Corruption in Karnataka politics
A pre-poll survey in Karnataka showed most voters inured to petty corruption even though the outgoing BJP government's terms was rocked by news of bribery
Corruption figured in the campaign for the just-concluded Karnataka Legislative Assembly election more prominently than ever before in the electoral history of the state. Yet, the election also highlighted the limitation of corruption as an election issue.
Although corruption has a long history in Karnataka, what the state witnessed in the past four years was unprecedented. A scam or two had rocked previous governments too, but the nature of corruption cases that came to be associated with the outgoing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and the sheer number of such cases made corruption a potential election issue. The opposition Congress in fact launched its campaign by trying to build a narrative around corruption, especially the ‘40 per cent kickback’ allegation levelled by government contractors. It was named as ‘PayCM’ campaign to rhyme with Paytm. From then on, corruption remained a constant factor in the opposition campaign till the date of polling. The highlight was a full-page newspaper advertisement issued by the Congress in which it listed the amount of the bribe that the BJP government allegedly collected while making recruitments for various categories of government jobs. Despite this, a prepoll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) two weeks before the date polling showed that corruption was not the most important issue that weighed in the minds of the people while making their electoral choice.
The survey was conducted between April 20 and 28. The survey covered 2143 voters registered in 82 polling booths across 21 of the State’s 224 Assembly constituencies. The sample included respondents from all the major regions and social backgrounds.
There are two types of corruption: petty corruption and grand corruption. Petty corruption that people experience in their day-to-day lives along with visible acts of minor favouritism in the allocation of resources by people in power is a regular feature of governance. This kind of corruption does not become an election issue because of its sheer permanence. Any reference to corruption as an election issue, therefore, is about grand corruption, which manifests in the forms of big-ticket scams that make headlines.
This kind of corruption scandals marred the rule of all the three major parties in Karnataka in the past four decades since the end of Congress monopoly in the early 1980s. During this period, the Janata Party came to power twice (1983, and 1985, Janata Dal once, the Congress thrice (1989, 1999, 2013) and the BJP twice (2008, 2019).
The first Janata Party government was a short-lived minority government (1983-85). The second Janata Party government (1985-1988) that came to power with full majority under Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, was marred by at least two notable corruption scandals related to irregularities in allocation of land and the award of liquor bottle contracts. Hegde had to even step down as chief minister briefly after he was indicted by the Karnataka high court in the liquor bottling scandal. The Janata Dal government (1994) saw no major allegations of corruption against it.
One of the three Congress governments during this period came under the cloud when S. Bangarappa was the chief minister (1990-92). This was a corruption case relating to the purchase of computers and came to be known as Classik Computer Scam. However, since the two other chief ministers during the term of this government, Veerendra Patil who came before Bangarappa, and M Veerappa Moily who succeeded him had a relatively clean image, Classik Computer Case was forgotten even before the end of the government’s term. Bangarappa was eventually acquitted by the special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court. The other two Congress governments under chief ministers S M Krishna and Siddaramaiah were free of major charges of corruption against them.
Interestingly, both BJP governments that have come to power so far have been rocked by multiple corruption scandals. During the first BJP government (2008-2011), Chief Minister Yediyurappa had to resign after he was indicted by the Karnataka Lok Ayukta for his role in irregularities relating to the award of mining licenses. Five of the ministers in his government lost their jobs, and scores of legislators were booked for corruption. One of them was caught red-handed while accepting bribes and was later convicted. The second BJP regime (2019-2023) appears to have surpassed the record of the first BJP Government in facing corruption charges. The highlight was the allegation that a ‘40 per cent’ kick-back had to be paid to various functionaries in the Government for the award of all public contracts. This allegation levelled by the recognized association of the government contractors went public about this after its two letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi received no response. Open allegation of corruption by contractors who are otherwise known to work cordially with politicians in power surprised many, especially after one contractor committed suicide alleging unbearable harassment for kickbacks. Initially, the ruling party shrugged it off by saying there was no evidence, but it went silent after MLA Madal Virupakshappa's son, who was also an official of the state government was caught red-handed by the Lok Ayukta sleuths while he was allegedly accepting a huge amount of commission in cash for awarding a contract.
This apart, hardly a month passed with one or other corruption case coming to light mostly relating to government recruitments, the most prominent one being the alleged irregularities in the selection of police sub-inspectors, which led to the arrest of a Director General of Police and several low-level functionaries of the ruling BJP. Towards the end even the ruling party legislators such as A. Vishwanath, Bavanagowda Patil Yatnal and Goolihatti Shekhar started hurling charges of corruption against their own party government.
When the previous governments that faced corruption charges went to the next polls, the issue of corruption was overshadowed by serious internal squabbles within these parties leading to vertical splits. As such, the opposition did not make it a major election issue. This had happened with the tainted governments of the Janata Party, Congress and the first BJP Government. The present Bommai government was an exception. It had to live with its tarnished image as a corrupt regime when it went to the polls as there were no other major political developments to push corruption to the sidelines.
Against this backdrop, the CSDS pre-poll survey finding that corruption did not find much resonance with the people despite the opposition making it an election issue was a little surprising. Just six per cent of the survey respondents said that they considered corruption as a major poll issue. This, despite more than 50 per cent of them admitting that corruption had increased over the past five years under the BJP. A standard response, as another pre-poll survey conducted by Kananda web-magazine eedina.com reported, whenever the respondents were posed a question about corruption was that ‘well all governments are corrupt.’
This suggests that corruption as an election issue does not touch a chord with the people. An established party like the Congress when in the opposition has an inherent limitation in making an election issue out of corruption because the ruling party would point to its corrupt past. In Karnataka, people seemed to buy the BJP’s rebuttal turning the spotlight on the corruption under the Congress regime.
Politicians indulging in grand corruption also become big patrons. Much of the money earned in corruption is spent on elections, which means the money is redistributed to those very voters who are expected to reject the corrupt. Here, voters are not passive clients but active claimants, demanding a share from politicians’ earnings. There seems to have emerged a new social contract in which both politicians and voters understand each other’s need for money. This could be the reason why people were not concerned about corruption despite the opposition raising a din about it.
The author teaches in Azim Premji University.