Monday, November 09, 2009

The marriage of money and politics

Like never before, rentier capital dominates politics in Jharkhand and Karnataka

Money and politics has never been separate in India. Many political parties have relied upon and have included richer interests and sections to garner political power through patronage. But what is being seen of late, as evidenced by the marriage of money and politics in several states is the dominance of rich sectional interests of a very high order, so much so that traditional polity or the "political class" lacks a complete autonomy from and is very much subordinate to such interests. This is particularly the case in Karnataka -where a crisis is now underway in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party - and in Jharkhand, where former chief minister Madhu Koda is being investigated for fraud and ill-gotten wealth of a massive scale.

The state of Karnataka is, even at the time of writing, reeling under the impact of floods that have affected several districts in the state. But legislators of the ruling party, far from mobilising and organising relief work, are busy elsewhere, hiding in resorts in neighbouring states to avoid being "poached" by rival factions. The farcical situation was triggered by a revolt of a set of legislators led by the moneyed mining lobby section- the Bellary brothers as they are called - of the BJP. The rising prices and demand for iron ore, particularly from China has seen a major boom in the iron ore industry in Karnataka centered in and around Bellary and has made a few mining contractors and owners tremendously rich. A share of such incomes has been pooled back into garnering political support to be in power, as the assembly elections in 2008 in the state demonstrated.

The "Bellary brothers - Karunakara Reddy and Janardhana Reddy have made it big by partaking from the flourishing iron ore mining business in Bellary. They have been a tremendous "asset" for the BJP, helping the party garner support of independents and orchestrate the so called, "Operation Kamala" - a "scheme" to induce opposition legislators to resign and re-contest from the BJP ticket. Apparently, since the chief minister B.Yeddyurappa has "challenged their supremacy" in Bellary by making administrative transfers of officials in the area, the Bellary brothers have cried foul and have orchestrated this unsavoury mutiny.

Factionalism and "rebellions" are endemic to India's liberal democratic polity, where most parties are "big tents" of individualistic, opportunistic "leaders" and this has been much discussed upon. What is saliently contemporary is the tremendous dominance of money power and such interests. These interests such as the Bellary brothers' do no longer control politics and politicians outside its competitive realm, but operate from within and for good reason. Politics and staying in power - rather than being close to it - helps these moneyed interests attain administrative writ that help their businesses by garnering very high rentier incomes. Any perceived challenge to the writ, as the Bellary brothers construe from the administrative changes in the local institutions in the area brought about by the panchayat minister who is close to the chief minister, is therefore seen as a threat to the overweening power and interests. The BJP's response has been typical - loath to giving into such blatantly opportunistic claims, but resisting a loss of these moneyed "assets". The "Bellary brothers", after all have supported the BJP ever since the close and high profile electoral battle between Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi and BJP leader Sushma Swaraj in 1999 and the symbiotic relationship was the main reason for the successful formation of the BJP government last year despite the party not winning an absolute majority.

Such congruence between moneyed interests and politics is visible from the Madhu Koda affair in Jharkhand as well. An independent legislator, Koda was pitchforked to the seat of chief minister from a hung assembly due to a quirk of circumstances. Koda made the "best" of his tenures - as minister in charge of panchayati raj and later mining in the Babulal Marandi and Arjun Munda led governments and as chief minister himself between 2006 and 2008. He has from many definitive accounts, revealed during investigations by the Enforcement Directorate recently, played a major role in securing lucrative mining contracts for friends, associates and companies. He is also alleged to have involved in several illegal money transfer transactions, money laundering and diversion of state funds during his tenure. And the murky link between corporates interested in exploiting the natural resources in Jharkhand and politics is not limited to the Madhu Koda affair alone, as the nomination of senior corporate managers as Rajya Sabha members of parliament from the state, despite tenuous connections with the state, attest to.

There is many a similarity between the Karnataka and the Jharkhand affairs, a phenomenon which has transcended the mere nexus between crony capitalism and politics to the marriage of both. Incidentally, both the district of Bellary and the state of Jharkhand have abysmal human development indicators, pointing to the "resource curse" that these places suffer from. While their natural resource wealth engenders corrupt rentiers and speculators who make a killing of the profits that these resources generate, the owners of the wealth - the people themselves are left to fester in poverty and difficult livelihoods. Among all the distortions that persist in India's formalist democracy, the influence of money power, rentier capital and the "resource curse" are the most damning.

Draft of editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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