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How BJP’s Bommai gamble threatens to backfire in Karnataka — caste anger, corruption, ‘no control’

Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai has struggled to manage voter expectations. Bengaluru's crumbling infrastructure & graft charges against his government have added to his woes.

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Bengaluru: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s one-on-one meeting with former Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa on the sidelines of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) national executive meet in Delhi has become the talk of political circles, with speculation rife about what was discussed during their 15-minute interaction last week.

The BJP high command has, of late, been trying to engage with and mollify the Lingayat leader who vacated the CM’s chair for party colleague Basavaraj Bommai, a fellow Lingayat, in July 2021. Had the experiment worked, the BJP would not have found itself trying to salvage the situation by wooing Yediyurappa again.

On Saturday, Bommai and other senior BJP leaders kicked off the statewide ‘Vijay Sankalp Yatra’ from two Lingayat Mutts — Jnana Yogashrama and Siddaganga — in the poll-bound state.

At the launch of the yatra, BJP national general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh — seen as a Yediyurappa detractor — asserted there is no “numero uno” (number one) in any political party.

Bommai, on the other hand, said the BJP will contest the Karnataka election under a “collective leadership”. 

“In the coming days, senior leaders in our party will give us many more programmes,” he said, indicating his continued reliance on the central government to mitigate the lack of state schemes and to retain power in the only BJP-ruled state in southern India. 

For the average voter in Karnataka, it will be hard to recall any impactful schemes initiated by Bommai whose significant amount of time in office was spent in containing growing anger among prominent caste groups, controlling infighting within the party, dodging blame in the face of crumbling infrastructure, besides struggling to manage voter expectations.

BJP leaders and workers, as well as those in the Opposition, believe the Bommai-led administration is apprehensive about facing voters and lacks the confidence to secure a favourable result for the party.

Short of placating Lingayats and Vokkaligas, Bommai’s latest gambit to woo the two dominant communities by recategorising and increasing the OBC (Other Backward Castes) reservation quota has upset other caste groups. All of these factors seen together are likely to have a bearing on the BJP’s electoral prospects in the assembly election.

Bengaluru-based political analyst A. Narayana told ThePrint, “He (Bommai) was really not allowed to make a beginning itself because the moment he was elevated, Hindutva forces usurped Karnataka which was slightly more difficult when Yediyurappa was in power.”

“The situation was such that unless he played into their (Hindutva forces’) hands, he might not be allowed to continue.”

Bommai has been targeted by the Opposition for justifying moral policing, taking a stance on the ban on entry of Muslim traders into Hindu temple fairs, the Hijab and Halal controversies, and the anti-conversion law.

“He (Bommai) has created a situation which keeps the state and its population on the edge by criminalising everyday activities of minorities. His only goal is to please the extreme Right-wing and retain his position,” said Phani Rajanna, an Udupi-based political analyst and academic.

Also Read: Education, justice, poll tickets — what are Karnataka’s mutts & how they became power centres

‘Bommai doesn’t look like he is in control’

Ever since he took office, Bommai has been wading from one crisis to another, and has struggled to carve a niche for himself, albeit unsuccessfully, according to multiple leaders who spoke to The Print.

The Karnataka CM has also been unable to convince the BJP’s central leadership to permit a Cabinet expansion that would help pacify disgruntled voices within the government. “It is very unlikely that the Cabinet will be expanded as this will add to further tensions if people are dropped, overlooked or not accommodated,” said a three-term BJP MLA.

On the other hand, political analysts say Karnataka requires ‘local coalition builders’ to build alliances with the Opposition as no party has managed to retain power in the assembly since 1983.

“He (Bommai) just doesn’t look as if he is in control. In the centralised system that the BJP has, you have to have someone who pretends to be strong yet is acceptable to the high command,” said a Karnataka-based political analyst who did not wish to be named. “The moment somebody gets laughed at, he is in serious trouble,” he added.

Bommai’s poll outings have not been convincing either. It was during his tenure that the BJP suffered losses in the MLC elections and bypolls, including the loss of Hangal seat in his home district of Haveri.

Spearheading the Panchamasali agitation for more reservation, Kudalasangama mutt seer Jaya Mruthyunjaya said in a letter to PM Modi last week that the community had “lost trust” in Bommai as the chief minister. The BJP’s inability to assuage the anger of a group whose support is critical to its electoral prospects has added to its growing list of problems.

In August last year, the BJP brought Yediyurappa back into the party’s apex decision-making body (parliamentary board) to offset the damage replacing him caused in terms of the party’s dedicated Lingayat vote.

On the local level, uncertainty looms large over the efficiency of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the most important civic body in Karnataka, which has been without an elected council since September 2020. The city’s crumbling infrastructure exposed by floods last October, clogged roads and decline in overall quality of life could work against the BJP in Bengaluru.

A former BJP corporator said leaders in the state have “no intention” of conducting the polls. “Irrespective of parties, neither this government nor MLAs want (BBMP) elections, at least till the assembly polls are done with,” said the former BJP corporator, who is now a Karnataka BJP office bearer.

Elections to the zilla and taluka panchayats, too, have been delayed even as several districts currently have no local administration in place.

In October, as contractors’ graft allegations against the government made headlines, Bommai’s office was accused of trying to gain favour with the press by allegedly distributing Diwali sweet boxes with cash inside to some journalists.

The following month, the Congress party launched a campaign directly targeting Bommai on corruption as it plastered posters of ‘PayCM’ all over Bengaluru.

As recently as last week, the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association alleged that elected representatives and ministers were demanding ‘commission’ for awarding contracts and clearing bills of public works. The Association has also released an audio clip which it claimed was of Tumkur BJP MLA G.H. Thippareddy demanding a bribe to clear bills of various works and to sanction new projects.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Karnataka Congress’s women leaders are ‘invisible’. 0 MLCs, 6 MLAs & none in key party posts


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