New Delhi: Beset with an ‘image problem’, infighting and allegations of corruption, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is staring at an arduous path ahead of the Karnataka election. Instead of showcasing the Bommai-led government’s achievements front and centre, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has decided to play it safe by taking refuge in the shadow of former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa, its ultimate Brahmastra.
The backlash over its caste-based reservation gambit, internal reports hinting at anti-incumbency and difficulty in shedding the ‘corrupt’ label have made the BJP anxious about its re-election prospects in Karnataka.
For Bommai, who is trying to broaden his appeal, an endorsement from Yediyurappa — the tallest leader from the Lingayat community — is a must, besides the favour of Karnataka’s other dominant community, the Vokkaligas.
This is perhaps why the BJP high command is willing to pull out all the stops to keep an unwilling Yediyurappa, 79, in good spirits till the elections slated for later this year, according to a central BJP leader who did not wish to be named.
CM Bommai was asked to take special care to ensure that none of his actions anger Yediyurappa, the leader said, adding that the party also directed Bommai to give the go-ahead to field Yediyurappa’s political heir and Karnataka BJP vice-president B.S. Vijayendra from the veteran Lingayat leader’s seat, Shikaripura, in the upcoming polls.
“Yediyurappa and the CM (Bommai) have very good tuning. Both respect each other, and there is no doubt that Yediyurappa is the tallest leader (in Karnataka),” BJP national general secretary Arun Singh told ThePrint.
“Both Yediyurappa and the CM were at an event, Bommai requested him to inaugurate the project, but Yediyurappa refused and told him that he was the chief minister and the inauguration should be done by the CM only,” Singh, the party’s in charge of Karnataka, added.
After losing Himachal Pradesh to the Congress, BJP’s internal feedback in Karnataka — the only state in southern India where it is in power — has put its national leadership on notice.
“The initial surveys in Karnataka are not at all encouraging, but instead worrying,” a second central BJP leader told ThePrint.
“We have to ensure that Yediyurappa is not dissuaded at any cost. By playing the caste card, we have tried to balance social equations for blunting anti-incumbency. But how effective this will be is difficult to say. There isn’t enough time and a lot of crisis management (to be done). PM Modi will also have to put in greater efforts,” the leader added.
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Yediyurappa not getting a fair bargain?
The BJP’s problem in Karnataka is two-pronged: its bet on Bommai has not paid off and it does not have another mass leader like Yediyurappa.
Yediyurappa’s 15-minute meeting with PM Modi was a highlight of the BJP’s national executive meet held earlier this month in Delhi. During the interaction, the two discussed Vijayendra’s candidature and an invitation for Modi to attend the inauguration of the airport in Shivamogga, the parliamentary constituency of Yediyurappa’s elder son B.Y. Raghavendra, a Karnataka BJP leader said.
Yediyurappa has already expressed wish to inaugurate the airport before his 80th birthday on 27 February.
However, sources in central leadership said the meeting with Modi was more about how to pull the BJP’s wagon out of the muck in Karnataka. Modi also told Yediyurappa that the party expected more support from him in the poll-bound state, they said.
Yediyurappa had made headlines with his absence during Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s three-day visit to the state and PM Modi’s Swami Vivekanand Jayanti event. In December, party leaders had to convince him to share the stage with BJP national president J.P. Nadda, who was in the state to take part in a yatra organised by Karnataka unit.
Sources in the Yediyurappa camp said he was never asked to attend Nadda’s meeting, adding that he was on the stage with Nadda when they launched the party’s poll campaign.
Bommai was made CM owing to his Lingayat roots and his chemistry with Yediyurappa but he lacks the same charisma. On top of that, graft charges, allegations of lack of decisive leadership and infighting have further dented the image of his government.
According to sources in Karnataka BJP, Yediyurappa played a central role in consolidating the state’s 17 per cent Lingayat vote that propelled the party’s rise to power in the state. The BJP believes that Yediyurappa will stick with the party and that the Panchamasalis — a large group among Lingayats — will also be persuaded to vote for it.
