The case of the Karnataka minister for rural development K.S. Eshwarappa is a litmus test for the Bharatiya Janata Party, at the Central and state levels. As a practice, the BJP has been protective of its ministers and office-bearers even when they are accused of moral turpitude and other serious charges. When its Uttarakhand Chief Minister and a deputy chief minister in Uttar Pradesh were defeated in the recent elections, the party retained them with the positions they held. When the son of a Union minister was accused of mowing down farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri in UP, the party did not ask the father to quit office, despite the Opposition baying for his blood. The case of Eshwarappa is, however, different. The charge against him is that he abetted the suicide of a “party member” and contractor, who was allegedly asked to pay 40 per cent of the value of the Rs. 4 crore work he did for the minister. True, there are many inconsistencies in the allegations against the Minister. Santosh Patil (40) allegedly did the contract work on the oral instructions of Eshwarappa. The department concerned insists that no work order was ever given to him and, therefore, there was no question of making any payment. It is a matter of investigation whether the contractor did the work he claims to have done or not. What is incontrovertible is that the Karnataka Police have instituted a case of abetment of suicide. Patil had clearly mentioned the minister and two of his aides for his distress that led him to end his life. Incidentally, he is a Hindutva supporter and that makes his case all the more peculiar. His allegations sync with the charge a contractors’ body has been making about having to pay “cut money” to get bills passed.
It is a fit case for the BJP to act upon. To be credible and convincing, the minister should be asked to quit till he can prove his innocence. A time-bound inquiry is necessary to instill confidence in the minds of the people. Unlike charges of making provocative statements, indulging in high-handedness, and involvement in questionable conduct that amounts to moral turpitude, the charge against him is that he demanded bribes. For the BJP, which took full advantage of Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption to come to power at the Centre in 2014, it will be a great setback if the common people perceive it as yet another corrupt party. Small wonder that leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been claiming that the BJP has been following a zero-tolerance policy with regards to corruption. Eshwarappa epitomises the opposite of what the BJP professes. He is undoubtedly the most controversial minister in Karnataka, nay country. In ordinary circumstances, he should have been asked to step down from the Cabinet. It is a matter of speculation why Eshwarappa, among all the ministers, has been the most strident on all the Hindutva-related issues that surfaced in Karnataka. No doubt, he is a seasoned politician having won Assembly Elections five times. When the BJP was faced with a split over former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa forming his own political party, it was he who ensured that the situation did not go out of control. He is a hardcore supporter of the RSS and came up with the BJP the hard way. He, probably, felt that his days as a minister were numbered and that is why he had been following a hardline, making action against him extremely difficult. Be it on the hijab issue or the ban on Muslim traders doing business at Hindu festival sites or ban on the sale of halal meat or visualising the saffron flag in place of the tricolour, he has been one up on every Hindutva adherent in the party.
Alas, in trying to carve a niche for himself in the BJP, Eshwarappa has been forgetting his own constitutional responsibilities. He is already facing a charge of inciting violence against the Muslim community by pronouncing his own judgment in a murder case, which the police were yet to solve. It was a court that forced the police to file a case against him for incitement of violence. Small wonder that, over the last few months, the demagogue has become the poster boy of Hindutva. The BJP should remember that, after all is said and done, India still remains a secular country with a Constitution that makes it obligatory for every constitutional authority to act in a fair and equitable manner. Alas, Eshwarappa has failed this all-important test. It is now for the ruling party at the Centre and in the state to prove whether it, too, will fail the test by letting him continue as a minister while facing serious charges of corruption and crime.