Jharkiholi: A resignation on ‘moral ground’: Reading between the lines
The resignation of Water Resources Minster Ramesh Jarkiholi from the Karnataka Council of Ministers seemed inevitable, after the alleged sex scandal broke out. One terms it as inevitable for a combination of reasons: the embarrassment caused to the party at a critical juncture both nationally and at the state level; the start of the Karnataka Assembly session next week and the pressure on the state leadership to defuse a political time-bomb ; to deal with the internal contradictions within the ruling party at the state level and of course, to maintain the high moral ground if there were to be one at all, in contemporary politics and society!
Ever since the video became viral, it appeared to be a matter of time for the ruling party to persuade the Minister to resign. The BJP did not want to be seen to be acting on the pressure of the Opposition and as a response to the issue being the focus of attack on the government and the ruling party. By getting the Minister to resign, the BJP hopes to claim to have acted in a pro-active manner on the issue.
In the short run, the government (and ruling party) can claim to have swiftly acted. One is not sure of what is likely to happen in the long run, depending on how the case unfolds and the evidence on the issue emerges. One has seen in the past (and such alleged scandals are not new to Karnataka) that those who had to step down on facing similar charges in the past, found it very difficult to politically rehabilitate themselves, not just in the near immediate future but also in the distant future. Though one often says that public memory in short, it is important to remember that political opponents both in the opposition and within one's own party have a selfish political interest in keeping the controversy and memory alive.
Three factors merit attention in this particular episode. Firstly, its timing. This is not just about the start of the Karnataka Assembly session next week, where the government and ruling party would definitely be targeted on the issue. The BJP also faces a crucial test in four different states (and one Union Territory) which have elections in the coming months. The party would be keen to ensure that this episode does not became a major campaign issue and an embarrassment for it as it seeks to retain power (in Assam), challenge the ruling party (in West Bengal), help its ally (in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry) and emerge as an important third force in a largely bi-polar race (in Kerala). Further, the BJP government in Karnataka, has of late, faced many a hiccup. There is the talk in the corridors of power of a leadership change at the state level as well as increasing unhappiness with the recent cabinet expansion. Different caste group have been making a concerted bid to gain reservations and this has placed additional pressure on the government. The COVID-19 crisis continues to remain and the surge in cases in the recent past has been a matter of concern. As it moves from one crisis to another, the last thing the government (and the ruling party) needed was yet another crisis! The swift attempt at damage control needs to be seen from this perspective too.
Secondly, it is important to note that Ramesh Jharkiholi was a key player in the fall of the JDS-Congress government and the BJP coming to power in the state. Not only is he a key political player in Belagavi district, he is also seen as the leader of the Congress legislators who decided to revolt against the party. There was even talk of his becoming the Chief Minister or at least the Deputy Chief Minister during the JDS-Congress government. He had serious differences with prominent leaders within the Congress which paved the way for his becoming a rebel. When the large group of Congress legislators resigned and later joined the BJP, Jharkiholi was seen as a crucial leader. This explains his being given a prized portfolio when being made a Minister in the BJP government. The BJP already had a sizeable presence in Belagavi district even before the Jharkiholi brothers joined the party. Their entry created a new centre of power within the party both at the district level and in the state. This factor also explains why this alleged scandal has gained so much visibility.
Finally, the alleged scandal, brings into focus yet another important issue. Can we truly separate the private life of public figures? One is here not merely referring to politicians but all those who are in public positions. There are those who argue that public figures should not be judged by their private actions but their public role. In the present case, the allegation is not merely about an individual's private life but the apparent promise of a government job. Either way, it brings into focus an important ethical norm. Chanakya in the Arthashastra advises the ruler (holder of a public office) to have a blemish-free record in both the public and private domain. Both the private and public represent two facets of the personality of the same individual and cannot be divorced from one another. This controversy has one again brought the issue into focus!
(Dr Sandeep Shastri is a keen student of Indian politics with a special focus on political developments in Karnataka)