Survival, which is perhaps the biggest achievement of the H.D. Kumaraswamy led Janata Dal (Secular)–Congress coalition government over the past one year, is also its biggest challenge on the first anniversary of its formation.
Since 2008, Karnataka has had State Assembly elections exactly a year before the Lok Sabha elections. Not surprisingly then, the past three governments have begun their tenure and made their policies keeping the upcoming Parliamentary elections in mind. Mr. Kumaraswamy is no exception to this pattern. While his predecessors B.S. Yeddyurappa and Siddaramaiah were expected to perform well in order to stay in office, and contain any opposition to their leadership from within their parties, the Kumaraswamy government’s survival itself was predicated on Congress – JD(S) coalition’s performance in the Lok Sabha elections. If BJP were to perform well both in Karnataka and across India, this government wasn’t expected to survive.
Since Karnataka went to polls a month ago, political talk across the State has been primarily about how Congress and JD(S) strongholds are in play for BJP candidates. A majority of the exit polls seem to confirm such speculation and indicate a much higher tally for BJP than expected when the elections were announced in March.
As the counting day unfolds, many questions about the efficacy of JD(S) and Congress coalition in Karnataka will be answered. Circumstances and an intense desire to keep BJP out of power had led the two rivals to come together and form a government. The 2019 Lok Sabha election results may very well determine the necessity of this coalition and also the future of the Kumaraswamy government.
The first anniversary of the Kumaraswamy government is also an occasion to review its performance. A Common Minimum Program (CMP) agreed upon by both the parties was supposed to provide the framework for governance. But the prospect of 2019 Lok Sabha elections ensured that even this CMP would be filled with populist programmes, which catered to the core constituencies of both the parties. Thus programmes such as Anna Bhagya had to be continued and provided with substantial budgetary support.
Mr. Kumaraswamy himself launched programmes like Badavara Bandhu, a scheme to provide interest-free loans to street vendors, and Mathrushree, which promised a ₹2,000 monthly payment for expectant and lactating mothers for six months.
But Mr. Kumaraswamy is hamstrung by his 2018 election commitment to waive farmers’ loans. In his first budget presented in July 2018, he announced a waiver of farmers loans up to ₹2 lakh. While he imposed several conditions in order to qualify for this loan waiver scheme and planned to distribute the repayment burden over the next five budgets, the loan waiver appears to cost the State exchequer around ₹46,000 crore. In his first two budgets, he has proposed to set aside almost ₹20,000 crore towards this purpose.
Thus, nearly 10% of Karnataka’s budgetary allocations has gone towards loan waiver, leaving Mr. Kumaraswamy with not much money to pay for even populist welfare programmes, let alone development projects. Hence even staunch JD(S) supporters in districts like Mandya have become disgruntled. During the campaign season in April, many expressed displeasure over the non-implementation of the promised hike to old age pensions and allowances for expectant and lactating mothers.
A greater casualty is Karnataka’s fiscal health and that hasn’t attracted much attention. Mr. Kumaraswamy has continued to emphasise how the fiscal deficit in 2019 remains within the acceptable limit of 3% of State GDP. However, the bulk of Karnataka’s GDP comes from services such as software exports, which do not bring much revenue to the State coffers and therefore, his claim is somewhat misleading. What perhaps reveals the dire financial straits of Karnataka is its public debt, which has crossed ₹3 lakh crore. While that may be within the 25% of the State GDP limit as stipulated by the fiscal responsibility rules, the cause for concern comes from ballooning interest payment commitments. Note that in 2019-20, Kumaraswamy has set aside ₹19,000 crore for interest payments, which is more than 8.5% of the budget.
Given the present trend of spiralling debt, within the next two years nearly 10% of the budget will have to be allocated for debt repayment.
Under these circumstances, ambitious development programmes, whether to address Bengaluru’s crumbling infrastructure or initiate development activities across the State, remain on paper.
It is not only financial resources which are appear to be scarce. After five relatively sedate years under Mr. Siddaramaiah, dissidence activities have returned to haunt Karnataka politics. Thus the attention of the political leadership, particularly that of Mr. Kumaraswamy, is diverted to address the unquenchable thirst for ministerial office. Not much time is left for governance.
It is not certain that the Kumaraswamy government will be around to celebrate its second anniversary. But these challenges of governance and political culture will remain with us for the foreseeable future.
(The writer teaches
History and Humanities
at Krea University.
Views expressed here
are his own.)