Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reasons to Bother

If Karnataka is a success story (and this is a debatable point), it is despite, not because of, political leadership. Since Ramakrishna Hegde chose the pursuit of power at the Centre over improving his state, more than two decades ago, the state of Nijalingappa and Urs has been ruled by an uninterrupted series of kleptocrats (from Congress, BJP, united Janata Dal and JDS), each utterly apathetic towards development policy. Infrastructure projects that take months in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu- two states where politicians and bureaucrats can best be described as "corrupt but relatively efficient and effective"- can take the best part of a decade. The state's growth has been fuelled by migrant labour. Under the British, the migrants came from Tamil Nadu. Today, they come from Rajasthan, Punjab and Bihar, as well as Bangladesh and the North-East. Kannadigas themselves are acquiring a reputation for unparalleled laziness. This may or may not be fair but certainly Kannadiga politicians exemplify sloth in a manner that today is visible in few other states.

In the early 2000s Karnataka, then a Congress-ruled state, was seen as the poster child of India Shining. The present Union Minister of External Affairs, while criticized in his own state for empty talk and an apathy towards rural Karnataka, was described by the Delhi prints as a model, modernizing Chief Minister. The accolades were entirely undeserved. The one thing that can be said in SM Krishna's defence is that while no one would accuse his administration of honesty, corruption on the scale being practised today did not begin until his successor, N Dharam Singh, a corpulent nonentity, took over in May 2004. Six years later, Karnataka may well be the most corrupt state in the country. Other states might have a single hegemonic kleptocrat (Mayawati or Sharad Pawar) or a multibillionaire first family (the Karunanidhi clan), but in Karnataka the entire system has corroded.

As in any other state, corruption in Karnataka affects every citizen on a daily basis. Its impact goes well beyond the payment of bribes. Why is public transport in Karnataka more expensive than in the rest of the country? Higher fuel taxes play some role, but so does the egregious practice of flying ministers and their families on foreign junkets, the funds coming from the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) and other state transport bodies. In other words, the common man is funding these junkets through the purchase of ludicrously priced bus tickets.

No party is blameless in this situation; all three main parties in Karnataka are beholden to money power in the form of such men as the Reddy brothers (BJP), Anil Lad and RV Deshpande (Congress). Yet the BJP's act in brazenly obstructing the Lok Ayukta, N Santosh Hegde- surely one of the most upright and dignified public servants in the country- in the conduct of his work, its utter contempt for Hegde's recommendations and its mendacity in the face of his resignation give the lie to any claim made on the party's behalf, that it is less corrupt than any other party. Whether this was ever true is doubtful. Now, any profession of honesty on the part of the BJP cannot be taken seriously by any neutral observer.

The circumstances of Hegde's departure are so depressing that one must fear for the future of my home state (by residence if not by blood), no matter how vigorous its private sector and strong its economy. Hegde has a long list of grievances and it is a testament to his forbearance that has stuck with the job so long. Like his father, the late Supreme Court Justice and Janata Party Speaker of the Lok Sabha KS Hegde (the only man to be Speaker of the House as a first-time member), perhaps the most distinguished MP in the history of Karnataka, Santosh Hegde only knows one way of operating in public life: with unwavering courage and honesty. He has used his office to expose politicians of all parties, to investigate illegal mining on the Andhra border as well as thousands of bureaucrats. Yet virtually every single official that the Lok Ayukta has proven corruption charges against has been reinstated by the BJP government, and his report on the activities of the Reddy brothers has been predictably hushed up. Yeddyurappa might well cry crocodile tears on television and feign ignorance, but the truth of the charge cannot be contested. The immediate cause of his resignation was the suspension of an upright Deputy Conservator of Forests, on the pretext that he had a missed a meeting with his Minister in Bangalore. In truth, the forest officer had collaborated with the Lok Ayukta in seizing several hundred crores' worth of iron ore that was about to be illegally shipped, on behalf of the Reddy brothers, from the port of Belikeri. As Hegde pointed out, the officer was both performing his legal obligation as well as saving the state's exchequer hundreds of croses in tax. His reward was suspension, and Hegde's resignation has not been enough to save the officer in question.

Replacing Santosh Hegde will be extraordinarily difficult, both because men of his ilk are rare in public life these days, and because no one will want to take up the Lok Ayukta's job after the BJP has rendered it toothless. Even if a quality replacement could be find, the government is likely spit in his face over and over again, just as they have done to Hegde.

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