On 12 March, PM Narendra Modi made his fifth official visit to Karnataka to announce schemes, lay foundation stones, and inaugurate various things. And in course of a public meeting, pulled out one of his greatest hits – to wit, that his life was in danger.
The Congress, he said, is dreaming of digging his grave. Little do they realise, he added, that he has a suraksha kavach of 140 crore people. Which 140 crore people would that be? As per the Election Commission, a total of 22.9 crore people voted for the BJP in the 2019 elections. But then again, small mercies that he only invoked 140 crore people – back in the day, at the plenary session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, he had claimed that 600 crore people – almost five times the population of India – had voted for him.
That aside, it is odd that the best protected prime minister in Indian history is forever whining about imminent threats to his life – threats that appear to materialise every time there is a major election at the state or central level. He is guarded by a 3000-strong group of well-trained and heavily armed commandos, at a cost to the national exchequer of Rs 433.5 crore as per the latest budget, and yet…
That Sunday, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men saved Modi from a fate worse than death – to wit, the sight of a black T-shirt. The police stopped a mother and her young son from entering the venue of his public meeting because the boy was wearing a black T-shirt. The mother took off her son’s T-shirt, then put it back on once they were within the grounds – only for the police to come rushing up and insist that she take it off again. The mother complied, the son stayed topless throughout the rally, and the delicate sensibilities of this darling of 140 crore people was not bruised. News reports quote the police as saying they “could not take chances with protocol”.
On that same day, Modi held a “road show”, featuring enthusiastic crowds in serried ranks throwing handfuls of flower petals on the dearly beloved leader. Colour me cynical, but I find it odd that hundreds of people brought the exact same flowers to shower on their idol. And, odder still, that the SPG walked along quite calmly beside Modi’s Mercedes Maybatch, both they and the otherwise paranoid Modi seemingly sanguine about unvetted crowds in such close proximity to the protectee and worse, blithely chucking stuff at him.
Anyway. During this latest trip to Karnataka, Modi “inaugurated” the Mysore-Bangalore highway. Which surprised me somewhat, because back in January I had taken that same highway – which begins immediately after the metro terminal at Peenya (Correction: The wife pointed out that it was at Kengeri, not Peenya, that we took the highway) – while traveling by road to Kozhikode via Mysore.
It wasn’t complete then – and this incompleteness causes problems, because one minute you are blithely driving along at about 100k and the next, you are squeezed off the highway at a point where work is still on, and funnelled into a narrow service road further choked by parked JCBs and other paraphernalia of the work in progress. When complete, it has the potential to cut travel times to Mysore – not from four hours to one hour as Nitin Gadkari, in an excess of enthusiasm, claims but at least by half, because it allows you to avoid the various smaller towns that dot the Mysore-Bangalore stretch. But it wasn’t complete then, so it took me a little over three hours, and it isn’t complete now, when Modi decided to “inaugurate” it and “dedicate it to the nation” (while on which, how many national highways are there that are not for the nation?).
Almost immediately after the “inauguration”, the highway has run into problems. Locals find that they have to pay toll, to the tune of Rs 135, to access the highway to go to their nearby offices – and they need to access the highway because the service road is non-existent in parts, and choked in other parts. The state road transport corporation has hiked passenger fares by Rs 15-17 on that stretch to recover the toll charges. And chunks of the newly built highway have cracked, creating an obstacle course for vehicular traffic.
But Modi got to “inaugurate” it at the country’s expense, and to make a pitch for why the BJP should be voted to power in the upcoming Karnataka elections – which was the objective anyway. And that reminds me of Judge Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court.
On 12 June 1975, Judge Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty of election malpractice, and set aside her election to the Lok Sabha from the Rae Bareili constituency (Text of the judgment here). The losing candidate Raj Narain, who had petitioned the court, had included a laundry list of complaints, of which the judge found just cause in two line items. The first of these is relevant to Modi’s shenanigans:
The court found that the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police of Rae Bareili and the Home Secretary of the government of Uttar Pradesh had arranged for a dais, loudspeakers, and barricades to be set up for Indira Gandhi’s public meeting, and also arranged for the police force to be deployed on security duty in connection with her election campaign on February 1, and again on February 25, of 1971. The use of public servants for party propaganda purposes, the court found, amounts to corrupt practice under Section 123(7) of the Representation of the People Act.
The judgment, read today, sounds so quaint – because for the last nine years, Narendra Modi has been perpetuating one blatant, never-ending corrupt practice on the people of India, and on its laws. Wearing his prime minister’s hat, he flies every other day to whichever part of the country where an election is imminent and, in the guise of announcing schemes (Rs 10,863 crore worth on January 21; Rs 16,000 crore worth on March 12) and laying foundation stones for projects that never see the light of day and inaugurating half-complete public works, does party propaganda – in the process deploying all the resources of the respective state administrations and the police force in service of his party. And the national exchequer – which cannot find money to pay teachers, doctors, MNREGA workers, farmers and such their dues — pays for all of this.
