When the candidates declared their assets before the Election Commission, the media and civil society let out a collective gasp. Most knew about the wealth of the factory owners of north Karnataka and the mining barons of Bellary.
But the real estate tycoons-turned-politicians of Bangalore took many a breath away as they revealed their affluence before the Election Commission.
Nandish Reddy, Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from K.R. Puram, whose assets have gone up from Rs. 36 crore to Rs. 118 crore in five years, did not see what the fuss was all about as he spoke to the reporter of a national television channel. “Anybody can enter the real estate business. What is wrong?” he asked, perplexed, notwithstanding his indictment in a land grab case in his constituency. And with Rs. 26 crore, B.A. Basavaraj, his rival from the Congress, is no pushover: he is also into real estate. The list of real estate tycoons in the fray this time is baffling. Industry insiders, in fact, say that today every major politician in the city has real estate interests: they just don’t want to say it openly. “It is bad for the image,” concedes the son of a powerful national leader who is also in the fray.
But political interests in real estate and the real estate sector’s interest in politics is of an older vintage in Bangalore.
It was in 1985 that then Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde’s real estate interests were exposed in the scam involving Revajeetu Builders and Developers owned by his daughter and son-in-law. The same year, then Janata Party leader H.D. Deve Gowda’s name cropped up in a land allotment scam.
During the same period, the housing society scam entered the public domain and the unseen hands of several political figures were exposed.
The former Chief Ministers S. Bangarappa, R. Gundu Rao, H.D. Kumaraswamy and N. Dharam Singh also faced allegations of land scams before B.S. Yeddyurappa and several of his Cabinet colleagues raised the stakes.
It is probably because we live in the times of anti-corruption movements that the role of the real estate sector in these elections has suddenly come into sharp focus.
But the seeds for the success of today’s real estate tycoons were sown in the late 1980s and 1990s when the country was slowly embracing market-driven economics, says journalist-turned-politician Ravindra Reshme. In the name of development, builders started being given exemption from the Urban Land Ceiling Act in the 1990s and came to own large tracts of land within the city. The Act was repealed altogether in 1999.
Mr. Reshme alleged that Hegde and Bangarappa started promoting the concept of group housing (apartments) with the sole objective of promoting their interests in the construction and real estate sectors.
Corrupt bureaucracy too
Conversion of agricultural land for commercial use was actively promoted by the government to favour builders with the help of corrupt bureaucrats, says retired IAS officer V. Balasubramanian, who headed the commission to enquire into land grab in the city.
The former IAS officer and Deputy Commissioner of Bangalore Urban M. Krishna, whose properties were raided in 2008 by the Income Tax Department, earned the epithet ‘conversion’ Krishna.
Successive governments also gave land to housing societies and did not penalise them for entering into illegal joint development agreements with builders, he points out.
Flush with wealth accumulated as a result of years of political patronage, many builders are now taking a direct plunge into electoral politics, says M. Chakravarati, a real estate agent in Murugeshpalya. Some observers say that it is too late to clip their wings.