Saffron Meltdown in Southern Bastion- Part 1
It was day of counting of the 2008 Karnataka assembly election. BJP, often described pejoratively as a party of cowbelt nationalists, was breaching a seemingly insurmountable Vindhyas barrier and ascending to power by securing Karnataka as its citadel. BJP always hoped that Karnataka would serve as party’s electoral gateway to rest of South India where it had a miniscule presence. As the results were pouring in thick and fast, in the hallowed studios of IBN, a beaming Sagarika Ghose, a perceptive columnist turned television anchor, glowing in a splendid saffron tinted sari, was typically excitable in asking “Is it the return of Vijayanagar Empire?.
In an obscure corner of a high rise Bangalore apartment, a prescient BJP strategist, glued to television set, was uproariously laughing at Sagarika’s invocation of this historical imagery. He knew that trouble for BJP in Karnataka has just began. “If at all something fits the description of a pyrrhic victory this is got to be the one” he told his small band of friends who had assembled before a television watching saffron party create electoral history.
As per conventional narrative, BJP apparently accomplished a near impossible victory through a highly focused, brilliantly crafted election campaign that combined a relentless projection of Yeddyurappa’s leadership qualities and yet cleverly allowed him to play the victimhood card, handed on a platter by brazen opportunism of Deve Gowda family enterprise.
Yeddyurappa’s role in 2008 victory
Yedyurappa, a grassroot leader, certainly played a pivotal role, along with thousands of unheralded Sangh foot soldiers, in building BJP in Karnataka. A complex politician, Yeddyurappa despite his rough edges, has a rustic appeal that connects well with the electorate. He began his political career by taking up the cause of bonded labors and during his long stint in the opposition he was in the forefront of advocating issues related to agrarian distress and rural impoverishment.
Leveraging a painstakingly constructed Lingayat support base (which was up for grabs after Veerendra Patil’s humiliation by an arrogant Rajiv Gandhi and Ramakrishna Hegde’s demise), poaching political talent from competition, even if it meant mostly men from his own caste and putting together a patronage dispensation network (he did a good job as finance minster in a BJP-JD coalition ministry), Yeddyurappa helped BJP grow leaps and bounds. However Yeddyurappa factor is just half the story in explaining the BJP’S 2008 victory.
Role of Reddy Republic in BJP’s 2008 Victory
From Seshan era onwards, election commission continues to nurture a deluded messianic spirit. The commission thinks that it’s doing a monumental role in cleaning Augean stables of Indian election financing. But commission’s clampdown has not solved the problem of dirty money abound in elections campaign but rather manifested it differently.
By imposing unrealistic curbs on campaign related expenditure the commission has inadvertently incentivized even more sinister practices. Competing candidates no longer splurge on creating ‘visibility’ through high voltage campaign blitzkrieg as this is easily monitored but now prefer a below the radar, micro-targeting of voters through stealth distribution of largesse to ‘swing’ voters. That a critical mass of voters would have to be persuaded to influence the outcome through this mechanism has rendered elections incredibly expensive. Given the astronomical spending on micro-targeting, we have witnessed a preponderance of super moneyed candidates. Karnataka 2008 election was no exception to this phenomenon of election commission overzealousness triggering a flourishing underground election economy
In this kind of electoral context, Congress always stood at a natural advantage given the resourcefulness of its leadership and deep pockets thanks to its long stints in power. Besides that in Karnataka Congress has always been a formidable force – dynasty used to contest from pocket boroughs here and win. Even during the run up to 2008 polls Congress looked set to stage a comeback. BJP’s limited social base and uneven geographic spread (miniscule presence in Vokkaliga heartland and sketchy presence in large parts of Hyderabad-Karnataka) meant that, even with a huge groundswell of support, surpassing a tally of 80 seats in a 220 odd state assembly seemed impossible. This is where the role of the Reddy brothers came in handy for BJP, helped it disrupt conventional political trajectory and upset the Congress applecart.
