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Election rout creates new headaches for the victors

Corruption and violence are the legacy of the beaten BJP

Election rout creates new headaches for the victors
John Dayal, Delhi

May 9, 2013

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The ignominious rout of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the elections this week to the Legislative Assembly of the state of Karnataka has implications far beyond provincial boundaries; and the political detritus that the government leaves behind will continue to impact religious minorities, women and the cultural world for a very long time to come.

When the votes were counted on May 8, the BJP lost 70 of the 110 seats it once held, retaining a mere 40, yielding space to the Congress which overcame dissidence and its usual chaotic functioning to win 120 of the 223 seats in the house.

One election was called off following the death of a candidate. Former chief minister and leader of the Janata Dal Secular Party, H. D. Kumarswamy, won a surprising 40 seats mostly appealing to voters of his own caste, while Yeddyurappa, another former chief minister who broke away from the BJP, managed a mere six seats.

The results are a major political embarrassment and setback for the national leadership of the BJP. The party had since inception remained limited to North and Western India, and was non-existent in the four populous states of the South – Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala – for six decades.

The demography of Karnataka with its mix of upper castes and the Konkani belt along the western coast, which is influenced partly by the religious politics of neighboring Maharashtra, seemed a suitable “gateway to the South,” as party ideologues termed it.

The rapid growth of Hindu right-wing extremist groups under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or the Sangh Parivar as it is generally known, among youth and upper caste groups brought the party to power five years ago, touted as the beginning of the BJP’s eventual conquest of southern India.

With this defeat, the party has once again shrunk to the northern states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and partly in Punjab and Bihar where it is the junior partner in coalitions with the Akali Dal and the Janata Dal United respectively.

The Congress returns to power in the state after seven years and has the onerous task of not only cleaning up the mess left behind, but making sure it does not itself fall prey to corruption at a time when its national leadership is itself in deep trouble on the eve of the general elections in 2014, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and several of his ministers accused of corruption in areas such as the railways and the coal sector.

The results themselves come as no surprise. In the five years the party was in power, the BJP changed its chief ministers three times in a desperate attempt to undo massive corruption on the one hand and open rebellion on the other.

Karnataka’s capital Bangalore is the silicon valley of India, its economic boom creating a vast market in real estate, which attracted a group of daring entrepreneurs who bought political influence and then used it to circumvent the law with impunity. Often they became politicians themselves.

Two of them, known as the Reddy Brothers, who in fact became ministers in the government, carried on their business of mining for iron ore with such audacity they tunneled under state boundaries to dig deep into the ore veins in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, breaking just about every national law. They were eventually trapped, sacked, arrested and sent to jail.

Not every guilty person faced such retribution, and corruption, which impacted on the common man, soon made the regime very unpopular and its continuance untenable. In the end, neither the call to the hyper-nationalism that is the Sangh’s forte, nor rapid changes in the office of the chief minister could save the day.

For the Congress, the task is not just cleaning up the corruption and ensuring that its own ministers do not dip their fingers in the state exchequer, but to cleanse the education system, the police and the village panchayat or local self government apparatus which has been heavily penetrated by Sangh elements in the last five years.

The state currently tops the list of provinces with the highest incidence of persecution of Christians, especially of independent pastors. After Orissa’s Kandhamal area, Mangalore and other parts of Karnataka saw massive violence in 2008. In a People’s Tribunal held last month in Bengaluru by the All India Christian Council, 80 of over 200 persecuted pastors, including women, were deposed about violence they had faced, often by goons in connivance with the local police and village systems. Some estimates put persecution figures at over 300 every year.

Cultural police and thugs have disrupted cultural functions, sometimes in colleges and churches, attacked young couples and artists, and launched campaigns against Love Jihad, the so called organized wooing of Hindu young women by Muslim men.

With the social and cultural landscape often under siege of such “patriotic and nationalistic” elements, restoring civil liberties and freedom of faith become priorities for the new government once it assumes office.

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