-Arakere Jayaram in Bengaluru-
Having watched the Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s long career in Karnataka politics, I can “in fairness ” say that he today stands bereft of the reputation and esteem he had commanded when he assumed office as Head of the Government on May 13,2013.
At that time, he had the attributes of being a comparatively clean politician who had concern for the downtrodden and having mastery of the State’s finances with his long years as Finance Minister. He is today at the receiving end of criticisms and allegations of accepting an expensive wristwatch from a doctor friend living in one of the Gulf countries contrary to the image he has cultivated over the years, subverting the Lokayukta institution in the State by setting up an Anti-Corruption Bureau and capping them with twin charges of nepotism. To boot, it has even been claimed that the watch presented to the Chief Minister is a stolen one which had figured in a case investigated and dismissed by Siddaramaiah’s own brainchild, the Anti-Corruption Bureau. The Bureau has replaced the police wing of the Karnataka Lokayukta.
There is a parallel in Karnataka politics to what has befallen Siddaramaiah today. The former chief minister D Devaraj Urs is being hailed as a messiah of the backward classes, though he himself belonged to a forward caste, Arasu, who were the rulers of Old Mysore. To set matters right, it has to be pointed out that the policy of reservation in princely Mysore (introduced in 1921) and the Madras Karnataka region had predated Devaraj Urs by decades. Muslims had enjoyed a preferred position in the Hyderabad Karnatak districts which were earlier part of Nizam State. Devaraj Urs had only revived the system of reservation based on caste and ended the 14 year interregnum of income related reservation from 1963 to 1977. Urs faced a serious allegations of corruption, though they might not be major ones compared with the colossal proportions of today’s corruption. The Justice A N Grover Commission of inquiry appointed by the then Janata government at the Centre, indicted Urs in three specific cases. What has receded from public memory is that Devaraj Urs had attempted to preempt the Centre at that time and had appointed a commission of inquiry against himself. Late Justice Mir Iqbal Hussain of the Mysore High Court had constituted that inquiry and he held a few sittings. The High Court struck down the appointment of the Iqbal Hussain Commission.
The latest in the train of allegations against the Chief Minister is that his Government has favoured a private firm, Matrix Imaging Solutions India ,which has been permitted to open a diagnostic laboratory at the Government Victoria Hospital here. One of the directors of this firm is Dr Yathindra, one of the two sons of the Chief Minister. The other facet of the allegation pertaining to this is that this firm has been shown undue favour by the Bangalore Development Authority in the allotment of an “alternative plot” with an area of two acres in the Hebbal area of Bengaluru. The Authority which is known for harassing the citizens approaching it without “affluence or influence” allotted the alternative plot as the original land allotted to the firm came to be earmarked for acquisition for a residential layout.
Till now, very little was known about Dr Yathindra, and it had even being said that he had shown little interest in politics . However it was known that the Chief Minister’s other son, Rajendra had political ambitions and was wielding authority without responsibility . As if to buttress the claim that Dr Yathindra is far removed from politics is his reported statement that “neither I nor my father was aware of the guidelines preventing the kin of ministers from participating in business concerns and services of the government”. It is amazing that the educated son of a veteran politician is ignorant of elementary canons of public conduct like propriety , conflict of interest and keeping aloof from administration.It has to be pointed out that whether there exist guidelines or not, it is a question of propriety which is little observed in today’s politics in the country. The pathologist should be enlightened about the fact that nepotism too amounts to corruption as held by various commissions of inquiry against the wrongdoings of the many who have ruled at the Centre or in the States.
The latest allegation has come at a very inconvenient moment for the Chief Minister with the talk of unseating him in the air. The old faithfuls in the State Congress have never reconciled themselves to Siddaramaiah , whom they consider to be an outsider, becoming the Chief Minister. Those ranged against him include the former external affairs minister S M Krishna who is not disinclined to lead the State Government again. The Home Minister and Pradesh Congress chief, Dr G Parameshwar has his own ambition to head the Government. But the most outspoken critic of Siddaramaiah is the former Union Minister, Janardhana Poojary , known for his probity . It must have embarrassed the Chief Minister that the AICC General Secretary in charge of the State, Digvijay Singh has gone on record saying that Dr Yathindra should quit as director of the private firm.
What is surprising about Siddaramaiah is that his recent decisions and actions hardly square up with his claims to be a champion of the minorities, backward classes and dalits (which goes by the Kannada acronym AHINDA). Like most of his predecessors as chief minister, Siddaramaiah has hardly tackled the problem of corruption in the government. In fact corrupt officials have been given key positions in the name of caste . The appointment of the Anti-Corruption Bureau is seen as an attempt to protect the corrupt politicians and officials. The ACB would have become functional by now but for a stay granted by a Division Bench of the High Court consisting of Chief Justice Subro Kamal Mukherjee and Justic Ravi Malimath. It has stayed the transfer of corruption cases being probed by the Lokayukta as also those awaiting sanction for prosecution from the government, to the ACB. His stubbornness in insisting on the appointment of Justice S R Nayak as the Lokayukta has rendered the agency defunct-without a Lokayukta and two Upalokayuktas. The one Upalokayukta, Justice Subash Adi, who was going after corruption, is today out of action with the State Assembly seeking his removal. A former chief justice of the Chattisgarh High Court, S R Nayak himself is facing complaints of misuse of authority to obtain urban properties. He is also known for holding extremist views on matters of caste unbecoming of a judge. Siddaramaiah is unwilling to consider the other name suggested for the office of Lokayukta, former Supreme Court judge Vikramjit Sen who is also a former chief justice of Karnataka.
In fairness to Siddaramaiah , it must be said that some of his predecessors too faced allegations of corruption and even commissions of inquiry. A commission of inquiry headed by Justice P P Deo, judge of the erstwhile Nagpur High Court had been appointed to probe the irregularities in the construction of the Vidhana Soudha by Kengal Hanumanthaiya. It was up after holding a few sittings. Though hailed as a value based politician, Ramakrishna Hegde had to face the Justice Kuldip Singh Inquiry Commission which went into the Revajeethu and Lokahandawala Construction Company scandals. Hegde was indicted by Justice Kuldip Singh. He too had appointed a commission of inquiry against his son, late Bharat Hegde in what was called the M D Seat Scandal. Justice Parameshwar Dayal, former judge of the the Allahabad High Court had constituted that commission. Even S Nijalingappa had encountered allegations with regard to the Sharavathi Project. Today the only former chief minister to undergo the ignominy of going to jail on a charge of corruption is the State’s new BJP chief B S Yeddyurappa. He had been remanded to judicial custody by a Lokayukta court in October 2011 in a land denotification case. He was sent to jail without being convicted and sentenced.
Some of the other former chief ministers were lucky to escape judicial scrutiny. But that does not absolve them of the charges of amassing illegal wealth. n