Reddy brothers were running a roaring mining business in collaboration with and under the patronage of Rayalaseema ganglord turned Congress CM of Andhra Pradesh Rajasekhara Reddy. They made a windfall catering to the voracious appetite generated by Chinese infrastructure boom. They could flout regulatory norms with impunity given that Rajasekhara Reddy household’s holdings in their mining empire. While the cross border Reddy Republic was commercially integrated, as part of political risk diversification strategy and sensing that a vacuum for financial patrons/moneybags existed in Karnataka BJP, Reddy brothers hitched on to the saffron bandwagon. By empowering and adopting Sriramulu, a powerful local Valmiki Nayaka strongman, not merely as a henchman but as an integral member of their empire, Reddy brothers made huge headway in their aspiration to turn Bellary in to an impregnable electoral bastion.
Reddy brother also adopted ‘KarolBagh Kannada’ speaking Sushma Swaraj as their godmother. While there is zilch evidence to suggest that Sushma provided them any protection, it certainly helped Reddy Brothers to ride roughshod over local leadership. An impression that section of BJP’s national leadership provided blessing to them for various quid pro quos continued to exist and Sushma too did nothing to dispel that notion.
Reddy brothers delivered to BJP at least 30-35 marginal seats in 2008 elections, thanks to their enormous spending prowess. Reddy brothers by conservative estimate fielded 20-25 of their handpicked candidates. Most of them secured handsome victories. Lobbies have held Karnataka politics to ransom over the year but modus operandi of Reddy brothers was brazen- direct political participation rather than behind the scene manipulation and maneuvering of obliging political class
When Reddy brothers understood that BJP would just finish short of majority by 5-6, they immediately swung in to action and poached fly by night political operators from opposition to strengthen their hold on the party. Yeddyurappa was hardly pleased as he envisaged a different model – approaching his caste MLA’s from opposition ranks.
Governance Troubles and Yeddyurappa’s Persona
What contributed to the worsening of Saffron party’s woes in running its first government in south was Yeddyurappa’s deeply flawed persona. Murmurs always existed about the shady deal making of his family members but in the murky world of Karnataka politics, compared to his string of venal predecessors, Yeddyurappa is regarded as almost saintly. Contrary to popular perception, it’s not widespread wheeling dealing that consumed him. As it turned out, most of the charges against him have been thrown out by court, proving what his sympathizers have always been maintaining- that charges are minor transgression at worst, mostly continuation of precedence /practices followed by earlier CM’s or clear case of media orchestrated witch-hunt.
Yeddyurappa’s fatal flaws lies somewhere else – his inability to make a meaningful transition away from operating in the mode of an ‘all day and all night’ politician. He couldn’t transform himself in to a benevolent administrator focused on complex task of delivering governance, by growing beyond petty politicking and factional intrigues. He was perpetually driven by the need to undermine his real and imagined political enemies. Having perfected the art of dangerous political brinkmanship, Yeddyurappa relished and reveled in political crisis, using it well to solidify his stranglehold over party apparatus. Emerging unscathed from crisis after crisis, he clearly began to nurture a sense of his own invincibility. A charmed coterie of his handpicked acolytes began controlling access to him resulting in huge disenchantment among many legislators.
Equanimity too was never Yeddyurappa’s virtue His extreme volatility and irascible temperament caused huge problems in collectively carrying along various stakeholders.
Surprisingly Yeddyurappa’s reign is still regarded a one of the better ones in recent history of the state. Bureaucracy appeared to be energized during his tenure and delivered reasonably well. Yeddyurappa intelligently used the buoyant tax revenue that was generated by Bangalore boom and used it for a slew of welfarist measure without promoting the pernicious freebies culture that is ruining neighboring states. Enormous subliminal goodwill that Yeddyurappa enjoys in Karnataka is largely attributable to credible track record achieved through implementation of several such schemes. His focus on agriculture was also praiseworthy and stood in stark contrast to S M Krishna whose geographic conception of Karnataka did not go beyond parts of Bangalore.
