Friday, May 17, 2013

Parties, planks and politics: Lessons from the Karnataka Polls

Randeep Wadehra

The recent Karnataka State Assembly election results were not surprising. Most poll pundits foresaw BJP’s defeat and the Congress’s resurgence. However, it is remarkable that the Congress has returned to power on its own steam, and the BJP has been decimated to such an extent that it has been pushed to the margins of Karnataka politics. Some attribute this to the Yeddy and Reddy factors. Thanks to BS Yeddyurappa’s breakaway KJP, the BJP bastions in different parts of the state, which were actually controlled by BSY and the Reddy Brothers, fell. Equally remarkably, BSY's KJP did not benefit much. It secured only seven seats. So, would it be right to conclude that the issues related to corruption and bad governance in the state overshadowed the caste factor? It is true that people in Karnataka want good, efficient and honest governance – something that the BJP had promised, but apparently could not fulfill. So, is it a positive vote for the Congress? Perhaps the voters there realized that it is always dangerous to feel good about any government they elected. In the American satirist PJ O’Rourke’s words, “Feeling good about government is like looking on the bright side of any catastrophe. When you stop looking at the bright side, the catastrophe is still there.”

Factionalism did great harm to the BJP’s image in Karnataka. Apart from traditional rivalries between the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas, there are other divisions that are based on other issues, including vested interests, a factor hinted at both by LK Advani and Jagdish Shattar in their post-election observations. But the party is also bedeviled with other problems. As elsewhere in the country, the BJP government in Karnataka too had ignored corruption and maladministration; worse, wheeling and dealing was actually encouraged. The Reddy-Yeddy phenomenon is but a symptom of deeper malaise in the state’s politics; and the Congress party is certainly not immune to this either. With rivalry among the three frontrunners for the CM's post, viz., Siddaramaiah, Mallikarjun Kharge and Veerappa Moily heating up, there was every chance of faction fights erupting in the Congress. However, prompt decision to install Siddaramaiah as the CM pre-empted this. Thereafter, despite the lobbying for plum portfolios, there has been a conscious show of unity among the various factions. But, would this show of unity endure? Let us not underestimate G. Parameswara, who might have lost the election, but has enough friends and followers to create problems for the incumbent CM.

There have been proclamations by Congress spokespersons about the victory being a trailer for what would happen in the coming general elections. However, although this sort of talk is good for boosting the party cadres’ morale, the Congress cannot afford to take Karnataka as a harbinger of things to come in 2014. In fact, it should be worried; there are so many negatives cropping up simultaneously. It would be fatal for the party’s election prospects if it attempts to make light of the Supreme Court’s observations vis-à-vis the CBI’s report on the coalmine swindle. The belated resignation/removal of the law minister Ashwani Kumar may just about control further damage to the already considerably eroded credibility of the UPA. Let us not forget that the initial hesitation regarding action on the 2G scam too had cost the UPA a lot in terms of its integrity in public perception. A firm and prompt action in the case of coalmine scam would have redeemed its public image or, at least, would not have allowed things to come to such a pass.

Similarly, the railway bribery scandal is not going to die away anytime soon. The BJP and its allies are going to keep the pot boiling by using it as fuel. Indeed, it is tempting to ask – how is it that no one in the government got the wind of what was happening in the Tricity, which comprises Panchkula, Chandigarh and Mohali? One is tempted to congratulate the CBI officials for unearthing the bribery scandal, but given its “caged parrot” status, there is every chance that Bansal’s rivals in the UPA might have managed to cut short his flight. In the process, PKB might well prove to be the Congress Party’s BSY in the general elections that are only a few months away now. Already, the Delhi based media is circulating unconfirmed reports of the UPA considering the possibility of replacing Mr. Manmohan Singh. But, how would this help the party? At the most, it will be eyewash that will not fool anybody, and certainly not the general public.

People are getting increasingly impatient with the manner in which various institutions are being brazenly subverted. They will not put up with graft. This will be a major factor in the coming general elections. In fact, the Karnataka elections have some important lessons to offer to the wannabe netas and even governments. The aam aadmi has come to realize that giving power to today’s politicos is like allowing a teenager to drive car, without examining his driving skills and temperament. Most of those who get into the positions of power behave irresponsibly. Like the proverbial teenager on a speeding spree, the elected politico gets a thrill out of violating all legal and constitutional norms governing his conduct. He wants to get rich quick, establish his family as a dynastic power-center and ensure perpetual hold on the levers of power. So far, the ruling class has been successful in keeping the aam aadmi submissive to the point of becoming an unwitting/hapless accomplice in the politician’s self-aggrandizement shenanigans.

Gradually, things are changing. People have begun to look beyond the caste and community badges in order to evaluate and understand the true motives of a politician who stands at their doorsteps, with folded hands, offering to serve them. They realize that this once in five years show of humility is the single biggest put-on job that deprives them of a lifetime of security and dignity, while multistoried mansions and tons of cash flow into the kitty of that humble servant and his family. Today’s voter is far better informed, thanks to a combination of better education and an easy access to a large number of independent media. Whatever ideological plank a party chooses during an election, it will have to reckon with the voter’s rising aspirations.

Published in The Financial World dated May 17, 2013

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