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Ahead of 2023 polls, BJP plans ‘major changes’ in Karnataka but ‘Bommai will remain CM’

Karnataka BJP under Bommai has been under pressure of late — first due to the hijab controversy, as well as over corruption allegations against state leaders and ministers.

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New Delhi: The BJP is likely to undertake a “major surgery” in Karnataka ahead of the 2023 assembly elections, and effect changes in the state government, party leaders have told ThePrint.

While Basavaraj Bommai will remain at the helm as chief minister, he has been advised to be “more assertive and effective” ahead of the elections, they said. The changes, the sources added, are likely to be made once Prime Minister Narendra Modi returns from Europe.

Ending speculation over the CM’s post, Karnataka BJP president Nalin Kateel told the media on Tuesday that “we are going to the polls together as a team under the leadership of chief minister Bommai and guidance of (former CM) Yediyurappa”. His sentiments were echoed by state BJP in-charge Arun Singh as well as Yediyurappa himself.

“If some people are under any other illusions, they should come out of it. This is a design by the (opposition) Congress to create rumours about changes (in leadership),” Kateel alleged.

The BJP also has to decide on filling up five spots in the 34-member Karnataka cabinet, one of which fell vacant after the resignation of Karnataka Rural Development & Panchayat Raj Minister K.S. Eshwarappa following corruption allegations last month.

A central BJP leader said “changes will take place in a few days”. “Deliberations have not been completed yet on the scale of changes in the government but it’s not about changing the chief minister yet,” the leader added.

A second party leader said: “There is no question of change of chief minister at this juncture when polls are one year away. Don’t forget Karnataka is not Uttarakhand or even Gujarat. The Bommai administration does have many pitfalls and he has been asked to be more assertive and effective in matters of governance.”

The BJP had last year made news for changing chief ministers in Uttarakhand, and later in Gujarat. While Uttarakhand went to the polls earlier this year, Gujarat will vote later in 2022.

Party insiders explained that a leadership change in Karnataka at this juncture will lead to more confusion in the state, but admitted an overhaul in the cabinet and party unit was due.

“A consensus is yet to emerge on the scale of changes and final consultations will be completed once the PM is back from his Europe trip,” the second BJP leader added.

Karnataka BJP vice-president Nirmal Kumar Surana told ThePrint that “the party is going ahead with the leadership of Bommai”.

“Last month only, (Union Home Minister) Amit Shah clearly said the BJP will fight the 2023 assembly elections under the CM’s leadership. Vested interests are causing this confusion. The party aims to win 150 (of 224) seats, which was the target set by Shah at a meeting,” he said.

Also read: BJP’s top decision-making body dysfunctional as Modi-Shah call the shots, no move to induct Yogi yet

Luncheon with Shah

The speculation about imminent changes in the Karnataka government began after BJP general secretary B.L. Santhosh told a state unit meeting Saturday that the party has the strength to execute “big changes in the party and government structure”.

“In the Delhi municipal election, we decided that no sitting corporator would be given tickets and fielded all new candidates,” he said. “In Gujarat, we decided against fielding councillors who had been in power for more than two terms and there were wholesome changes in the state when the chief minister and the entire cabinet was changed. This was done to infuse freshness and not because of any complaints.”

His statement was followed by Amit Shah’s second visit to the state in about five weeks Tuesday, which further spurred on rumours.

On Tuesday, when Shah visited Bengaluru for an official engagement, he also held a lunch meeting with Bommai, Union minister Pralhad Joshi, state BJP president Kateel, Yediyurappa and other party officebearers.

At the last minute, however, he cancelled a much-publicised meeting that was scheduled with the BJP core committee and leaders of different morchas to spell out the strategy for the 2023 polls.

On the cancellation, a Karnataka BJP leader said: “Shah’s luncheon meeting with the CM was meant to send the message to the party cadre that the high command had trust in Bommai, so all leaders were invited. Since all leaders were present and there was informal talk on the party mission, it was felt there was no need of another meeting. Shah had also addressed the core group during his previous visit to the state.”

Former CM Jagadish Shettar told ThePrint that “he had a conversation with a few leaders during the luncheon, but it was an informal get-together”. “Such decisions are not made in huge meetings. The party is moving ahead with its election preparations in full-swing,” he said.

Referring to Santhosh’s remarks, a BJP leader said they were “in the context of municipal polls and meant for those ministers who thought they couldn’t be replaced in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle”.

Various voices within BJP

Since Santhosh’s statement, the party has made several attempts to settle the uncertainty about leadership changes.

Yediyurappa said talk of changes to the CM’s post of is just a rumour and “I feel changes will be carried out in the Karnataka cabinet”. Party in-charge Arun Singh said “these are hypothetical questions. Bommai is working to fulfil the dream of PM Modi”.

The Karnataka BJP under Bommai has been under pressure of late — first due to the hijab controversy, then over a spate of murders that is believed to have diluted Bommai’s governance plank, as well as over corruption charges against state BJP leaders.

One section of leaders wants change and they have communicated to the BJP high- command that the present leadership will not deliver victory in 2023 if a “major surgery” is not done, BJP insiders said.

Many others, however, point out that “this may backfire because of the complex caste equation in Karnataka”.

“Gujarat is the PM’s home state where people vote in his name but Karnataka’s case is different. Here, the Lingayats were not happy with the change of guard after Yediyurappa but were later convinced that Bommai was his protégé. Now, what will they say if the BJP changes Bommai too? It’s not so simple,” a leader said.

In July last year, Yediyurappa had made way for Bommai as Karnataka CM.

Another BJP leader said: “Much water has flown under the bridge in the last two-three months and the BJP is contemplating many things in Karnataka. The party’s confidence has been shaken in Bommai during this time and they have to think holistically whether they want to risk appointing a new leadership or do course-correction in the existing setup.”

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Karnataka, you’ve got a problem: Why BJP’s divisive politics can ruin Bengaluru’s unicorn party

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