Karnataka polls: Cong's urbane outreach at odds with state's civic problems

Radhika Ramaseshan
“Namme Bengaluru, Namme Hemme” (Our City, Our Pride) was a slogan Karnataka’s Congress government thought up when Chief Minister Siddharamaiah belatedly realised in 2017 that he had to connect with a new generation of urban and “urbane” voters in the state capital. Karnataka may not be as urbanised as neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Kerala but, at the same time, Bengaluru’s political standing and significance cannot be belittled in any election. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have recognised the reality and are making amends for Bengaluru. 

The BJP will unveil a separate manifesto for the city, as will the Congress. Additionally, the Congress government conceived and created a brand identity logo for Bengaluru, inspired by the catchy “I Am Amsterdam” emblem, displayed all over The Netherlands capital. Bengaluru’s “Be U” was designed to capture the ethos of a place known for its gardens, innovations, technological prowess and start-up culture.

In August 2017, K J George, the Bengaluru development minister, released a Rs 110-billion package to spruce up the city’s infrastructure, including through white-topping 93.47 kilometres of roads, remodelling pavements and building 1,000 public toilets.

The city’s electoral importance is underscored by the fact that it contains 28 (excluding 8 Bengaluru rural seats) of the state’s 224 Assembly seats. Also, it houses a majority of the state’s 70 urban seats and is the biggest revenue spinner. These attributes have made Bengaluru the centrepiece of Siddharamaiah’s “Nava Karnataka Nirman” (Building a New Karnataka). Ostensibly, the chief minister wants to appeal to an audience transcending his rural constituency.

In the past, political parties principally targetted Bengaluru’s slums, and not so much the classes, because of the availability of captive vote banks that crystallised on caste and religious identities. However, the turnout in the previous Assembly election in 2013 was a wake-up call, announcing the emergence, if not the arrival, of a middle class vote shaped by civic literacy and a growing intolerance towards corruption and the political establishment’s overt patronage of the weighty and the wealthy. The voting percentage in Bengaluru’s urban district jumped to 58 per cent from 47.5 per cent in 2008, as against the state average of 71.4 per cent. 

But Siddharamaiah’s Bengaluru branding sits at odds with the myriad civic issues plaguing the city that conjured a dystopian nightmare for the cynics or windows of opportunities for the optimists who called themselves the “citizen warriors”. The city’s decaying nature is symbolised by the large Bellandur lake, which catches fire every now and then, after a deadly cocktail of untreated chemicals and sewage is emptied out into its water and the nearby garbage mounds are set afire; the traffic gridlocks; the pot-holed roads; and inadequate street lighting. 

The National Green Tribunal rapped the Siddharamaiah government twice for doing nothing about the inflammable lake. Indeed, the chief minister’s response to the unlawful quarrying going on near the Bannerghatta Biological Park, showcased as a tourist must-see, belied his so-called commitment to reimaging Bengaluru. 

Trucks routinely sprinkle water from half a dozen tankers to wash away the dust clouding the four-km stretch. In 1998, the Karnataka High Court had ordered the state government to relocate the mining units to safe zones. In 2011, the state government appealed to the Supreme Court against the directive, but to no avail. In 2011 itself, the Karnataka Regulation of Stone Crushers’ Ordinance stipulated that the safe zones had to be more than two km away from national highways, temples, schools, rivers and animal sanctuaries, and at least one km away from villages and agricultural land.

In 2013, the Siddharamaiah government tweaked the law and reduced the distance between the safe zones and national highways to two km and from the link roads and the safe zones to 100 metres, as against 500 metres previously. 

Project Vruksha, a Bengaluru NGO, alleged that the government provided no justification for carrying out the amendments and sought the intervention of the central environment, forest and climate change minister, Harsh Vardhan.

The role of Siddharamaiah’s predecessors was no less edifying, thereby denoting a continuity in the political establishment’s attitude to and management of civic affairs. It is inclined to favouring vested interests over citizens’ concerns. 

In 2006, H D Kumaraswamy, who was the chief minister of a Janata Dal (Secular)-BJP coalition government, amalgamated the Bangalore Mahanagar Palike (consisting of 100 municipal wards) with eight urban local bodies and 101 surrounding villages and constituted the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagare Palike of 198 wards. Ostensibly, Kumaraswamy wanted to scale up infrastructure in Bangalore’s peripheries but his critics charged him with creating an apparatus that would eventually rival the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, India’s wealthiest local body. Far from bringing in infrastructure to the city’s margins, the decision escalated land prices and helped the builder lobbies to call the shots in the civic body.

The 2018 election will reveal if the middle class “clout” in Bengaluru is for real or a fiction, depending on how seriously the micro-manifestos of the various parties address civic matters. 

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