Yeddyurappa and Media
One big battle that Yeddyurappa completely lost was one of perception in the media space. Bent and Beautiful class of Bangalore including few among the corporate citizenry of Bangalore (especially top leadership of an IT Company that brims with closet Congress party apologists) were never reconciled to defeat of their poster boy S M Krishna. Ever since Krishna’s unceremonious ouster, this influential section has been waging a persistent PR campaign to project Bangalore as a tottering urban nightmare. If one goes by what these worthies tell, it has all been a steep decline from heady days when their favourite Angrezi Gowda was apparently running the city a la Singapore. That a state government is a run by a political party, whose ideological disposition does not meet the sensibilities of certain section of urban elitist intelligentsia, continues to drive a narrative that a massive local governance failure continues to exist. Nothing could be further from truth.
Yeddyurappa’s track record on Bangalore infrastructure development has been very impressive, especially in areas of road and transport (his trusted lieutenant Ashoka has been terrific) though he could have done far better, especially given the heightened expectation of BJP’s demanding and fickle supporters. My CRI colleague K J Sharma has written a superlative post detailing out the exemplary work being done in these area. However the non stop political theatre of absurd that Karnataka did descend courtesy the BJP’s ‘Aye Gowda Gaye Patil’ brand of resort politics certainly was repulsive even to partisan BJP support base which still remains quite huge in Bangalore
While ELM’s inherent hostility to nativist, non-English speaking leader is understandable, Yeddyurappa was even hounded by powerful section of vernacular media which otherwise had a profound ideological predilection towards the BJP and played an instrumental role in furthering party’s prospects. An ambitious media baron, who has been expanding his media footprint in Karnataka and is backed by a rootless upper caste, national BJP leader made life miserable for Yeddyurappa by surfacing ‘scams’ periodically through his mouthpieces. Another influential editor, who took is close to the same national leader of BJP, waged a campaign of calumny against Yeddyurappa. These self-styled national leaders of BJP didn’t even realize enormous damage that they did to party by sponsoring and blessing this kind of shenanigans
Yeddyurappa and Church
Yeddyurappa government was also subject to media outcry when a series of minor acts of vandalism on Church occurred in the communally sensitive coastal districts. This campaign was quiet unfair – even his worst critics would concede that Yeddyurappa is certainly not prone to overzealous religious bigotry. A dispassionate analysis will reveal that Church overplayed the victimhood and persecution card as it realized resurgent nationalism in Karnataka has made it nearly impossible for the Church to make any substantial progress in the battle of competitive religiosity battle. As we observed elsewhere, Karnataka is now clearly moving towards the welcome state of Post Brahminical Hindu Social order. Unlike in Tamil Nadu were the Church skillfully exploited the fault lines in the Hindu Society by pitting sections of the Hindu society against the despicable ritual puritanism of Brahmins, it found the going tough in Karnataka. Hindu mutts in Karnataka have acted as remarkable bulwark against the Church groups by ensuring that they provide exemplary service in the field of education/healthcare making it difficult for Church to continue its state supported monopoly over the charitable services. The resurgent wave of Hinduism is largely spearheaded by intermediate caste groups and BJP has been able to successfully tap in to this. Outside of Gujarat,Karnataka is the only other state where the BJP has been ably to replicate this model. Yeddyurappa clearly realized this phenomenon and opened purse strings for various Dharmic mutts across the state
Yeddyurappa committed a huge political mistake, by not factoring in fallout of two major events. One was political impact that was caused by unexpected divine calling that Rajasekhara Reddy received. Second was the damage potential of the well networked and media savvy celebrity judicial campaigner Santosh Hegde.
