Karnataka’s rapid rise up the list of the most corrupt states in the country is commonly measured in terms of the astronomical figures that are popularly believed to be involved in specific acts of corruption, whether it is illegal mining, land scams or horse-trading in MLAs. What these figures miss is the widespread acceptance of corruption. Politicians don’t just buy votes; ordinary citizens think nothing of selling their votes. This large and growing gap between the legal and the morally acceptable has entrenched corruption deeply in the state.
The acceptance of what others might consider illegal is not entirely new to the state. Decades ago, a senior bureaucrat speaking about the years before independence said that in government offices, any paper not held down by a rupee coin was assumed to have flown away. Corruption of this sort established the idea that what was illegal was not necessarily morally reprehensible.
Post-independence, the nature and size of the gap between the moral and the legal has been deeply influenced by the nature of the state’s political economy. In the 1950s, with Karnataka’s economy being driven by the central public sector, the scope for state-level corruption was largely defined by excise contracts for arrack production and distribution. The money excise contractors made may appear modest in comparison to the figures being touted today, but their ability to topple democratically elected governments was no less than current norms.
With the coming of patronage politics to the state in the 1970s, the dominance of excise contractors was challenged. Devaraj Urs and Indira Gandhi effectively put in place a from-the-rich-to-the-poor philosophy. This had a dimension that was both legal and morally attractive, when it played on the ‘rural versus urban’ divide or when it fuelled a successful land-to-the-tenant programme. But it was also extended beyond the legal. Politicians could claim they were making money for political ends, to ensure they were not toppled by those who did not like their progressive policies.
The coming of liberalisation—it came early to Karnataka with the information technology boom beginning in the mid-1980s—ensured the scope for grand progressive measures like land reforms disappeared. Patronage politics necessarily had to become more personal and more local. The focus of politics shifted, to a considerable degree, from the Congress high command to stronger local politicians who were expected to take care of the interests of those who voted for them. And to generate the resources needed for such patronage, politicians were expected by their constituents to build private fortunes. Indeed, a politician who did not have a large enough personal fortune was seen as incapable of providing patronage. Politicians were soon keen to flaunt their wealth in declarations to the Election Commission. Indeed, some may have even exaggerated the value of their assets.
Economic theorists may say that, with liberalisation, the role of the government would be reduced and the scope for politicians to make money would be that much less. Fortunately, most politicians haven’t studied economics. They simply looked for lucrative liberalisation measures that allowed for personal wealth generation. The denotification of land in Bangalore was one such liberalisation measure. Enormous amounts were charged for denotifying land. To ensure this source did not dry up, land was first notified for acquisition and then denotified.
Karnataka’s ability to outpace other states in this drive was enhanced by the nature of economic development in the state. The Bangalore-centric development of Karnataka allowed for huge land development opportunities in the capital city. The case made out for large infrastructure projects provided moral justification for notifying large tracts of land for acquisition for such projects. It’s no secret that infrastructure projects in Bangalore get much more land than similar or bigger projects elsewhere. These acquisitions allow for selective, high-priced denotification.
The success of Bangalore’s private patronage has encouraged rural politicians in the state to use whatever means they can to catch up. Acquiring mining leases, and then denuding the natural resource without a thought for the future, is a popular route to private patronage politics. The obscene riches generated in the process only set the mark for other young politicians to aspire to cross. In a state that likes to flaunt the number of its billionaires, few have the time to distinguish between those who got there legally and those who found other means. Living off the huge gap between the legal and the morally acceptable has become so natural in Karnataka that some of these politicians see themselves as far-sighted pioneers that the rest of the country will soon be trying hard to match. Indeed, one of these families has already announced its prime ministerial candidate.