Sun. Jun 16th, 2024

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As it became abundantly clear on the morning of the Karnataka election counting day (May 13) that the Congress was heading towards a big win, a dear friend of mine phoned me to express elation. I was surprised. I didn’t expect him, a staunch Modi supporter, to be happy over the BJP’s defeat. But when he narrated his own personal experience of high-level corruption in the BJP government in the state, it validated a factor that has greatly contributed to the Kannadigas’ decision to oust the party from power.

This is what happened. My friend, a nationally reputed documentary filmmaker, was approached by the government to produce a film to showcase Karnataka as an attractive investment destination. He made the film, which was highly appreciated. But when he sought payment of the agreed amount, a minister demanded a “30% commission”. The bribe was refused. The enraged minister not only withheld the payment, but also ordered the film to not be screened. My friend then phoned one of the top RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) leaders in the country, whom he knew very well, and requested him to intervene, which he did. Still, the BJP minister did not relent.

Another example – As an independent non-party political activist committed to bringing about change in Karnataka and at the national level, I campaigned for the Congress in many districts. In Hubballi, the second largest city in the state, a cousin who is a staunch BJP supporter narrated his own frustrating experience. His aged mother-in-law had died eight months ago. He wanted her property to be transferred in his wife’s name per her will, and went to the state government office concerned. He was asked to pay a huge bribe, which he refused. Being socially and politically well-connected, he thought that approaching his good friend, a powerful BJP minister in the state, would help. The minister advised him to pay the bribe and get his work done. “Nothing moves in our government without greasing palms,” the minister said.

Third example – I met a senior police officer in Bengaluru who said there is a price tag for every transfer and posting. Almost all in the police department – from ordinary constables to senior officers – have to pay hefty amounts, which, through a chain of intermediaries, goes to MLAs and ministers. “Corruption rose further in the past few years because the government decided to reduce the frequency of transfers from two years to one year,” the officer said, adding, “How can the police force remain clean if politicians force us to pay them bribes?”

Finally, a well-informed editor of a Kannada daily in Bengaluru told me even the hallowed portals of higher education are not free from the stink of corruption. “It is common for vice chancellors of state public universities to get the job by paying bribes running into crores. No wonder most of our universities have pitiable standards.”

BJP was badly hit by the charge of “40% Commission Sarkar”

Tales of corruption are hardly novel in India. Anyone who has ears to the ground can narrate numerous such authentic stories, which, because they have lost their novelty, have also lost their power to surprise and shock us. Rarely have corruption scandals toppled governments, an exception being the Bofors scam that unseated the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress from power in 1989. (Rajiv Gandhi was posthumously declared not guilty by a court) But what happened in Karnataka was different. The BJP lost power not due to any specific scandal involving outgoing Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai or his colleagues. Rather, the voters rejected it because of the widespread perception that the entire government machinery, from bottom to top, was steeped in corruption.

This impression was solidified by a letter that a statewide association of contractors sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleging that ministers routinely demanded “40% commission” in every government-funded project. One such contractor, who happened to be a BJP-RSS supporter, ended his own life. In his suicide note, he blamed a senior BJP minister for harassing him with demands for bribe. This is how the BJP government came to be known as a “40% Commission Sarkar”, and the Congress highlighted this in many creative ways in its poll campaign – with enormous success.

True, corruption was not the only issue that felled the BJP in Karnataka. Steep price rise and large-scale unemployment among the youth added to people’s anger. They were also not convinced by the BJP’s high-decibel campaign asking them to renew their mandate to the “Double-Engine Government”. For one thing was obvious to them: “How has a BJP government both at the Centre and in the state really helped us when even the price of a simple cooking gas cylinder has more than tripled in the past nine years?”

The BJP also paid a heavy price because it alienated itself from certain numerically and politically significant castes. The state being bereft of strong local leaders, the party depended entirely on Modi’s charisma to bring it victory. No less noteworthy is the fact that the party’s relentless efforts to create a Hindu-Muslim divide, and use its shrill Hindutva appeal to try and garner the votes of the majority community, came a cropper. Modi also appealed to people to “punish the Congress” by saying “Jai Bajrang Bali” while casting their votes. His call was in response to the Congress pledging to ban the Bajrang Dal if it was voted to power.

The one important national fallout of the BJP’s defeat in Karnataka is this – its much-touted anti-corruption plank has taken a severe beating. The reasons are obvious, but the party leadership’s hubris prevents it from acknowledging them. A little flashback is necessary to emphasise this point.

The BJP’s political USP since 2014 has been Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And Modi’s carefully cultivated personal USP has been that he is a strong leader. A vital part of his “strong leader” image is his well-publicised intolerance to corruption. His solemn promise to the people of India in 2014 was “Na khaoonga, na khaane doona (I am not corrupt, and I shall not allow others to indulge in corruption)”. They trusted him, especially since they were fed up with stories of corruption in Manmohan Singh’s UPA 2.

That promise and the enviable image erected on the edifice of that promise have now suffered a big dent. Although Modi still does not have a real challenger at the national level, people’s trust in him seems to be diminishing. After all, he – also Home Minister Amit Shah, the other strongman in his government – put his prestige at stake by campaigning aggressively for a renewed mandate to his party in Karnataka. His campaign didn’t click. People noticed that he hardly addressed the corruption issue in a satisfactory manner. Believing, perhaps, that offense is the best part of defense, he claimed in an election rally that “the Congress is associated with 85% commission”. This too did not impress voters.

Can Congress give a ‘Corruption-Free Sarkar‘? Un uphill task

Not that the Congress party in Karnataka is snow-white clean. The malaise of bribe-taking has become endemic to the country’s political establishment cutting across party lines. Attacking the BJP on “40% commission” for electoral gains was an easy task. But providing corruption-free governance is going to be a huge challenge for the Congress, irrespective of who becomes the state’s next chief minister. Only deep systemic reforms, with a high level of transparency and people’s supervision, can cure this disease, for which neither the BJP nor the Congress is ready.

The credibility of the RSS, the mother organisation of the Sangh Parivar, has been badly damaged. Time was when even those who criticized the RSS on ideological grounds admired it for the integrity and discipline of its functionaries. That is no longer the case. Karnataka has been a stronghold of the RSS. Indeed, it is because of the RSS that the BJP could achieve political success in the state, the only one in South India that turned saffron. Yet, there is little evidence that the top RSS leadership took any steps to rein in rampant bribe-seeking among BJP functionaries in Karnataka. They either seemed helpless or acquiesced in it. Consequently, there is widespread resentment among many upright RSS insiders, and also among its ardent supporters outside, that the Sangh is fast losing its charitra (moral character).

Clearly, the people’s verdict in Karnataka has opened up new possibilities in national politics ahead of the crucial assembly elections in 2023 (in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram) and the all-important parliamentary elections in 2024. The BJP better not be under the illusion that Modi’s name alone is enough to swing the voters in its favour.

(The writer was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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