This is Modi’s singular achievement: he has so industrialized, so normalized corrupt practices that we can no longer smell it even when he rubs our collective nose in it.
IN November last year, a couple wrote to the President of India seeking permission to commit suicide because they were fed up of paying bribes.
On the last day of December 2022, Karnataka contractor TN Prasad killed himself. He had been contracted to complete a smart city project; the government didn’t release his dues; he had to take loans to keep the project going and was being hard-pressed by loan sharks.
His death was in vain — as recently as this week, the contractors’ association was threatening a mass protest, alleging that the government had not yet cleared a sum of around Rs 22,000 crore owed to them as dues.
On January 2, a businessman shot himself dead in his car on the outskirts of Bangalore, leaving behind a suicide note blaming BJP MLA Aravind Limbavali and five others.
On March 12, a farmer who was fed up with the incessant demands for commissions brought his cattle to offer up as bribe in lieu of the money he did not have.
Two days earlier, on March 10, a bank manager in Udipi district of Karnataka hanged himself. In his suicide note, he named BJP leader Yashpal Suvarna and other officials and said they had been pressurizing him to recover a loan given to a certain Riyaz.
Contractors who win public works tenders tend to be affiliated to the ruling party of the day. Karnataka’s contractors’ association is, thus, packed with BJP supporters. And yet, as far back as November 2021, the association wrote an official letter to PM Modi, alleging that various ministers were demanding extortionate bribes. In April 2022, they reiterated these charges and threatened to stop work if their complaints were not addressed.
On April 12, 2022, contractor Santosh K Patil, who had accused Karnataka minister KS Eshwarappa of demanding 40% commission for a contract, was found dead in a hotel room. In his suicide note, Patil named Eashwarappa as being solely responsible for his death.
In August 2022, they said that the PM had not taken any action and that they would be writing to him again to remind him of his promise to root out corruption. The working president of the association came out in public to say that he had documents and audio tapes as proof that the government was demanding bribes; he even released one such audio tape.
As recently as January 2023, the contractors’ body staged a protest against the “40% commission” they accused the government of taking from them and demanded a judicial probe. Meanwhile, a body representing 13000 schools in the state openly accused the state government of wholesale corruption.
The ‘Karnataka corruption’ folder in my Evernote is crammed with similar clips, but you get the point – there is sufficient evidence to indicate that there is a raging fire under all that smoke. You don’t write to the Prime Minister accusing members of his own party of corruption unless you can back up your words.
The only surprising element in this story is the contractors’ naïve belief that writing to Modi would bring an end to corruption. This is the BJP Mark II – and it is common knowledge that under Modi and Shah, every BJP-led state government has fiscal targets to meet, a fixed percentage of which has to be sent to the party’s main coffers, which Shah manages.
Given the serious nature of the charges, though, and given too that the charges were being brought against the government by people supportive of the party in power, you would expect at least a token inquiry, a mandatory ‘clean chit’. But no – all that happened was that the president of the contractors’ association, and four senior office-bearers, were arrested on the basis of a complaint lodged by Karnataka minister Munirathna Naidu, who filed both civil and criminal defamation cases against the contractors.
Out on bail and nothing fazed, association president Kempanna said he had a letter signed by over 200 contractors from Kolar, containing specifics of bribes sought and received by Munirathna – the district-in-charge of Kolar — and his agents.
Munirathna is an interesting case study of how the BJP operates. In March 2018 – in the run-up to the state assembly elections of that year – the CID named Munirathna, the then-sitting MLA, and others in a chargesheet relating to fake BBMP bills amounting to Rs 1500 crore. As per the chargesheet Munirathna, a civil contractor back in 2008-09, was found to have colluded with BBMP officials to swindle money for non-existent, or sub-standard, road work. (Here, note that the case relates to a period 10 years before the elections – a classic BJP technique).
On May 11, 2018, just days before the state assembly elections, Karnataka police registered a criminal case against 14 people, including Munirathna, in connection with the recovery of over 10,000 fake voter ID cards. The election in his constituency was postponed; when it was finally held, Munirathna won anyway – as a Congress candidate.
Remember that in 2018, the BJP fell short of a majority by 8 seats; the JDS and Congress came together to form a government and, a little under a year later, the BJP engineered the mass defection of 17 Congress MLAs that resulted in the collapse of the Congress-JDS government and the formation of a BJP government under BS Yediyurappa? Munirathna was one of the 17 Congress MLAs who turned coat and was rewarded with a ministry (of horticulture) – and lo, not only have the pending cases against him vanished, he remains untouched despite repeated, public, accusations of rampant corruption.
