The credibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-vaunted campaign to end corruption in India has been seriously undermined by his Bharatiya Janata Party’s bid last week to buy the loyalty of members of the Karnataka state assembly with large sums of cash and offers of ministerial jobs – a bid that failed ignominiously on May 19 when B.S.Yeddyurappa, the BJP chief minister, resigned after having failed to bribe his targets.
A coalition of Congress and the regional Janata Dal (Secular) will be sworn in on May 23 following days of dramatic developments since the assembly election on May 11 when the BJP won 104 seats against 114 for an unexpected coalition of the Congress Party and regional Janata Dal (Secular).
The state governor, a BJP loyalist, gave the party 15 days to build a majority, but Congress appealed to the supreme court, which cut it to two days. That was insufficient, so Yeddyurappa dramatically stepped down at the end of a speech (below) in the state assembly before a vote could be taken – having indicated that he had only been following the orders of Modi and Amit Shah, the tough party president.
The Congress-JDS link-up is a marriage of convenience and may break up but, even if that does happen, this is Modi’s biggest setback since the BJP lost polls for Delhi’s legislative assembly soon after the general election in 2014.
It also marks a resurgence of energy and determination in the Congress Party, which has let the BJP push it aside in other recent state elections.
Anti-BJP leaders from other states encouraged the Congress-JDS to work together, and the result has strengthened the will of opposition parties to combine in a joint assault on the BJP, which no longer looks as invincible as it has done ahead of next year’s general election.
Rahul Gandhi, the dynastic president of the Congress Party, said that it was a “blatant lie” that Modi was fighting corruption. “He is corruption,” he declared on May 19. Prakash Karat, a top communist party (CPIM) leader, said the “BJP has murdered democracy in Karnataka”.
The Karnataka assembly building in Bengaluru (Bangalore)
There is of course no proof that the BJP tried with money and job offers to bribe Congress and JDS members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) to change sides. The only possible evidence comes from tapes released by Congress of alleged conversations that Yeddyurappa, along with other BJP leaders and supporters (including a mining industry tycoon convicted of corruption), had with a Congress MLA saying “come back and we’ll make you a minister and help in any way you want”. One said, “we’ll get you 10 to 15,” which presumably meant 10 to 15 cores of rupees – Rs100m to Rs150m or $1.5m to $2.3m.
There is nothing unusual in this – bribing MLAs to change sides frequently happens in Indian politics, and the figures are always large. The significance of the last few days is the blatant way that the BJP insisted to the governor that it could win, knowing that it could only do so by bribing other parties’ MLAs, and then pleaded in the supreme court for more time to be able to do so.
Also significant is the determination with which the till recently ineffectual Congress and the JDS corralled their MLAs and bused them to luxury resorts so that they could not be seduced by the BJP and its emissaries.
It is not unusual for a central government to build support in the states by appointing cronies as governors to ensure they get favorable treatment when election results are not clear-cut.
In this case however the governor, Vajubhai Vala (above), a loyalist who vacated his BJP parliamentary seat in Gujarat for Modi in 2001, went to extremes by inviting the BJP to form the government, knowing they would have to buy MLAs, and then by giving it an excessive amount of time – 15 days – to do so.
Both the bribing and the behavior of the governor illustrate the arrogance with which Amit Shah approaches his job and, supported by Modi, has in the past won.
The BJP of course is not alone in its acceptance of corruption and criminality. In Karnataka, the BJP has 42 (41%) MLAs with criminal backgrounds, while the Congress has 23 out of 78 and the JDS has 11 out 37, according to an analysis by Karnataka Election Watch and Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). As many as 54 have had serious criminal cases such as murder and attempt to murder.
They were also far from poor. Some 215 MLAs declared assets of Rs 1 crore ($154,000) or more, and 50% declared Rs10 crore ($1.5m) or more, with three of the richest belonging to Congress. They could not have amassed such wealth legally unless they were in big business, which most undoubtedly were not.
The fourth anniversary of Modi’s swearing-in as prime minister is next Saturday May 26 and, as usual, he and his ministers will no doubt manage this week to extoll through a largely pliant media what they claim to have achieved.
But it will be less plausible than in the past because the BJP’s ethically and democratically negative tactics in Karnataka cap growing criticism of both the government’s achievements and of the poor human rights and attacks on freedom of expression that have grown under the party’s Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) rule.
Narendra Modi in Nepal while Karnataka voted
Modi personally remains popular, and the BJP did win the most seats than Congress in Karnataka, which would have been greeted as a BJP and Modi triumph if they have won just a few more.
So it is far too early to predict the result of the general election. The BJP could recover its élan and there is as yet no coherent unified opposition and no credible alternative government – and Rahul Gandhi is not accepted as a viable national leader by other opposition parties or the electorate.
Modi and Shah will now look for new ways to win votes. For them personally, a victory next year is essential because, if the BJP loses, their positions will be vulnerable and they will risk being ousted by their many critics in the party who do not like their arrogant and strong-arm tactics. There are even rumors already of mutterings against Shah, asking whether he should remain as party president for the two key state elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that precede the general election.
The immediate point however is that Modi was elected to clean up the way that India is run, and he said he would stamp out corruption. Instead of doing so, he and Shah have in the past week not only been condoning it but have encouraged it – and they lost because the supreme court over-ruled their crony governor.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant