I know that we may be speaking here of a race to the bottom, but I would still like to claim that the political culture of the state where I live, Karnataka, is more degraded than that of any other state of the Union. Consider these three, discrete, events that occurred in a single month, July 2012:
1. In early July, the chief minister of Karnataka, D.V. Sadananda Gowda, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, was compelled to resign after a mere 11 months in office. Gowda had become chief minister after legal proceedings were initiated against his predecessor and party colleague, B.S. Yediyurappa, on charges of corruption. Yediyurappa was accused of transferring public land to his family members, and of abetting illegal mining in the district of Bellary, which had led to the loss of thousands of crores of rupees to the public exchequer and to massive environmental degradation. Sadananda Gowda had provided, by contrast, a relatively uncontroversial administration. However, Yediyurappa retained control over many BJP members of the legislative assembly, and, after months of trying, was able to unseat Sadananda Gowda.
The move to dislodge the incumbent chief minister was preceded and followed by days of intense lobbying on sectarian lines, with leaders of different castes seeking the most important ministries for themselves. Meanwhile, in the background, the monsoon failed, and the farmers of the state faced a serious drought, facts that seemed to have escaped the attentions of the MLAs seeking high office. The amoralism of the Karnataka BJP was justified by the party’s national president, Nitin Gadkari, who added to his ample store of foot-in-the-mouth remarks by telling the press that while Sadananda Gowda had provided a scam-free administration, he had to be replaced because the party could only fight the next elections under a Lingayat leader.
2. In the middle of July, the former prime minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, held a convention of Muslim leaders in Bangalore. Ever since he demitted office in New Delhi in 1997, Deve Gowda’s single-minded focus has been on furthering the political career of his son, H.D. Kumaraswamy, in Karnataka. Kumaraswamy had briefly been chief minister in a coalition between the Janata Dal (Secular) and the BJP. Now, seeking to disavow that alliance, and rebrand themselves as ‘secular’, father and son promised reservation in government jobs on religious lines if the Janata Dal (S) was re-elected to power.
Like poor Hindus and poor Christians, most poor Muslims seek English-language education and dignified employment in the modern (or private) sector. Offering a fixed share of government jobs is a tired, cynical and backward ploy that is certainly not in their best interests. And yet, in an astonishing display of competitive chauvinism, the day after Deve Gowda had ‘promised’ 4 per cent of state jobs to Muslims, the Congress MLA, Roshan Baig, said his party would give them 6 per cent reservation instead!
3. In the last week of July, the members of the state legislative assembly passed a unanimous resolution condemning a recent decision by Unesco to declare the Western Ghats a ‘World Heritage Site’. This is a designation eagerly sought after by member-nations of the United Nations. To secure this World Heritage status, countries around the world itemize the rare buildings, ancient cities, and endangered ecosystems within their boundaries. They commission reports on their significance by acknowledged experts, and lobby intensively with Unesco. Only a handful of applications are approved every year.
To be designated a ‘World Heritage Site’ is enormously prestigious. It can help attract funds for upkeep and preservation, and generate revenue from tourism. The Western Ghats itself has a staggering range of plants and animal species, and some very spectacular landscapes. It is the source of the major rivers of peninsular India, and home to many sacred shrines. Its resources and reserves provide sustenance to hundreds of millions of Indians.
Remarkably, instead of welcoming the Unesco’s award, the legislators of Karnataka condemned it. This is most likely because once the Ghats are designated a World Heritage Site, it would become much harder for mining companies, real estate speculators, and dam builders to operate in these areas. Promoters of new projects would now have to do more than persuade individual ministers; rather, they would have to seek the consent of local communities as well as the approval of scientific experts.
The three cases I have highlighted all point to the short-sighted selfishness of politicians in Karnataka, this manifested in equal degree in all parties. The first two — a hunger for lucrative ministries and the cynical appeasement of minorities — are a pan-Indian phenomenon. The last case is more singular, and hence more depressing. The Western Ghats are the source not only of mighty rivers, but also of great music, art, poetry, and literature. Some of the finest Kannada writers, such as K.V. Puttappa (Kuvempu), Kota Shivarama Karanth, U.R. Ananthamurthy, and Purnachandra Tejaswi, were born and raised close to the Western Ghats. Their poems, plays, stories, and novels are suffused with descriptions of the landscape and of its residents (both human and animal).
To expose the Ghats to intensive exploitation by commercial interests is to encourage not merely environmental destruction, but the destruction of the basis of much of modern Kannada culture and civilization.
Alas, the events of July 2012 were entirely in character. I think no other state has, in recent years, witnessed a series of such incompetent and corrupt administrations. Whether led by Congress, BJP, or Janata Dal (S) chief ministers, the government of Karnataka has, for the past three decades (at least), been largely indifferent, if not actively hostile, to considerations of economic development, social justice, environmental sustainability, or cultural creativity.
The last state government in Karnataka that was in any meaningful way concerned with the welfare of its citizens was the Janata Party government of 1983 to 1989. It had a focused agenda — of political decentralization and rural development — and some very capable ministers, none more so than the socialist from Mysore, Abdul Nazir Sab. Nazir Sab worked hard to bring piped water to the remotest areas of the state. Touring the villages of northern Karnataka in 1984-5, I learnt that the rural development minister was known affectionately as ‘Neer Sab’ (‘neer’ being water in Kannada).
Nazir Sab’s commitment and courage inspired his colleagues to work harder and more sincerely than they might otherwise have done. However, in 1988, Nazir Sab was struck by cancer. It is said that when the chief minister visited him on his deathbed, Nazir Sab urged him to complete the people’s housing schemes he had initiated. Unfortunately, after the socialist stalwart’s death in October 1988, the Janata government lost its bearings, and fell shortly afterwards.
In view of the current contempt of Karnataka legislators for the ecology of the Western Ghats, it may also be worth recalling that the Janata government of the 1980s showed a certain commitment to sustainable development. Through the 1980s, the state’s department of environment produced an excellent annual survey, edited by the distinguished botanist, Cecil J. Saldanha, and to which Karnataka’s top scientists and social scientists contributed. The government’s schemes for rural development and environmental management were continually scrutinized by citizens’ groups, and by influential writer-activists such as Shivarama Karanth.
Among the colleagues of Nazir Sab in the Janata government of the 1980s were S.R. Bommai and H.D. Deve Gowda. Their sons are active and influential in Karnataka politics today. But it is doubtful if they or their contemporaries know or care for ‘Neer’ Sab’s legacy. Across party lines, the legislators and ministers of Karnataka now tend to privilege the interests of mining and real estate lobbies above the concerns of the ordinary citizens of the state.