Yeddyurappa was a marginal player in mining saga. Infact he once took on the mighty Bellary Mining lobby head on and nearly paid a huge price by losing his government. He gave a carte blance to Santosh Hegde, with all encompasing terms of reference to investigate the illegal mining scam. This could not have been the case if Yeddyurappa had skeletons in his own cupboard – he would have easily stonewalled the investigation or restricted its scope. Wiser by experience of how taking up cudgels against mining lobby proved counterproductive, Yeddyurappa decided not to pursue his fight and made tactical peace with mining lords but he hoped that comprehensive report on mining scam will reflect the fact that it was a systemic loot of resources going on for atleast a decade, faciliated by web of complex regulations and barons across political spectrum benefited from it. But events took some unexpected turn
It was always known that Rajasekhara Reddy was perhaps running the most corrupt dispensation that country has ever seen though media pretends today that the magnitude of his loot is coming to light only after he left the scene. Large sections of national media and leading media talking heads(they often double up as propaganda wing of Congress) were completely silent when the unprecedented loot was happening in Andhra Pradesh. In the process Reddy mining empire in Karnataka too did not face any media scrutiny as it was intrinsically linked to Rajasekhar Reddy. However the death of Rajasekhara Reddy and mutiny by his progeny Jagan Reddy completely changed media narrative. Also around this time UPA government’s notoriety was plummeting to an all time low, thanks to a string of scam exposed through efforts of few enlightened SC judges and few indefatigable public spirited citizens (note none of them were exposed by media)
To counter this, Congress spin masters, abetted by paid and co-opted media, deployed a clever media strategy. Congress’ media strategy almost never involves countering convincingly any corruption charges that members of their own party face (often they even audaciously justify the loot) but to play a game of equivalence with other political parties by pointing out that ‘others too are corrupt’ (even though by conservative estimates, scam ratio of Congress to any other political outfit will be something like 100 is to 1).
Death of Rajasekhar Reddy opened up the possibility for Congress party’s dirty tricks department to play out this strategy and target Karnataka which was clearly BJP’s weakest link because of host of factors. It activated its extended media ecosystem that includes NDTV/IE/IBN who perfectly played out the script. That Yeddyurappa was not a squeaky clean politician like Modi and was prone to petty acts of nepotism also aided this plan. A high decibel campaign of vilification, often obscuring facts, was unleashed and Yeddyurappa was targetted
Justice Hegde’s role
Meanwhile a major anti-corruption eruption was sweeping the country and Justice Hegde, who even at other times was not beyond courting media limelight for his supposed crusade against corruption, was sensing an opportunity to build a large than life anti-corruption campaigner image, lustily cheered on TOI reading chattering clases of Bangalore etc. To be fair, though Hegde did not make any attempts to strengthen the institutional capabilities of Lok Ayukta, he certainly made it visible through incessant raids on corrupt bureaucracy often with accompanying media coverage. He now needed a high profile target would make him the messiah taking on the venal political class and possibly place him in a vantage position for ofice of national Lokpal that Team Anna was fighting for. In his report on Mining, Hegde indicted Yeddyurappa, based on a barely tenous connection while he curiously sparred Yeddyurappa’s predecessors who have a clear executive role in letting the mining loot go unchecked. That Yeddy was a bit player in mining saga was yet again demonstrated by the recent HC acquittal (crystal clear that he did not even issue a single mining licence). . As our legal expert Karthikeya Tanna wrote in his First Post column ” It was as ‘clean’ a ‘chit’ as it could be”. It appears that Yeddyurappa was sought to be sucked in to the mining quagmire by an ambitious Hegde
In the hindsight BJP leadership made a huge blunder in not calling Hegde’s bluff and persuading Hegde to stay back when he had tendered his resignation. Shri Advani, a man of unimpeachable integrity and a person one who Hegde looks up to as an inspiration, perhaps in his excessive righteousness and never ending effort to gain acceptability as a statesman has always tacitly blessed Hegde and convinced him to stay on. Reliable sources indicate that Advani’s proximity to Hegde was potentially used by a scheming leader of BJP to settle scores in his long running feud with Yeddyurappa. That Advani reduced himself to a factional player in Karnataka BJP affairs has been one of key reasons that BJP’s national leadership has been unable to stem the rot.
Hegde’s mining report made it difficult for Yeddyurappa to continue in office. Given that report has been completely discredited by the judiciary, onus is on BJP leadership to reinstate Yeddyurappa. BJP is left with little choice in Karnataka- it needs to swim or sink with towering personality of Yeddyurappa. Recent electoral revese in Udupi Chickmagalur bypoll underscores this reality
(To be concluded in Part 2- Can Lotus bloom again?)