Keeping its Lingayat vote together at any cost is primarily why the BJP’s high command has adopted the strategy to keep Yediyurappa close. Nadda’s mutt yatra, along with the party’s nine-day Vijay Sankalp Yatra, was also a part of this strategy to consolidate the party’s core voter base.
It was on the basis of an internal report that the BJP eventually decided to induct Yediyurappa to its apex decision-making body — the parliamentary board — for appeasing the Lingayats. As a show of respect, he was sent to attend the Gujarat BJP legislature party meet in Ahmedabad as a central observer after the party’s sweeping win in Modi’s home state.
“Yediyurappa does not seem too happy with these gestures. Compared to what the BJP is asking of him, he is not getting enough representation. Induction into the parliamentary board is symbolic. A post like national vice-president is meaningless for him. He has no desire for symbolic or national politics. He wants to hand over his legacy as a Lingayat leader over to his brother, that is the real problem,” a third central BJP leader said.
Vokkaliga, JD(S) & Congress
The BJP is also looking to shore up its seat count in old Mysuru and Hyderabad-Karnataka regions that account for 40 assembly seats. These are regions where the Janata Dal (Secular) is the dominant political force.
Of the 64 assembly seats in Old Mysuru, the BJP could win only 13 in 2018.
To cover all of its bases, the BJP made sure to give representation to the Vokkaligas by inducting members from the community at central and state levels, both in the party and in government. Seven Vokkaligas were inducted into the Bommai Cabinet in 2021. In addition, Shobha Karandlaje was made a junior union minister, while C.T. Ravi was made a BJP national general secretary.
Vokkaligas, who make up 14 per cent of Karnataka’s voters, are seen as core voters of JD(S).
During his visit last month, Union Home Minister Amit Shah trained his guns on JD(S) leader and former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy.
“JD(S) leaders seek votes from Lingayats, Kurubas and other groups by citing Modi’s closeness with Deve Gowda. On the contrary, BJP does not get Vokkaliga votes owing to the propaganda against it based on that rapport — a mistake Shah tried to correct by attacking JD(S). With that strategy, he is looking to divide the anti-incumbency vote by making it a triangular contest,” said another central BJP leader.
The BJP, said Singh, is making efforts to “improve its performance in the Mysuru region”.
The state’s decision to “increase reservation for Dalits from 15 to 17 per cent and for tribal groups, from 3 to 7 per cent” has resulted in “an atmosphere of happiness”, he said. “There is no point in the Congress’s campaign against the CM and the government. On the contrary, they (Opposition) are doing their own damage by attacking the chief minister.”
A Karnataka BJP vice-president told ThePrint, “Just as Dalits in UP are leaning towards BJP because Mayawati is weak, we are showing respect to Deve Gowda and attacking Kumaraswamy, and giving representation to Vokkaliga leaders. Many (Vokkaligas) may flock to us in old Mysuru where Congress, JD(S) are main rivals. BJP is trying to make the contest triangular. Our doors are open to Vokkaliga ticket seekers from both the JD(S) and the Congress.”
The outgoing assembly has 100 MLAs from Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities. Of these, 58 are Lingayats and 42 Vokkaligas. These include 38 Lingayat MLAs from the BJP and 23 from the JD(S).
The BJP’s poll strategy is not to allow the division of Lingayat votes, split the Vokkaliga vote, or get the endorsement of Dalits, and go for polarisation in Muslim-majority areas.
Moreover, the BJP is making vigorous efforts to dent the Congress’s traditional Scheduled Caste vote bank as underlined by PM Modi distributing patta (lease) to 52,000 Banjaras who has a notable presence in Hyderabad-Karnataka region.
For the Congress, Leader of Opposition Siddaramaiah’s consistent attacks on the BJP is an indicator of the party’s election strategy.
“Mallikarjun Kharge, who is now Congress president, had begun the process of giving land on lease to the underprivileged in revenue villages in 1990. This was extended by the Congress government but we did not have enough time to hand out the lease. The BJP wants to harvest the crop grown by us,” Siddaramaiah had said last week.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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