People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 21

June 08 , 2008



Karnataka's New Politics Is About Having It And Flaunting It

Narendar Pani

WHEN the Election Commission first decided to get candidates to declare their assets the widespread belief was that this would lead to an increase in benami transactions, or at least a gross undervaluation of what was declared. What we have seen instead - and the Karnataka elections are the latest evidence of this trend - is that candidates are flaunting their wealth. Even those who had in previous elections been rather modest in their claims to affluence are suddenly now declaring wealth several times their earlier declarations. Taken together with the tendency of leaders with humble origins to be gifted huge purses in public, this might suggest a major departure from the era of garibi hatao. Leaders of that era may not have been of as modest means as they said they were, but at least they thought it necessary to say so. If we look beyond this obvious difference, though, the distance travelled may not be as great. All that has really happened is that in the post- liberalisation era the patronage politics of old has been privatised.


Earlier patronage politics was a simple matter of coming to power and then distributing government resources through a variety of garibi hatao schemes. If you belonged to a cadre based party you gave the houses or other benefits to your cadres and your supporters. If, on the other hand, the political party you belonged to was more flexible, you used state resources to build personal loyalties that you could take with you as you moved from party to party. You might, as a novice, begin by pointing out just how few paise of every rupee went to the intended beneficiary. But as you stayed on in politics you realised that what academics classified as leakage was actually the only way to broad base your support. The post-liberalisation era hit at the very roots of this system. As state governments finances came under pressure so did their ability to provide patronage. To make matters worse, the spread of democracy to the grassroots threw up a number of new leaders, each promising more than the other. As public expectations were raised it became almost impossible to retain support through the limited patronage that was now possible. It was only a matter of time before “anti- incumbency” became a part of the political lexicon. But what liberalisation took away with one hand it gave with the other. Since 1991 it has become much easier to grant individuals the right to tap natural resources. The private development of land around our cities may be the most ubiquitous example, but equally important are the cases of forests and mining. The huge resources that are made available to chosen individuals can then be used for personalised patronage. This creates new powerful political families that may belong to a particular party today, but are in reality quite independent of the party.


The most striking examples of this process are, arguably, the mining families of Bellary district in Karnataka. This district was considered so safe for the Congress that when Ms Sonia Gandhi required a seat from the south where she could win without batting an eyelid, Bellary was the obvious choice. Into that campaign came Ms Sushma Swaraj. She decided to take under her wings the Reddys, a major mining family in the region. The familys resources from mining had reached levels where its preferred mode of transport to the state capital of Bangalore was helicopter. The family began to use its private resources for patronage. In the matter of a few years, Bellary had become a BJP stronghold. In the recent elections the Congress decided to move away from its traditional leadership and put up mining families of its own. While it was not entirely without success, it had been reduced to playing catch-up. The BJP is of course jubilant about its ability to spot a transition in the polity and use the Reddys to tap it. But the jury is still out on whether they control the Reddys or the Reddys control them. When the BJP fell three seats short of a majority in the recent Karnataka elections it was the Reddys who were brought into the negotiations. And the party was also forced to compromise on its often high-pitched appeal for morality. Soon after the results, Karnataka Election Watch put out a list of elected MLAs from the BJP who had criminal cases against them with a request to the chief minister not to make them ministers. Among those with the more serious charges was a representative of the Reddys of Bellary. Needless to say he was made a cabinet minister and was soon bargaining for amajor portfolio. Bellary may be a dramatic example, but variations of the same process are visible in urban centres as well, and not just in Karnataka. Land has been acquired around major cities and handed over to real estate developers. The more resourceful of these developers have opted to convert a portion of their newly acquired wealth into political patronage. This gives them access to the political stage. And they are typically quite willing to go to any party that will have them. Political parties may rush to make the best use they can of the privatisation of patronage, but its long- term consequences for both the economy and the polity are, at the very least, disturbing. As parties compete with each other to encourage their favourite families, they have to offer them greater and greater rights to exploit natural resources. These families then mine natural resources for the export market with little concern for either the environment or what will happen once these resources are depleted. Sooner or later the economy will have to pay a price for this mindless over-exploitation of non-renewable natural resources.


Politically too the parties could find relying heavily on those with private patronage, a double-edged weapon. As they encourage individuals to tap natural resources available in any manner they deem fit, they reward those with a complete disregard for what is being destroyed. This leads, very often, to criminalisation of the polity. And even when the new purveyors of private patronage are not criminals, they certainly lack any vision of sustainable development. The democratic safeguard against this process continuing till disaster strikes, is for political parties to mobilise those who do not gain from this rape of natural resources. The parties would have to convince them that there are alternative models of development that can give them a better livelihood than that offered by privatised patronage. But in a political environment where winning elections is all that matters, it would take a very brave party that would look beyond mobilising private providers of patronage. These patronage providers in turn need to demonstrate to parties and the voters at large that they have the resources to play this role. And the declaration of assets as demanded by the Election Commission provides an excellent forum to do so.

(Courtesy: Mail Today, June 04, 2008)