four years later, Bellary repeated everywhere.
Janardhan Reddy is the prime example of this new politician-entrepreneur model. We estimate that there are at present at least 22 MLAs with substantial interest in mining related businesses and another 18 MLAs in real estate.
In addition to this, there are at least 40 MLAs with significant investments in real estate, hospitality, healthcare, education and agro-businesses. Thus more than one third of Karnataka Assembly today consists of what I have called here as politician-entrepreneur class.
Beyond the numbers what is significant is how they see themselves.
Consider Janardhan Reddy himself. Proposing a Rs. 30,000 crore project, as he did at the 2010 Global Investors Meet, isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. His proximity to power ensured he received the necessary permissions as well as land and water allotments very quickly.
It is reported that liquidity crunch has forced him to sell his company but the very audacity of such a proposal is striking. The new politician-entrepreneur thinks nothing of the financial requirement, managerial as well as technical skills necessary to run a massive business venture.
More than any other party, BJP has been open to this new politician-entrepreneur.
While a definitive account of BJP’s ascendance to political prominence is yet to be written, it is quite clear that BJP’s rise to power hasn’t come from the use of religion in politics, as pundits had anticipated.
Rather, under Yediyurappa’s leadership, BJP recognized the political zeitgeist (spirit) of the age and succeeded in integrating this new politician-entrepreneur into the structure of the older Sangh parivar activist based party.
Yediyurappa’s singular achievement has been to manage this transition in the short term, despite tremendous upheavals within the party.
He also shrewdly recognized that these new additions substantially expand the social base of the party, as they come from different under represented backward communities, and has created very effective local social (read caste) alliances by combining the traditional supporters of Sangh Parivar with these new comers.
His own Lingayat credentials have been a huge help in this process and perhaps, this is what makes him indispensible for BJP even today.
While the BJP national leadership doesn’t agree with this assessment, Yediyurappa himself relentlessly makes this point and so do his supporters. Even his opponents concede, especially in private, that if elections are held today Yediyurappa will comfortably lead his party back to power.
If my first proposition to explain politics in Karnataka today focused on the convergence of politics and business – and the consequent emergence of the politician-entrepreneur – we also need to recognize that no politician will survive in public life if his sole purpose is private profit.
Therefore, my second proposition notes the rise of a new form of populism as the relationship of the politician with his constituents too changes.
I have closely followed Karnataka politics for nearly three decades now, studying the personalities of politicians, their motivations and aspirations.
What I found surprising about the recent changes is how quickly the politician has become a benevolent royal patron, feeding hundreds – even thousands in some cases – of people everyday, distributing cash to people who need money for hospital expenses, for school fees, or funerals; some legislators have even posted a chart in their houses.
This is the kind of benevolence usually associated with an ideal king and I have noticed politicians frequently using royal metaphors to describe their largesse. While politicians in the past may have helped their constituents in this manner, the scale of this operation and the centrality to politics is new.
Hence at the core of this new populism (and of politician-constituent relationship) is personal loyalty.
What the politician delivers isn’t simply services that the state offers but largesse from personal fortune to meet with the everyday contingencies of his constituent.
Even building a political base is a project in cultivating personal loyalty: it might mean distributing thousands of sewing machines to women or sending thousands on pilgrimages to temples allover South India or distributing money to celebrate the birthdays of Basavanna and Ambedkar.
The constituent too seems to be fine with accepting these gifts, which he sees as redistribution of illegally gotten wealth from real estate and mining. You only have to watch Kannada news television channels for a few hours on any given day to find enough evidence.
Politics has become an expensive proposition and many old timers stay away from their constituencies unable to distribute such largesse.
In noting the transformations, I am not suggesting that the older political projects – to achieve social justice or equitable economic development are completely dead. But the space available for such is collective projects is shrinking and the prospects for building new ones are quite bleak.
Will replacing Yediyurappa or even the fall of BJP government in the forthcoming elections might change this new reality? Will a robust Lok Ayukta (ombudsman) institution or an activist, vigilant Supreme Court make a difference?
While some sources of income, such as illegal mining, can closed, the new political dynamic is fairly well entrenched. Karnataka isn’t unique in this regard and similar trends are seen in other parts of the country as well.
Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is on the faculty of San Francisco State University, specialising in medieval South India, and the cultural politics of contemporary South Asia.