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The Ides of May

To get some idea of what India wants — and gets instead — it’s a good idea to watch the Karnataka elections. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Apr 10, 2013 21:48 IST
karnataka assembly polls,Samar Halarnkar,self-employed India

Thanks to the great, unceasing Bangalore building boom that transcends India’s slowdown, Asadullah Khan, an electrician with an easy smile, has no shortage of work. He roves from the four-storey buildings replacing the old bungalows of Cooke Town in eastern Bangalore’s shaded, old colonial heart to American-suburbia-type gated communities in the rural suburbs. Next week, Khan and three assistants are due to wire up a 5,000-sq-ft house, complete with a food lift and endless pool, one of those indoor affairs with an artificial current.

Khan represents self-employed India, more than 250 million people, most of whom are semi-educated and live by their limited skills and wits. He also represents the unorganised sector, which provides employment to 93% of the Indian workforce.

Three years ago, Khan, 28, made what he believed was a big leap forward. He quit working 13-hour days for an electrical contractor and struck out on his own. “For an 8th class dropout, I seem to have done all right,” says Khan, a sturdy man with kohl-lined eyes and pencil moustache. “But society around us is becoming too corrupt for people like me to prosper.”

Khan reveals the dark side of Bangalore’s construction industry. “To get any contract, I have to pay a commission, from 10% to 20%,” he says. “Other contractors, architects, designers, everyone wants money. No one cares about quality, the best rate is all that matters.” That the “best rate” defines even the lower ladders of private enterprise should not be a surprise, reasons Khan. “Why should be it, when corruption is our state culture?”

If there is to be a barometer of India’s soaring aspirations — and its grim political and administrative realities — look no further than Karnataka, a microcosm of emerging India, which goes to the polls next month and could serve as a precursor to next year’s national elections.

A land of Hindu, Muslim and Christian cultures, easily syncretic and uneasily antagonistic, Karnataka morphed from southern backwater to engine of emerging India’s soft power. Its southern cities, such as Bangalore, Mysore and Mangalore, do indeed represent the possibilities of education, entrepreneurship and technology. Yet, like the arid northern interiors, steeped in poverty and black magic, they too symbolise all that is wretched, unchanging and declining. The elite have retreated to gated communities and high-rises. Thousands of companies increasingly run their own municipal services. Politically, the state showcases the rise of India’s Hindu right — the only southern state ever to be ruled by the BJP— and the decline of the Congress (If the BJP were to lose, it could regress to being a party of the so-called cow belt, although the state has often chosen opposing parties for Centre and state).

These transitions have one thing in common: the evisceration of the state’s administrative capacity by greed and graft. One of the most desired government appointments in Karnataka is the sub-registrar. The post’s reserve price appears to be about Rs. 25 lakh, payable in cash, of course. If corruption was institutionalised by successive Congress governments, the state’s first BJP government made it a way of life, with more heart than it did Hindutva, its Hindu-first ideology.

So it is that BS Yeddyurappa, the former BJP chief minister who handed out crores to Hindu religious institutions (the latest budget sets aside more than Rs. 182 crore) and shut out minorities from his Cabinet, declares that his new outfit, the Karnataka Praja (People’s) Party, is strictly secular.

If Narendra Modi showcases his administrative acumen, his party in Karnataka represents a baser, corrupted, caste-ridden avatar. Even if Modi, who is popular in urban Karnataka, campaigns for the BJP, the state may dump his party. Three opinion polls conducted between December and March (Tehelka, Suvarna News, Headlines Today) predict a Congress victory with anywhere from 113 to 133 seats (in a 225 member — one is a nominated Anglo-Indian — assembly). Karthik Shashidhar, Resident Quant at the Takshashila Foundation, a think-tank, extrapolated the March 2013 results of urban body elections to predict 131 seats for the Congress, a clear majority.

Of course, polls and predictions can go wrong, but they are good indicators of broad trends. As Shashidhar points out, if the BJP was not split by Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu — former BJP minister who founded the Congress of the Poor, the Workers and the Farmers, after his brothers, the Reddys were implicated in a multi-billion dollar mining scam — the party would run the Congress close but still lag behind. Even in a state inured to dishonesty, there appear to be limits to serial corruption.

The re-emergence of the Congress is a tragedy because it has no leader, no agenda and no reason to prepare for power. Other challengers, such as the Janata Dal (Secular) are no different. Ticket seekers besiege party offices, united in their fervent desire for a party ticket. Two prospective leaders, one a taxi-services owner, the other a labour contractor, outside a Congress office confess to me that they don’t really care about the party, a ticket — to future riches and power — is what they seek. They will, obviously, have to pay up, with most parties charging legislative aspirants in excess of Rs. 1 crore. The Congress’ own party workers must pay Rs. 10,000 as “processing fee” to even apply for a ticket.

Eventually, Karnataka in 2013 will continue to make its own destiny, much as India will after 2014, flourishing not because of the government but despite it. Whether the Congress in Delhi, or the BJP in Bangalore, there is little to enthuse the electorate.

That is why Khan, who should — in theory — be excited about Bangalore’s towering buildings and fat contracts, is fixing a single, broken fan today, a Rs. 500 job.

“I can’t reject any job,” he says. “This is an uncertain life. Politicians and officers make all the money. Whoever wins, we have to make our own opportunities.”

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 10, 2013 21:41 IST