Bangalore: Corruption is once again back on the national agenda.
Wednesday was a bittersweet day for the Indian National Congress, thanks to developments in Karnataka, where it won a simple majority in the state assembly, and New Delhi, where the country’s apex court’s observations on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) intervention in an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) once again raised the pitch of demands by opposition parties for the resignation of the law minister and the Prime Minister.
Interestingly, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) couldn’t hide its glee over the Supreme Court’s observations, the magnitude of its defeat in Karnataka, where it got exactly the same number of seats in the assembly as the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), of H.D. Deve Gowda, should worry a party that believes it has a chance of forming the next government at the Centre.
In the process, the two institutions, the judiciary and the electorate, have once again created a political context in the country that fundamentally challenges the political parties—similar to the circumstances that triggered the bout of civil unrest led by anti-graft activist Anna Hazare.
The common thread running through both developments is corruption. Karnataka’s incumbent BJP government turned in a dismal performance and won only 40 seats in the state assembly after it was buffeted by allegations of corruptions, especially related to illegal iron ore mining, and by a three-way split in the party. And the apex court’s observations in a case concerning the UPA’s efforts to influence CBI embarrassed the government, and made it all but impossible for it to pursue its legislative agenda.
Indeed, in the face of continuing demands by the opposition parties for the heads of law minister Ashwani Kumar, railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal—the latter involved in a separate corruption scandal regarding senior railway appointments—and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and perhaps in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s criticism of efforts to potentially influence an investigation into irregular allotment of coal mines, the government adjourned Parliament sine die (without giving a day when it would reconvene).
As it were, the court’s observations—it will take up the case when it reconvenes after the summer vacation on 10 July—threw a long shadow on the Congress’s expected victory in Karnataka.
The party tried to dismiss the observations as just that, and said it would wait till the July decision of the court. It also insisted that CBI was independently investigating l’affaire Bansal and that it would take a call on the rail minister’s future after that.
Still, the apex court does seem to have put the government on notice, seeking a commitment that a legislation would be moved to make CBI independent of government, failing which it has threatened that it will have to undertake judicial action to ensure independence.
BJP’s self goal
While the Congress did, as psephologists had predicted, win convincingly, analysts believe that it had more to do with the BJP scoring a self goal and the Congress emerging as the collateral beneficiary. The BJP’s campaign came off the rails even before the contest started. Not only did it have to fight the taint of corruption, its chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa was forced to resign and later split the party—dividing in the process the crucial caste vote of the Lingayat community.
The Congress returned to power in Karnataka after a gap of seven years by winning a simple majority in the 224-member state assembly with 121 seats and relegated the BJP, with a tally of 40 seats, to a joint second with the JD(S).
While the Congress, riding on a very populist electoral agenda that included free laptops and farm loan waivers increased its vote share to almost 37%, even as the BJP declined to 20%, the entire difference did not accrue to the Congress with the JD(S) improving its vote share to 20%.
Yeddyurappa’s newly floated Karnataka Janata Paksha won 6 seats and the BSR Congress, another splinter party floated by former BJP minister B. Sriramulu, won 4 seats.
In the 2008 election, the BJP had won 110 seats, while the Congress and the JD(S) had got 80 and 28 seats, respectively.
The anti-incumbency wave saw 12 of the BJP’s ministers, including deputy chief minister K.S. Eshwarappa, lose their seats.
For the Congress, the most surprising result was the loss of state party president G. Parameshwara, who was defeated by more than 18,000 votes, effectively putting an end to his chance to be chief minister. Opposition leader of the outgoing assembly K. Siddaramaiah, and Union ministers Mallikarjun Kharge and M. Veerappa Moily are now seen as possible contenders for the top post.
The SC censure
The Congress victory in Karnataka was overshadowed by the Supreme Court’s strongly worded censure of the UPA government’s interference in the CBI probe into the allotment of coal mines.
The Supreme Court, which was examining the nine-page affidavit submitted by CBI on 6 May that details three “significant changes” made by the law minister and officials in the coal ministry and Prime Minister’s Office to a draft of its report into the allotment, said “the heart of the report was changed on the suggestion of government officials”.
CBI had argued that the changes did not change the central theme of the status report.
Observing that CBI was like a “caged parrot”, the court said it should stand up to all “pulls and pressures” and not share its probe with anyone, including the law minister. After a three-hour hearing, the bench headed by justice R.M. Lodha asked the government to make an effort to come out with a law before 10 July to insulate CBI from external influence and intrusion.
The court also directed the federal agency not to share any report pertaining to the investigation in the coal blocks allocation scam with any officials or ministers other than those in its 33-member investigation team and the CBI director.
Coming under fire, CBI has assured the apex court there will be a “thorough and qualitative” investigation. “It will follow directions of Supreme Court in letter and spirit,” the federal investigative agency said in a statement.
PTI contributed to this story.