It is the standard BJP playbook – use investigating agencies against Opposition MLAs and MPs as the stick, hold out the carrot of ministerial berths if they change sides, and when they do, make the previous criminal activities vanish.
It is not that corruption did not exist prior to Modi taking charge at the Centre — I’ve been a journalist for 33 years now and I can’t recall a single government, at the Centre or in the states, that was totally free from corruption.
The difference, today, is that corruption has not just been industrialized, it has even been normalized.
As recently as 2014, public charges of corruption were enough to turn the electorate away from the Dr Manmohan Singh-led government and vote for Modi on the basis of his promise that he would rid the country of corruption.
And today? The Madal Virupakshappa story is illuminative. The MLA’s son is caught red-handed taking a bribe of Rs 40 lakh; a subsequent raid unearths around Rs 9 crore in cash from the MLA’s home. And what results? First, the MLA goes “missing”. He surfaces after five days with an anticipatory bail order — and BJP workers take him home in celebratory procession, with garlands and fireworks and slogans, as if he were a conquering hero back from the wars. Meanwhile, the concerned investigating officer has been abruptly changed, and a court has handed down a gag order barring the media from publishing “defamatory content”.
The satirical Twitter handle Dr Medusa recently produced this brilliant take on the old Nirma washing powder ad that summarises the BJP modus operandi. The BRS and the Congress latched on and have taken to greeting Amit Shah with Nirma posters.
And that brings us to Amit Shah – who, shortly before Modi’s March 12 visit to Karnataka, was in Bangalore to address a rally (It was his fourth visit to the poll-bound state since December last year).
At the rally, he produced this gem: Put your trust in Modi and Yediyurappa, he said, because only a BJP government can rid the state of corruption. (He also loudly accused Congress and JDS of being responsible for the rampant corruption in the state).
The BJP has been ruling the state since 2019; the serial accusations of corruption against the Basavaraj Bommai government have been constant and deafeningly loud – and Shah in one breath accepts that there is corruption, blames the opposition for it, and promises that his party, which is currently in power, will clean up the state of the corruption of his party.
The breathtaking audacity of the man is matched only by the cupidity of the faithful who, for whatever inducement, flock to these rallies and cheer such idiocies to the echo.
AND that brings us to the strange case of Lingayat icon BS Yediyurappa, who after the 2018 elections had served as chief minister for a grand total of two and a half days and, a year later, orchestrated the defections from the Congress that saw the BJP topple the Congress-JDS government and assume power. (In an interview at the time, he said ‘Operation Kamala’, the name given to the toppling project, was not wrong; that it was a part of the democratic process.)
His administration wasn’t bad, as state governments go – though he pandered to the base with the draconian cow-slaughter bill his party pushed through, he was quick off the blocks during the pandemic, setting up a 10,000 bed Covid hospital in Bangalore and smaller such centers elsewhere – the first state to do so. He announced – and delivered – compensation to BPL families that had lost a member to Covid; Karnataka also became the first state in India to reserve positions in government service for transgender communities.
The problem was, he was no fan of the more extreme avatars of Hindutva, and had no patience with Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene and other “fringe” outfits that sought to keep the communal pot on a constant boil. Also, while being no saint as far as institutionalized corruption goes, BSY took care to ensure that rent-seeking was neither excessive nor overt.
Predictably, this led to dissension – and also to pronounced irritation in Delhi, particularly felt by the Modi-Shah combine. The playbook kicked in – party members were encouraged to voice their dissent openly; the Income Tax department carried out raids against members of his family and close aides including his personal assistant; as per usual, unnamed sources told the media that Rs 750 crore had been recovered; Modi and Shah kept summoning him to Delhi to “discuss” affairs in the state… until it all got too much for the aging leader who, in a tearful speech, resigned on 26 July 2021.
A year later, he announced that he was retiring from electoral politics and that his son BY Vijayendra would contest the Shikaripura assembly constituency that had been a BSY bastion until then.
The BJP “high command” wasn’t having any of this. The main reason for turning up the heat on BSY, in the first place, was that Modi and Shah are extremely uncomfortable with any regional leader who is popular in his own right – and BSY is an icon for the influential Lingayat community in Karnataka. They prefer non-entities who depend on Modi to win elections and are beholden to him for their positions in power. They calculated that BSY’s successor Basavaraj Bommai, also a Lingayat and far more pliant, would seamlessly assume leadership of the community.
So they kept up the pressure on BSY – as recently as September 2022, the Karnataka High Court restored a complaint of corruption against BSY, his son and other family members – a complaint that had been made earlier, too, only for the governor to refuse sanction to prosecute.
