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Me, myself and mining

The Karnataka end of what is probably India's longest continuing scandal, running through the tenure of five chief ministers, should be left to its Lokayukta to unravel.

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If you dozed off while being driven through the city of Bangalore, you could end up thinking you were in New Delhi, or Lucknow, depending on where your slumber breaks. If it is in the main commercial area, or the Bangalore equivalent of a downtown where the work on the Metro is moving at an admirable pace, you could mistake it for some part of pre-Commonwealth Games New Delhi. But if you are anywhere close to the Vidhan Soudha, the state Assembly, you might, rather, think of Lucknow’s state assembly in a period of particularly bad political turmoil. Only here it looks even more dramatic than UP-style politics, minus, of course, the violence. No MLAs have been beaten up yet, no microphones flung, but for four days now, opposition MLAs have been squatting in the Assembly, even sleeping there. And that was after they staged a dramatic protest by appearing in miners’ bright yellow hard hats, to draw attention to illegal mining.

Whatever the MLAs of any party, ruling or opposition, choose to cover their heads or any other part of their bodies with, the state of Karnataka politics, at least as far as the mining-mafia-competition nexus goes, can only be described in that Urdu metaphor, hamaam mein sab hi nangey, which loses most of its sting in translation: everybody is naked in this bath-house (extensively documented in The Indian Express investigative series, ‘The Independent Republic of Reddys’, started on March 16). A Congress government gave out the initial mining leases, Gowda and his JD(S) added to them, and the BJP expanded them geographically and politically by even including the biggest mining barons in this cabinet and thereby closing the circle that makes the humongous mining scandal the only truly bipartisan (or tripartisan if you want to be literally precise) activity currently going on in Karnataka.

Also read: CBI’s ‘clean chit’ to Reddy brothers in mining scam blows holes in BJP’s corruption plank 

Then why is everyone fighting over this scandal so bitterly? Why is the opposition, both Congress and Deve Gowda’s JD(S), being so self-righteous and demanding a CBI probe? How come the chief minister himself is stating on the floor of the House that illegal mining is a shocking reality? How come Governor H.R. Bhardwaj, who is never tired or retired from running political intrigues, is becoming so actively involved, stretching and rewriting his constitutional powers? And most importantly, what is happening to the one man who chose to blow the whistle on the scandal and nearly paid for it with his job, the state’s Lokayukta and former Supreme Court Judge Santosh Hegde?

The contradictions and confusions of Karnataka politics get curiouser and curiouser. Just three weeks ago, Hegde had resigned complaining that the state government was not letting him exercise his constitutional powers and was even sabotaging his investigations into the mining scandal by victimising one of the most honest, effective officers assisting him. Today as I write this lounging in the wonderful Infosys campus in Mysore, the chief minister is with the governor, extolling the personal and institutional virtues and powers of the same Lokayukta his government had done its best to render ineffective.

There is nobody better than Hegde himself to resolve this confusion. And he does it with an experienced jurist’s precision in conversation with me for NDTV’s Walk the Talk. Everybody in the opposition, he explains, is one in demanding that the CBI take over the investigation from him because they are afraid that he will go deeper into the scandal, to its very roots, and leaders of both the Congress and the JD(S) could come out looking just as bad as the BJP’s if not the worse. The chief minister and the BJP, on the other hand, have suddenly fallen in love with an upright Lokayukta whose lunch they would rather have spiced with cyanide until last week, because they think he will at least be fair and even-handed. Much fairer, in any case, than the CBI that nobody trusts, except with doing the bidding of its political masters of the day. So just as the Congress thinks that the arrival of the CBI would protect them, the BJP thinks it will victimise them, to the exclusion of both their predecessors. And so they have turned into Hegde’s fans, besides discovering such touching faith in the institution of the Lokayukta that they were systematically dismantling so far.

Also read: The 2011 report that revealed the largest illegal mining scam in India 

The most remarkable somersault, of course, has come from Deve Gowda, as you would expect. He is now demanding a CBI probe with the mining scam, but in 2006 when his son led the ruling coalition, he had preferred to go with the Lokayukta instead, describing the CBI under the Congress as Chor Bachao Institution and Conspiracy, Browbeating and Intimidation.

Under the circumstances, the choice should be very clear. The Karnataka end of what is probably India’s longest continuing scandal, running through the tenure of five chief ministers, should be left to its Lokayukta to unravel. He has the skill, stature and the motivation to get to the bottom of it. There is no need for the CBI which had better prove its credentials first by solving minor murders like poor teenager Arushi’s in Noida. If the prime minister is paying attention to the mess in Karnataka, he would also do well to caution his own party and its governor, given the fact that stability in Karnataka is so crucial for Bangalore, and for India’s economy. Whether he, or Sonia, are willing to let the investigation be expanded to dig out its root in neighbouring, Congress-run states like Andhra and even Goa, is a different issue, and may be an impossible task.

But the task for the BJP’s own leadership is not that difficult. For a party that got its first taste of big power in 1998, its inability to come to terms with it is truly amazing. Inexperience can no longer be any excuse for a party that has ruled six years at the Centre and controlled 10 states now, directly or in coalition. But its own national leadership’s record in handling their chief ministers is so poor, it makes the Congress high command look brilliant, demanding, and magnanimous in comparison. They allow more palace intrigue than the Congress, where the chief minister has to please no more than one or two bosses in Delhi. The BJP chief minister’s life is much more challenging, as Vasundhara Raje discovered in the past, and Yeddyurappa is dealing with today. So either a BJP chief minister has to be like Modi who only indulges his high command as he pleases, or like Shivraj Singh Chouhan who with his meek schoolboy demeanour keeps everybody happy, particularly the RSS. If just a mining mafia can divide the BJP top brass so badly that it sacrifices its first and only government in the South, it must either be stronger than we think, or the BJP leadership more vacuous than we suspect.

Also read: Once India’s golden town, Kolar loses glitter due to poverty, lack of jobs 


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