By Swapan Dasgupta
The relative ease with which Karnataka’s outgoing Lokayukta was able to remove B.S. Yeddyurappa from the chief ministership has given ideas to those seeking shortcuts to change. It is not my case that Justice Santosh Hegde’s voluminous report that is yet to be released in the public domain is flawed or hasn’t made out a convincing case for the prosecution of BJP’s most prominent southern face under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
The honest truth is that neither the TV channels who are shrieking with excitement nor the politicians who are insisting that Yeddyurappa is a bribe taker have the faintest idea whether the case against the Chief Minister was so conclusive as to warrant resignation. All that exists in the public domain so far is are ‘leaked’ extracts of the report and Justice Hegde’s own verbal summary of the report to the media in Bengaluru last week.
Justice Hegde has a reputation of being a man of fierce independence and integrity. These attributes made him a good choice for Lokayukta in his home state. Unfortunately, the good Judge appears to have got derailed somewhere along the way.
First, by donning the mantle of a public crusader in Team Anna he acquired a public profile and a public image which he was compelled to live up to. His repeated interventions in the media made him more of a public intellectual than a Constitutional authority. Justice Hegde lost sight of the detachment that his office demanded. He had one eye on the law but the other eye was firmly on the court of public opinion (as reflected by the media).
Secondly, the Karnataka Lokayukta entered into an unseemly public spat with the Chief Minister. It is unnecessary to judge which of the two was pricklier but the tensions helped contribute to an impression that neither Hegde nor Yeddyurappa were able to have an un-jaundiced view of the other. Hegde’s public pronouncement that only the Supreme Court would be able to bring the guilty people in the mining scam to book was a sharp indictment of the integrity of the Karnataka Government. A public intellectual had every right to make such a pronouncement but a Constitutional authority should have exercised a greater degree of tact and restraint. The vitiated environment is not good for the health of India’s already jaded institutions.
Yeddyurappa’s ability to don the mantle of victimhood will be tested by how voters view the recent turmoil in Karnataka. But considering that the BJP Government already had a legitimate grouse against a fiercely partisan Raj Bhavan that seemed to be operating as a Congress outpost, the Lokayukta’s pre-existing antipathy for the outgoing Chief Minister will be a factor in influencing public opinion. The term ‘conspiracy’ is generously bandied by politicians to explain away an unfavourable situation but Yeddyurappa—like Narendra Modi in Gujarat—may have a basis to crying foul.
The media vilification of Yeddyurappa may well be justified once the full facts of the case come are known and once the law has had the opportunity to pronounce on the subject. For the moment, given the flaws in the flow of information, there are good reasons to believe that the Karnataka Chief Minister was the victim of a kangaroo court verdict. The BJP central leadership was understandably unable to resist the media’s hectoring about its double standards and, therefore, had no choice but to insist that that Yeddyurappa step down. Yet, it is a comment on the public perception of the controversy that 75 of the 120 BJP legislators chose to side with the beleaguered Chief Minister.
This can’t be explained away as the blind loyalty of MLAs who were indebted to Yeddyurappa for local favours. MLAs have their ear firmly on the ground and would be loath to stand unflinchingly behind the Chief Minister if this went against the public mood. No wonder the BJP’s two central observers are finding it difficult to assume the role of a ‘high command’; they have to be mindful of local sensitivities even as they uphold a lofty principle.
In hindsight, the removal of Yeddyurappa has proved relatively easy. In the battle between the lofty principles of the great and the good and clutter of democracy that produces earthy and pugnacious leaders, the former has prevailed. The argument that this victory has actually strengthened the quality of democracy and encouraged politicians to be models of rectitude may well be true in the long run. The 2-G scandal, after all, was a factor in the decimation of the DMK in last May’s Assembly elections.
There is however a lurking danger. Yeddyurappa, a politician who had won a popular mandate and has maintained his standing in by-elections, was dethroned by one individual. His fall wasn’t accompanied by a widespread realisation in the Karnataka BJP that he had become a political liability—which is what usually happens when leaders are changed mid-term in western parliamentary democracies. In other words, the political drama wasn’t married to the imperatives of popular democracy.
The fall of Yeddyurappa has invoked a mixed reaction in the Congress. It is unhappy that its bid to inject an equivalence of cynicism in the corruption debate has lost a handle. But it is inspired by the advantages of a Constitutional coup in removing an opposition target. Since he can’t be defeated by electorally, their next target will be Narendra Modi.
Sunday Pioneer, July 31, 2011