A BRUHAT ISSUE: The Karnataka HC has asked the state government to hold elections to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) within six months. This directive comes in the backdrop of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's ambitious plan to split the existing BBMP into three smaller municipal corporations. Subir Ghosh dissects the entire issue at hand in this five-part series, of which this is the first part.
It's now open season in Bengaluru after the Karnataka High Court ruling that the state government and the State Election Commission (SEC) will get a maximum of six months to hold elections for the reconstitution of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) which was dissolved last week.
A Division Bench of the high court, comprising Chief Justice DH Waghela and Justice Ram Mohan Reddy, on Friday delivered the verdict while setting aside an earlier single-judge order asking the government and the commission to hold elections to the palike by May 31. The bench has directed the Karnataka government and the SEC to hold elections as per provisions of the 74th Amendment of the Constitution.
The high court verdict comes as a breather for a beleaguered Chief Minister Siddaramaiah who had been dilly-dallying on the election issue for months together. He had a veritable political compulsion, of course: there was little chance that his Congress party, which fared disastrously in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, could wrest control of the BBMP. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which held sway over the corporation, has been on the upswing both in the city as well as the state ever since it was voted out of Karnataka in May 2013. Siddaramaiah’s solution was simple: play the “split BBMP” card. The idea was to trifurcate the BBMP into smaller municipal corporations; his contention being that it was becoming increasingly difficult to supervise the palike in order to implement central or state schemes.
Ground had been slipping from under Siddaramaiah’s feet from the very beginning. Allegations of non-performance had plagued him since day one, and with every passing day the political advantage was tilting towards the BJP, which in spite of losing control of the state in 2013 had still managed to win 12 of the 28 Assembly seats in Bengaluru that year. Then, it grabbed all three Lok Sabha seats of the city a year later. Moreover, 113 of the existing palike’s 198 corporators were from the BJP.
It was a personal issue with Siddaramaiah. Everything negative about Bengaluru reflected badly on him. After all, he held all the crucial ministerial portfolios governing the city’s main civic agencies – BBMP, the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) and the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB). Moreover, no party in power at the state has lost civic elections in the capital since 1983. In other words, a BBMP election defeat would have meant political curtains for Siddaramaiah.
Though the state government had constituted a three-member expert committee to look into a possible restructuring of the BBMP in September last year, matters gathered steam only earlier this year. On February 19, Siddaramaiah announced constitution of a one-man committee headed by IAS officer Rajendra Kumar Kataria to probe into alleged irregularities in the BBMP. Kataria submitted his findings to the government on March 5. He was said to have completed his work in a matter of 15 days. The expert committee, which had meanwhile finished a preliminary report in December 2014, was asked to stitch together another report. The panel’s second preliminary report was filed on March 18.
But matters soon turned legal. On March 30, Justice BV Nagarathna directed the government to conduct the polls before May 31. The court asked it not to delay elections to the BBMP Council on the pretext of delimitation of wards. The term of the council was to expire on April 22.
Siddaramaiah had barely three weeks to act. On April 10, the government drew up a draft ordinance seeking to split the BBMP and send it to Governor Vajubhai Vala. The governor returned it the next day, saying he was not satisfied with the ordinance, and questioned its timing.
Knowing that it had little time in hand, the state Cabinet on April 17 decided to take control of the BBMP. The government dissolved the civic body the very next day, appointing senior IAS officer TM Vijay Bhaskar as the administrator, who took charge the same evening. IAS officer G Kumar Naik was named BMMP commissioner, replacing M Lakshminarayana, who was transferred without a posting.
The term of the palike’s 198 corporators, including Mayor Shantakumari, was terminated virtually without notice. All standing committees were dissolved under Section 99 of the Karnataka Municipal Corporation (KMC) Act, 1976, citing failure on the part of the BBMP Council in discharging its civic duty, utter financial mismanagement, and largescale irregularities. The ground for this had already been laid. On March 18, the Urban Development Department had issued a showcause notice to the BBMP seeking explanation on alleged financial irregularities. The department also served notices to all corporators, including the mayor and the commissioner under Section 99 of the KMC Act. The said section provides power to the state government to supercede or dissolve the BBMP Council. Simultaneously, the government convened a special session of the Legislature on April 20 to push through its initiative. In a five-page notification, it quoted the Kataria report on irregularities and mismanagement in the BBMP.
The Assembly passed the Karnataka Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2015 on April 20, but Siddaramaiah’s plans went awry. The Chairman of the Council adjourned the House for lack of time. The Congress, with 28 members, does not enjoy a majority in the 75-member Council; the BJP with 30 and the Janata Dal (Secular) with 12, which are vehemently against the proposed trifurcation of the BBMP, are in control of there. Both are insisting that the matter be referred to a select committee.
On Wednesday, the state government came under fire in the high court. (It had meanwhile appealed against the March 30 order, citing procedural issues like restructuring of the BBMP and delimitation of wards.) Advocate General Ravivarma Kumar contended in court that without conducting delimitation of wards based on the 2011 census, holding elections would be improper. The court pointed out that the 2011 census figures were available in 2013 and yet no delimitation of wards had been undertaken. As had the governor, the court too had questioned the timing of the proposed trifurcation.
Now that the high court has delivered its verdict, Siddaramaiah has got the leeway he was desperately seeking. Under Article 243(U) 3(b) of the Constitution, a state gets six months to hold elections to a municipal body from the date of its dissolution. So, the Chief Minister has got what he wanted: time.
Subir Ghosh (www.subirghosh.in) is a Bengaluru-based writer and journalist.