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Why BJP top leadership is taking over in poll-bound Karnataka with Bommai govt in back seat

PM Modi and senior BJP leaders are making a beeline for state, inaugurating projects, giving speeches & attending events while Bommai-led govt wades from one challenge to another.

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Bengaluru: In the past four weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited poll-bound Karnataka three times in what appears to be part of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strategy to emphasise the Union government’s performance over that of the beleaguered Basavaraj Bommai-led state government.

With the Karnataka government wading from one challenge to another — including allegations of corruption, communal politics, lack of development or welfare schemes, and bitter infighting — most events attended by the PM so far have been as much about political messaging as development projects.

On 12 January, Modi was in the state to kick off the National Youth Festival in Huballi, and on 19 January, he distributed hakku-patra or title deeds to the Lambani community. On Monday, he inaugurated India Energy Week 2023 in Bengaluru and the HAL helicopter facility in Tumakuru, and laid foundation stones for the Jal Jeevan Mission and other infrastructure projects worth Rs 2,750 crore.

He is scheduled to visit Karnataka two more times this month, to kick off the Aero India air show and inaugurate the Shivamogga airport.

While inaugurating the HAL facility Monday, Modi dug into the Congress — without naming the party — over allegations of corruption levelled against his government in the procurement of Rafale fighter aircrafts.

“Many working hours of Parliament were wasted over it. HAL’s helicopter factory and its rising power will unveil those who levelled false allegations,” he said, adding, “this factory is the answer to the opposition’s charges. The truth is revealing itself today”.

The PM’s speeches set the tone for state BJP leaders to then carry on the attacks against the opposition.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP national president J.P. Nadda and other senior leaders of the party are also expected to increase their visits to the poll-bound state, people aware of the developments told The Print.

However, P.C. Mohan, the BJP MP for Bangalore Central, told ThePrint, “It is a double-engine government and there will be focus on both (state and Union)… The Prime Minister has spoken more about the Centre and the chief minister will talk about the state’s (achievements).”

“The BJP’s gateway to the south is Karnataka. Anywhere else (in the south), they haven’t been able to do much. But in spite of having a total majority (in Karnataka) at least for the past two years, they haven’t been able to do anything substantial to claim that this is how different we are from the rest (other parties),” Vishwas Shetty, a Bengaluru-based political analyst, said.

Karnataka is the only state in southern India that has a BJP government, while the party has little or no elected representation in other states in the region.

Prior to the 2018 state election, the BJP had announced Lingayat strongman B.S. Yediyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate almost a year in advance, and subsequent efforts by the central leadership to win the polls, such as Modi’s frequent visits, only supplemented the state unit’s campaign.

This time, however, the central leadership appears to have taken over all aspects of the campaign, with Bommai himself saying that the BJP would contest the election under “collective leadership”.

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

Going beyond support base

The 2018 Karnataka polls had led to a hung assembly, with the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition subsequently coming to power with H.D. Kumaraswamy as chief minister.

But 14 months later, the government collapsed after 17 Congress and JD(S) MLAs resigned following differences with the CM. The Congress went on to accuse the BJP of “horse-trading”. The ensuing by-elections brought the BJP to power.

This time, keen to secure a majority on its own, the BJP has been reaching out to communities beyond its traditional support base.

On 19 January, Modi was invited to distribute title deeds to over 50,000 members of the Lambani (Banjara) community, which forms a significant chunk of voters in several northern districts of Karnataka. During his visit, he also inaugurated projects worth Rs 10,800 crore.

The Banjara community largely lives in thandas — clustered human settlements much smaller than a village — which have now been given revenue village status by the state government.

“Now the depressing atmosphere is changing. I want to assure the Banjara mothers that their son (Modi) is sitting in Delhi,” the PM told the gathering at the event.

In October last year, the Bommai government also increased reservation for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the state by 2 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively. The Lambanis are classified as SC.

According to BJP leaders, the party is hoping to bring in votes from marginalised communities who have been seen to support the Congress in previous elections.

Going by the 2011 Census, the SC and ST communities account for around 23 per cent of the Karnataka population.

Modi has also been part of the party’s outreach to the Vokkaliga community, which is dominant in the state’s southern districts. The Vokkaligas have been consolidating behind the JD(S) at least since 2018 and the BJP is trying to win over the community.

In November last year, the PM inaugurated a 108-foot statue of Kempegowda, a chieftain under the Vijayanagara empire who is believed to be the founder of modern-day Bengaluru.

Shah, too, has visited Karnataka multiple times and was on one occasion seen seeking the blessings of Nirmalanandanatha Mahaswamiji of Adichunchanagiri Matha, the spiritual centre of the Vokkaliga community.

The southern districts are likely to see a three-way battle as the BJP will have to fight both the Congress and the JD(S), which command significant influence in the region.

Mixed messaging 

Minority communities — including Muslims, who make up nearly 13 per cent of Karnataka’s population — are another section of voters the BJP is trying to come to terms with, with Bommai seen to have taken a turn to the hard Right in contrast to his predecessor Yediyurappa’s more moderate image.

The Bommai government has sided with calls to ban Muslims from doing business near temples, been embroiled in the hijab row, and faced allegations of encouraging moral policing as well as acknowledging only the killings of Hindus, especially in the communally-sensitive districts of coastal Karnataka.

Last month, Yediyurappa had a 15-minute-meeting with Modi on the sidelines of the BJP national executive meet. He later told the media that Modi had asked for the minorities to be taken into confidence ahead of the state election.

The central party’s messaging, however, appears to be mixed. In a public address in Bengaluru on 1 January, Shah asked whether the people want to be with those who built the “Ram temple” or those who “glorify Tipu Sultan”.

“On the one hand, there is Prime Minister Modi, who has developed Ayodhya, Kashi, Kedarnath and Badrinath. On the other hand, there are people who glorify Tipu. The people of the state have to choose between the two,” he said.

Three BJP leaders from Karnataka who ThePrint contacted refused to comment on this apparent mixed messaging to minorities.

‘BJP in Karnataka not operating as a team’

Karnataka’s electorate is known to vote for different power centres at the state and Centre. The state’s volatile political history also shows that no party has retained power for consecutive terms since the early 1980s.

Analysts say Modi can help bolster the BJP’s chances of winning elections but the strategy need not work every time.

“You cannot keep winning with Narendra Modi at the front every time. They have won before but this won’t happen all the time unless they (state unit) have some results to show,” Shetty said.

He also referred to the infighting in the Karnataka BJP, saying it was holding the party back.

Shetty claimed that those who are new to the party enjoy better benefits than veterans, who have been overlooked. The new entrants are all about their individual interests and the BJP in Karnataka is not operating as a team, he alleged.

“Many of them who have been made ministers are expats (from other parties), so to speak. So, these people do not espouse the ideology that the BJP stands for and this has led to chaos (within the party),” he added.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: BJP vowed ‘justice for Hindutva worker murders’ in Karnataka. 3 yrs on, here’s where cases stand

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