Since the onset of the pandemic, the BS Yediyurappa-led Karnataka government has earned a reputation for making frequent U-turns on their policy announcements, particularly regarding the COVID-19 related restrictions. Over a dozen flip-flops have dented the credibility of the government and has also become fodder for jokes. The cause for these sudden U-turns is often a tug of war between two ministers representing two differing priorities, insiders tell TNM.
A few days into the March 2020 lockdown, the Karnataka government had announced that IT offices will be allowed to stay open even as other sectors were still on lockdown. It also announced that two-wheelers will be allowed to ply. Just hours later,it reversed both orders. Subsequently, the Chief Minister had announced the closure of Indira Canteens in Bengaluru but then announced that they will be open and in fact, distribute free food to the needy.
In May, the government refused to send back migrant labourers to their home states by cancelling the Shramik trains but later changed the decision, allowing the same. In September, the government had announced that as part of lockdown 4.0, students from classes 9-12 can visit campuses to have their doubts clarified but then deferred the decision until further notice. In November, after announcing a ban on bursting firecrackers during Deepavali, the CM then allowed for â€˜green crackersâ€™ to be burst in the state.
In December 2020, night curfew was announced but withdrawn just hours after the same. In February 2021, Karnataka Minister Umesh Katti had announced to the media that those who own motorcycles, refrigerators or land will not be eligible for BPL ration cards. This too was retracted just over 24 hours later.
And more recently, in the wake of increasing cases, the government had restricted cinema theatres to only 50% capacity of seating but after pressure from the film industry, allowed full capacity till April 7. It had also announced that gyms and swimming pools be closed but that too was modified later.
Conflict, lobbying and more
The list of turnarounds are longer than what we have catalogued above. But the reason for this indecisiveness which has become a hallmark for the government now is attributed to two important ministersâ€™ conflicting suggestions to the Chief Minister, say sources. Health Minister Dr K Sudhakar has been insisting on continued restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, according to a BJP source. Sudhakar, who is also the Medical Education Minister, has insisted that given the infrastructure, population density and poor compliance of COVID-19 protocols by citizens, giving a free hand to all sectors will lead to a surge in cases and that the hospitals will not be able to handle the burden.
In contrast, Deputy Chief Minister Dr CN Ashwathnarayan has been, right from the beginning, in favour of allowing more freedom to industries to operate so as to not further compromise the economic situation of the state, said sources. The DyCM, who also holds portfolios like Higher Education, Information Technology and Biotechnology, Science and Technology and Skill Development, Entrepreneurship and Livelihood, has been at the forefront of leading delegations from several industries urging the CM to be liberal with restrictions saying that people will be far more affected by loss of livelihood, starvation and other pressing issues if lockdown is not relaxed.
The state has a burgeoning fiscal deficit due to loss of GST input and pending grants from the Union Government for floods and drought for two consecutive years. Yediyurappa has been in a fix, where he cannot speak against the Union Government led by his own party BJP, but has not able to convince the Centre to clear the stateâ€™s dues either, leading him to a precarious situation where the onus of finding ways of balancing the stateâ€™s coffers falls on him squarely.
So when stalwarts from industries like real estate, education, IT and BT and factories exert pressure on him, he has to be â€˜accommodativeâ€™ as he understands how poorly the otherwise cash-rich Karnataka is faring fiscally, an insider tells TNM.
The same situation arose when Kannada actor Puneeth Rajkumar put forth his plea to the CM saying that the sudden announcement of restrictions on theatre seating capacity will deal a blow to his film Yuvarathnaa. The CM, who reportedly could not say no to the repeated pleas of the Kannada star delayed the implementation of the restriction. The film industry has reportedly made several threats to Dr Sudhakar to have his portfolio changed if he plays havoc by insisting on closure or limited functioning of theatres, a source in his office confirmed.
The CM, who feels cornered within his own government and party, has been trying to strike a balance often leading to these reversals. With even ministers like R Ashoka, Jagadish Shettar and V Somanna often weighing in in favour of the industries, the CM is often torn between his priority of bringing down the COVID-19 cases or the fiscal deficit.