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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took nearly six months and 220 rounds of consultations in Karnataka's 224 Assembly constituencies to put in place its manifesto for the state elections that is expected to be unveiled in the last week of April at Bengaluru. "It is an unprecedented exercise, at least for a state," said P Muralidhar Rao, the BJP general secretary and Karnataka minder who oversaw the endeavour with lead-off persons CN Ashwath Narayan, the legislator from Bengaluru's Malleshwaram constituency, and N Ravi Kumar, Karnataka BJP's general secretary.
The BJP made up its mind to not allow its manifesto-making to be a last-minute assemblage of recycled intents and impossible promises. In 2017, the Karnataka unit constituted a committee, headed by the state's former law minister S Suresh Kumar. He roped in two ex-bureaucrats, M Madan Gopal and C Somashekhar. The other members were MPs Prabhakar Kore and Shivakumar Udasi, legislator Basavaraj Bommai, and senior leader V Srinivasa Rao. The panel was briefed to work in tandem with Muralidhar Rao and his team. Rao, Narayan, and Ravi were specifically tasked to interact with 500 local stakeholders, domain experts and opinion-moulders in each Assembly constituency in one-on-one or group meetings or online if there was a time crunch. "The rationale was that local issues are often not covered by a state manifesto. Yet, such issues often take precedence over the macro-level issues in an Assembly constituency,” said Rao.
"We asked questions on the problems people face in their daily lives as well as sector-related questions in meetings that lasted over three hours. There were no questionnaires but free-wheeling discussions were held so that people would speak up candidly. The discussions were audio-taped or video-graphed. A team at our Bengaluru headquarter processed the data and digitised it," said Ravi Kumar.
Even as a manifesto panel member claimed that the interactions yielded "out-of-the-box" ideas that he was unwilling to divulge, for Narayan, a medical practitioner, the "revelation" was people's lack of trust in government and private hospitals. "People thought the government hospitals were over-regulated while the private hospitals were indifferent towards the poor. The challenge before us is to bridge the trust deficit on both sides and use the health sector as a job-generator," he said.
For Ravi, the big political takeaway was Chief Minister Siddharamaiah's "failure" to implement Article 371 (J) for which the UPA government amended the Constitution to give the six districts (Bidar, Raichur, Yadgir, Bellary, Gulbarga, and Koppala) of Hyderabad-Karnataka, bordering Andhra Pradesh, a special status.
The region has 39 Assembly seats. Essentially, the special status created big reservation quotas for the locals in education and jobs — 70 per cent seats in government medical, dental and engineering colleges, along with 75 per cent government jobs in groups A and B and 80 per cent jobs in groups C and D, have been reserved for the locals.
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Ravi punched holes in Siddharamaiah's claim that no young person in Hyderabad-Karnataka was unemployed any longer. He alleged that 45,000 vacancies were yet to be filled. "So much for the chief minister's commitment to the development of backward regions," remarked Ravi.
The BJP has yet to firm up its position on corruption and land acquisition. During its tenure, when BS Yeddyurappa was the chief minister, followed by DV Sadananda Gowda and Jagadish Shettar, land and corruption got intertwined and brought disrepute to the government and the party after Yeddyurappa was implicated for alleged irregular land deals.
The manifesto is likely to promise to restore the "supremacy" of the Lokayukta, the anti-corruption watchdog, whose position was undermined by the Congress government. Siddharamaiah began his tenure with a bang, promising to empower the Lokayukta with powers to probe and prosecute even the chief minister. But when the incumbent Lokayukta, Y Bhaskar Rao, had to quit because his son was allegedly named in an extortion racket, the Lokayukta remained headless for months. Meanwhile, Siddharamaiah set up an anti-corruption bureau that appropriated the Lokayukta's powers but reported to the state chief secretary and was, therefore, perceived to have diminished the Lokayukta's independence.
When Siddharamaiah was under fire from the BJP, he appointed P Vishwanath Shetty, a retired judge, as the Lokayukta. In March this year, Shetty was attacked and injured in his office. The BJP converted the episode into "another example of Siddharamaiah's 'goonda raj'". A central leader said, "Honest officers who want to investigate his government's corruption deals are harassed and physically assaulted. Such things never happened in our regime."
As for land acquisition, another manifesto panel member said, "We are looking at a farmer-friendly policy that will incorporate elements of the land acquisition policy followed by Punjab and Tamil Nadu. These states have district level committees of farmers who decide the rate of the land that will be acquired, and incentivise the small and marginal farmers."