And then, as the election cycle neared, reality bit the reigning duo in Delhi. The thing about Modi and Shah is that they are clueless when it comes to regional politics, and adamant in their belief that the first item in their playbook – communalism – is a ‘one size fits all states’ tactic.
In this connection, recall that Bommai’s tenure has been marked by the furor over schoolgirls wearing hijabs – we recently learned that the Bommai government has spent Rs 88 lakh on two lawyers defending the ban in the courts; by a BJP MP getting offended by dome-shaped structures on top of a Mysore bus stand which, he said, reminded him of mosques; that right-wing groups protested in Kalaburgi, their sentiments reportedly hurt by the fact that the railway station there had been painted green; by various groups that want the name ‘Salaam Aarti’, which refers to a practise initiated by Tipu Sultan, changed; by MP and terror convict Pragya Singh Thakur, out on bail for reasons of “ill health” being well enough to come down to the state the day after Christmas last year and exhort her audience to keep their knives sharpened so they can chop vegetables and heads with equal felicity…
So yeah, keeping the communal pot boiling is the only ‘strategy’ the BJP leadership knows – and this is just the beginning; the coming weeks and months will see much more of the same, only more vicious.
While they don’t know any other way to do realpolitik, there is however an increasing awareness in the BJP leadership – read Modi/Shah – that their tactic of trying to make the pliant Bommai the new Lingayat icon is not working. The influential Lingayat seers have made no secret of their continued support for BSY and their indifference, even contempt, for Bommai.
And so Modi and Shah did what they always do – a sharp U-turn. At a rally in Lingayat stronghold Bidar earlier this month, Amit Shah said with a total absence of irony that the Congress had disrespected various of their leaders from the state, and that the party should learn from Modi’s treatment of BSY how to treat senior leaders.
This reminds me – a friend on Twitter recently said, in response to a post of mine, that “When the BJP leaders are accusing, they are actually confessing”; he was bang on the money.
The lesson everyone is supposed to learn likely derives from a Modi rally in late February where, in Shivamogga, where he gushed about BSY, asked the crowd to flash their mobile phone lights in honor of the former CM, and actually stood up to applaud when BSY, celebrating his 80th birthday, finished his speech. It was, according to all published reports, quite a love fest – and it was very clear who was doing the wooing, and who was being wooed. And then there is this image, snapped as the two leaders arrived for the inauguration of Shivamogga airport:
This is the same Modi who, during the Independence Day celebrations earlier this year, forgot – or more likely, ignored – protocol and walked down the red carpet ahead of President Draupadi Murmu; he was about to climb the steps to the dais, still leading from the front, when a protocol officer stopped him and gestured to the President to take rightful precedence.
The internet is replete with images and videos of him pushing others — including Bill Gates on one occasion — out of the frame so he can hog the limelight. But now he needs Yediyurappa’s help to try and win Karnataka, where the party is buffeted by multiple issues including — surprisingly for a party that prides itself on discipline — a groundswell of dissent. Earlier this week, thus, the BJP canceled its planned ‘Sankalp Yatra’ and roadshow in the face of protests by its own party workers.
Hence Modi’s refurbished affection for the Lingayat leader. Modi will hold his hand, walk with him, applaud him — until the elections are over and the results are in.
That is Modi for you. He will kowtow to anyone, abase himself before anyone if he needs that person to help keep him in power (In course of a trip to Mandya earlier this month Modi greeted, with folded hands, a gent by the name of Mallikarjun who is better known under his professional sobriquet, ‘Fighter Ravi’).
And by the same token, once he has no further use for you, he will dump you – brutally, publicly, without a qualm. (And as is the case with BSY, if he dumps you and then finds a use for you, he will whip out the pom-poms and be your most ardent cheerleader – till his need is fulfilled). Ask LK Advani.
PostScript: My “silence” of the last few days prompted a couple of friends to write in, asking if all was well and why I hadn’t written anything lately.
The ‘blog’, in its original avatar, used to be a place to capture thoughts in the moment; short posts were the way to go. (And I think it still is).
But I restarted this in order to be able to write what I want to; more importantly, to write thoughts that I know will not be published in mainstream media. So for now, most posts will be in essay format — and I can’t be doing an essay a day; not if I have to earn a living.
The idea is to write an essay at roughly about once a week, each dedicated to a particular theme. And once done, to follow up with short posts and the occasional smaller essay on the same theme.
For instance, this one is on the Karnataka elections, and the fun and games have just gotten underway. So from here on, when news items on the impending elections surface, I’ll do shorter round-ups and even the occasional short take. And so on, using the long essay to set a theme up, and then following through with shorter posts.
So that is that. See you in a week or so; take care, stay safe.