Mining troubles

On Thursday, two dramatic and gripping rescue operations vied for our attention. Preposterous it might appear for a common thread to run through the two operations. For, a rescue mission was unfolding in a remote desert thousands of miles away in Chile while the other in Bangalore. Distance is not the only reason why the comparison looks odd.

The Chilean story is about saving the lives of 33 hapless miners holed up in the bowles of the earth for 70 days. Their rescue is truly a miracle, a second birth for the miners who had almost no chance of surviving their underground ordeal and where almost declared dead until, miraculously, they were found to be alive 17 days after a mine collapse trapped them half-a-mile underground. Their rescue on Thursday had the world’s attention focused on them.

The Bangalore rescue story, on the contrary, is hardly a human survival story. This was about rescuing a government that was nearly dead for seven days after a sudden collapse triggered by human greed, lust for power and ill-gotten money and myriad palace intrigues.

Beyond the fact of the two rescue missions being accomplished the same day, any attempt at drawing parallels would be like comparing chalk and cheese. However, when dissimilarities end, some striking comparisons begin. If Chilean President Sebastian Pinera dug a deep hole in the public exchequer to bail out the miners, those involved in the successful rescue operation to save the B S Yeddyurappa government might easily have dug deep into their pockets in the process.

In both cases, the disaster is the handiwork of mining companies. Pinera publicly announced that the San Esteban Mining Company, which owned the San Jose gold and copper mine involved in the disaster for the 33 miners, would have to pay up for its negligent role. The company would have to close its mining operations for ignoring safety measures.

Like Pinera, chief minister Yeddyurappa virtually pointed the accusing finger for conspiring to kill his government at mining companies. The only difference, perhaps, is that Yeddyurappa stopped short of naming the villainous companies or the personalities involved. But he also did a Pinera, announcing that those responsible would be exposed and punished.

Politicians become wiser after the mishaps. Pinera and Yeddyurappa found themselves in the same boat. It was the Chilean government that had permitted reopening of the accident-prone San Jose mine two years ago. And powerful mining lobbies have called the shots in the Yeddyurappa government from day one of its existence. Post-rescue, both Pinera and Yeddyurappa have made almost identical statements — Pinera assuring that his government would do everything to avoid the San Jose-kind of mining disasters and Yeddyurappa pledging to provide a stable government by confronting those mining interests that brought his government to the brink. Only time will tell whether they indeed learned their lessons from the disasters and make good their pledge to the people. Before he became President, the billionaire Pinera was a very successful businessman who had extensive links with the Chilean business world. In mineral rich Chile, the business world has hardly any substance without the mining sector. He spent millions in his election campaign which probably would not have been possible without contributions from the powerful mining sector.

Mystery mining lobby

As for Yeddyurappa, his political success as the BJP leader has a lot to do with the support received from the mining lobbies associated with his party. From time to time, there have been speculations in political circles that without generous spending by BJP’s mining lobby, Yeddyurappa might not have even managed to form the government after the last assembly elections in May, 2008. While Yeddyurappa or his trusted colleagues have not revealed who they pointed to while referring to a hidden mining lobby’s hand in near-toppling his government, what we know for sure is that the very mining lobby that helped him form the government 28 months ago had almost brought him down a year ago.

Pinera’s popularity rating has soared in the wake of the rescue success. Being a media baron, he knew how to use the media to his advantage to effect the successful rescue the 33 miners. He played hero. Yeddyurappa too is seeking to at least keep his ratings at acceptable levels. He may not be playing hero but he knows he needs to project an image of himself that helps boost his ratings from the crisis. So, he is presenting himself as a victim — a victim of the conspiracy by unnamed mining villains who also made common cause with his political foes.

It is not easy for Yeddyurappa to do a Pinera from his crisis. For, there is no evidence that Yeddyurappa has learnt lessons from the last crisis a year ago. His government is increasingly perceived as one that moves from one crisis to another, unable to take corrective action. That makes it difficult to sell the victimhood image and encash from it.
Equally, Pinera had an entire media projecting his government’s rescue efforts in positive light, whereas Yeddyurappa was weighed down by embedded journalism, a practice perfected by the Pentagon bosses to ensure positive spin for their military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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