Even as Karnataka’s ruling BJP last week made an attempt to distance itself from the shrill Right-wing campaigns that have dominated the state’s political climate, it now finds itself being cornered on another front. Corruption charges, simmering for several months, have now escalated into a full-blown controversy following the suicide of a civil works contractor who allegedly blamed senior minister K S Eshwarappa in a death note over WhatsApp.
While opposition parties are demanding Eshwarappa’s resignation, the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association — which last year had complained that “commissions” up to 40 percent were being charged for work tenders — on Wednesday (April 13) stepped up pressure on the state government, threatening to go on a month-long strike.
D Kempanna, president of the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association, told reporters that the body will call for a rally on May 25 if the government does not address its concerns about the “huge cuts” being demanded by officials and elected representatives.
Last December, the association shot a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office seeking action and remedial measures on the issue. Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had then ordered a review of tenders. Kempanna, however, alleged that the situation has not changed since then.
Meanwhile, a Congress party delegation on Wednesday approached Governor Thawarchand Gehlot with a memorandum demanding the arrest of Eshwarappa and demanded a case of murder be registered against him following the death of Santosh K Patil, the contractor, in a hotel room in Udupi.
Patil, a BJP worker from Belagavi in northern Karnataka, was found dead in his room on Tuesday. Apparently, he had sent a WhatsApp message to friends blaming minister Eshwarappa for ending his life.
Eshwarappa, the minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, has been named in an FIR based on a complaint filed by Patil’s brother, Prashanth.
However, the minister, has refused to step down and, in a press conference in Shivamogga, called for a high-level probe into the matter, which he said was a “political conspiracy”.
Eshwarappa, 73, is a senior leader who has been among the BJP’s earliest legislators in Karnataka. Since the 80s, leaders like B S Yediyurappa and Eshwarappa worked towards establishing the party, which was still a fledgling outfit in the state. A decade ago, during the BJP’s previous term in office, he was a deputy chief minister. Outspoken, Eshwarappa has often courted controversy for his statements – most recently in February when his remark that “the saffron (bhagwa dhwaj) flag may become the national flag sometime in the future”, led to furore in the state’s legislative assembly.
Over the past few months, Santosh Patil had levelled allegations of corruption against Eshwarappa, claiming that he had taken up civil works worth Rs 4 crore in Belagavi on the minister’s assurance but that no work orders were issued nor were his bills cleared. Countering the allegation, Eshwarappa had filed a defamation suit against Patil.
“Santosh Patil wanted payment for his work without norms. I want to ask the Congress, did you, when in power, release payment without a work order… If they are asking for my resignation, I will definitely not give my resignation,” Eshwarappa told reporters in Shivamogga.
For Karnataka’s ruling BJP, the current turn of events has brought the “40 percent commission” scandal back into focus just as the party apparatus is getting ready with outreach programmes in preparation for the state polls which are due in a year’s time.
Since December, the allegations levelled by the contractors’ association had been overshadowed by the controversy over hijab. Following that, a series of campaigns by right wing groups calling for a boycott of Muslim traders had set the tone in the election-bound state – so much so that local BJP leaders, apparently after a nudge from the BJP top brass, have lately been distancing the party from campaigns by Right-wing outfits to instead highlight its governance programmes.