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This will be a pro-poor government

Parvathi Menon

Friday 2 July 2004

Interview with Karnataka Chief Minister Dharam Singh.

On Dharam Singh, the new Chief Minister of the first coalition government in Karnataka, rests the task of giving leadership and stability to a still-shaky working arrangement between alliance partners who till a month ago were in political opposition. The Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) alliance in Karnataka is cemented by the shared desire to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which emerged as the single largest party in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, out of power. But that common cause apart, the alliance is for the present rife with disagreement and discord. The JD(S) demands a larger profile in government on the grounds that the Congress lost the elections. The Congress, on the other hand, has been calling the shots primarily because of the backing it has from the government in New Delhi, and its claim to winning a few more seats than the JD(S).

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V. Sreenivasa Murthy
Dharam Singh

The protracted bargaining for portfolios between the alliance partners has resulted in a major loss of credibility for the coalition. A fully-working government is not in place even as late as a month after the elections. P.G.R. Sindhia, a senior JD(S) leader who is Minister for Large and Medium Industries, summed up his party’s predicament to Frontline: "There is still heartburning within the party over the alliance, and we are certainly not happy over the way portfolios have been allocated, but on the other hand the survival of the government is dependent on the survival of our new friendship."

The Congress and the JD(S) have come to a preliminary understanding on the sharing of just 10 key portfolios, with neither side particularly happy with the arrangement. While the JD(S) wanted the Home Ministry to be given to Sindhia, the Congress did not want to surrender this key portfolio either. It was ultimately retained by the Chief Minister himself. Deputy Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was given the Finance portfolio in addition to Excise, Planning, Institutional Finance, Statistics, and Science and Technology. Sindhia was allotted Large and Medium Industries, Infrastructure Development and Civil Aviation. Senior JD(S) leader M.P. Prakash was given Revenue and Parliamentary Affairs. H.D.Revanna, the son of JD(S) president and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, has been given the portfolios of Public Works and Energy. D. Manjunath of the JD(S) was given Higher Education. Three of the five Congress Ministers, namely K. Srinivasa Gowda (Agriculture), Prakash B. Hukkeri (Agricultural Marketing) and Tanvir Sait (Labour and Haj) are first-time Ministers. Mallikarjun Kharge, a senior Congress leader and in charge of the Home portfolio in the government of S.M. Krishna, has been given the Water Resources and Transport portfolios.

The coalition government faced the first session of the Legislative Assembly with a government comprising just 10 Ministers. Significantly, the disagreement between alliance partners was over sharing the high-profile Ministries that have large revenue outlays. The social welfare and development-oriented Ministries and departments lie unallocated. Considering that the failure to deliver on its development goals was a major factor contributing to the defeat of the last Congress government, the low priority accorded to these Ministries is significant. Indeed, according to Chief Minister Dharam Singh, these will only be filled in another two weeks at the earliest, after the elections to the Legislative Council and the Rajya Sabha.

The first challenge thrown before this half-constructed coalition Ministry was, predictably, the demand to release the Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Without a full government structure in place, the consultative process that usually precedes a formal response from the Chief Minister was not there. The opportunity to use the new political equation between the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) at the Centre to offer a new and less rigid approach to the Cauvery tangle, particularly in a season that has seen the early onset of the monsoons, was therefore lost. On the Cauvery issue, there is of course no difference of opinion between the Congress and the JD(S). It is all very well to have the DMK as an ally at the Centre, but the "interests of the Karnataka farmers come first" said the Chief Minister firmly, a view that the Deputy Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, endorsed fully.

Excerpts from an interview Dharam Singh gave Parvathi Menon:

There is a low public confidence level in your government as it has taken almost four weeks for the alliance partners to iron out disagreements on portfolio allocation. How do you propose to address this?

This is the first coalition government in the history of Karnataka. Let us frankly admit that the people rejected the Congress in the State. The single largest party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then the Congress, and then the Janata Dal (S). The results came on May 13 and we had a core group meeting and a lengthy discussion on May 14 of All India Congress Committee members and State leaders of the party on what we should do. We took the stand to prevent the BJP from coming to power. For that we decided to go for an alliance with secular parties. In discussions between H.D. Deve Gowda and our leaders, they finally agreed to power-sharing on the Maharashtra model. All that took time. Then, there was the unexpected development after Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s election as Congress Parliamentary Party leader. All our party leaders were busy in Delhi for 15 days during that time. Some time was also taken in the implementation of the Maharashtra model.

So these were the practical difficulties, the starting problems. Now things are okay.

But you still have a large number of portfolios that have not been allocated.

We will do that after the Legislature session, in about another two weeks, after the Rajya Sabha elections on the June 24 and the Legislative Council elections on June 21.

How stable is your government? It is, after all, an alliance of two parties that fought each other during the elections.

Yes, but this model is very successful in Maharashtra where the NCP [Nationalist Congress Party] and the Congress came together. For the time being, we must share power as we are temperamentally together.

In these elections the vote appears to have been against the impact of policies pursued by the previous Congress government. How is your government going to be different in terms of its priorities and agenda?

During S.M. Krishna’s chief ministership a lot of development took place. Nowadays, we can’t understand the way elections work in the State and the Centre. In Madhya Pradesh the Congress government got defeated because of bijli and sadak, although we had made progress in both sectors.

Our experience shows that we must give top priority to rural areas. This government will be a pro-poor government. We have to give confidence to our vote bank, meaning the backward classes, the Schedules Castes and the minorities, who had moved away from the Congress.

The conditions stipulated by the terms of the World Bank loan to the State may not allow you to do that.

This is a decision that the Cabinet will have to take.

There are two issues that all governments in Karnataka have had to deal with in the last 10 years. The first one is the settlement of the Cauvery dispute, and the second one is in apprehending forest brigand Veerappan. Regarding the first, will your government offer a new approach to resolving the Cauvery problem now that the DMK is your ally at the Centre?

No doubt we are allies in the Centre. Today [June 11], a DMK-led delegation even came to meet me. But we are not going to surrender the State’s interests. The first and foremost duty of this government is to protect the farmers’ interests. That is our first priority.

There is a general perception that when it comes to the Cauvery issue, politicians in Karnataka, cutting across party lines, are intransigent and even hawkish. So you have an opportunity to counter this impression.

There is the impression that the storage position in our reservoirs is okay now. Even yesterday when I met Madam [Sonia] Gandhi I told her that this is not the case. I told the DMK delegation that we are all friends, but we have to discuss the release of water.

Why are you opposed to the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC) meeting?

We are already releasing water according to the Interim Order. Already 3 tmc ft has been released this month. Tamil Nadu is demanding more water. For that, we have to take all parties into confidence.

At some point, your government will have to contend with the Veerappan phenomenon. What will be your approach to dealing with him?

When I was Home Minister in 1990 under Chief Minister S. Bangarappa, and S.B. Chavan was Union Home Minister, we took the help of the Border Security Force. We conducted joint operations with Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But today, the Veerappan issue has become a political issue and I know that people are anxious that he be caught.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 13, Jun. 19 - Jul. 02, 2004.

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