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Mining the politics of corruption July 29, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

Retired Supreme Court Justice and now Karnataka Ombudsman (Lokayukta) Santosh Hegde has just lobbed a political bomb on the desks of that state’s Governor and Chief Secretary.  The bomb takes the form of a 25, 288 page report (943 pages of findings plus annexures) into illegal iron ore mining that, among other things, involved the arbitrary shifting of state boundary pegs between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in order to privilege some miners.

The most spectacular finding is that Hegde has recommended charges be laid against the current BJP  Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa on the grounds that his family received kickbacks from the illegal miners to the tune of Rs 30 crore (approximately $US 6.7 million).  Another former Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy, son of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, is also set to have charges laid against him – Kumaraswamy formed the breakaway Janata Dal (Secular) backed by the BJP to take power briefly in 2006-7.  There is no rapport between Yeddyurappa and Kumaraswamy, the latter earlier this year describing his successor as a drunkard and a stray dog with lots of bark and no bite.  The mining issue has really eaten into the substance of state politics.

In addition to those spectacular names, long awaited charges against the so-called “Bellary Boys” are also levelled by Hegde.  In particular, Ministers G. Janardhana Reddy, G. Karunahara Reddy and B. Sriramalu are named as being implicated in and, in fact, instigating what Hegde considers to be corruption that has led to the state losing up to $US3.5 billion in revenue from which the beneficiaries have built massive mansions and established fleets of helicopters, among other things.  The Reddy brothers and their acolytes are at the heart of the mining issue.  The charges are to be laid under a plethora of legislation including the Prevention of Corruption Act, the Indian Penal Code, the Forest Act, and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act in addition to transport and freight regulations.

A staggering 787 public officials have also been named by Hegde with recommendations for charges against them, too.

The mining problem in Karnataka has been an open secret for years now, with the “entrepreneurs” taking advantage of rising world prices, especially on the “spot price” market, as Chinese and other steel mills stepped up production.  The formerly benighted Bellary district has massive reserves of this ore, and the Reddy brothers quickly became major players, their rapidly accumulated wealth also turning them into major political figures at the forefront of the BJP.  They were in no small way responsible for the BJP’s ascent to power.

The Hegde Report resonates both locally and nationally, with different if interlocking dimensions.

At the local level in Karnataka there is an immediate problem for the BJP that starts with B.S. Yeddyurappa.  All indications leading up to the release of the report had it that Hegde would lay charges against key political figures.  For the past two years Yeddyurappa has resisted all calls for an inquiry into the mining affair, and all popular commentary saw that stance stemming from his reliance on the Reddy brothers as kingmakers for his government.  In addition, Yeddyurappa made it clear he would not resign. Even on the day of the report’s release he was declaring he would serve his full term, despite all signals from the BJP national high command indicating he should step back voluntarily.  Within hours of the release the word from Delhi was that the Chief Minister would be sacked if he did not resign.

That was all exacerbated by Hegde’s public comments in the run up to the release, suggesting he was not confident the state government would adopt his report or lay all the charges recommended.  Earlier, he had even tendered his resignation as Lokayukta because of frustration at inaction over preliminary reports on the matter. The implications there were obvious – if the Chief Minister and several of his cabinet members were involved, how was the state to clean up this corruption?

That went immediately to the national dimension.  Among other things, Hegde has drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill designed to establish an independent and India-wide ombudsman commission, more an anti-corruption commission than ombudsman in the traditional sense.  That Bill now sits awaiting decision in Delhi.  It is backed by the India Against Corruption movement spearheaded by luminaries like former police star Kiran Bedi.  In particular, the movement and the Bill led directly to the fast embarked upon by national campaigner Anna Hazare last April designed to pressure the Union government into strong action.  That campaign got massive public support and has applied pressure in all political quarters.  Hegde, then, has an impact at both local and national level, to the discomfort of the main political players.

The most immediate pressure there is on the BJP.  It has run a heavy campaign against the Manmohan Singh government seeking strong action against corruption, scoring heavily off controversies like the 2G and Commonwealth Games affairs that both led to the dismissal of leading government figures who were later charged with criminal offences.  Now, though, the BJP stance against corruption is compromised by the Karanataka revelations, which is why Yeddyurappa has to go either voluntarily or unwillingly.

The reverberations of all this will continue for some time at both local and national levels. Administrators and bureaucrats know that there is a lingering international doubt amidst all the hoopla about the “new” India, and that is the corruption spectre.  Hegde now becomes an important test case: how will the BJP deal with the matter in Karnataka, and how will the UPA deal with Lokpal?  The answers to both those questions have implications well beyond the illegal iron ore mining in Karnataka.


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