Karnataka BJP 2.0: The party that Modi-Shah built

Karnataka BJP 2.0: The party that Modi-Shah built

The BJP wants to chart its own course by broad-basing its social coalition and by cultivating a band of leaders who are loyal, ideologically committed, and are in sync with the changed electoral profile. REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa

A minority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has replaced a shaky Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government in Karnataka last month but politics continues to be volatile in the state. The government headed by Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa seems to be afflicted by the same kind of internal contradictions which had proved to be the nemesis of the coalition government.  

The contrast in this contradiction too is stark indeed. The coalition was the imagination of the central leaders of the two parties who thrust it down the throats of their unwilling cadres. In the case of the BJP government, the party’s central leadership seems disinterested in holding on to power, preferring mid-term polls, whereas the state leaders as well as the rank and file are quite upbeat about it. The ensuing chaos has marred the early days of the government and the state seems to be entering into yet another phase of political upheavals, if not instability.

Having accepted the state unit’s plan to form the government by engineering defection in the Congress-JD(S) coalition, the BJP high command had no option but to let Yediyurappa become the chief minister, although it meant relaxing its unwritten rule of retiring those aged above 75. However, now the central leadership of the BJP seems to have seized the moment to effect some far-reaching changes in the party organisation as well as the government. 

It is preparing the ground for a new team of younger leaders to eventually take over the reins from the old guard and for weaving together and consolidating a new social base for the party.  

Since 2008, the BJP has benefited from the support of the dominant Lingayat community. Subsequently, it also cultivated the scheduled tribes of central Karnataka. However, the support of these groups was not direct. It was mediated by powerful leaders representing these communities. While the party got the Lingayat support because of Yediyurappa, Bellary strongman Sriramulu was responsible for earning it the ST backing. When the BJP fought the 2013 assembly elections without these two leaders in its fold, it lost much of Lingayat and ST votes and its strength in the Assembly plummeted from 110 to 40. The party regained the support of the two communities only after the return of the two leaders on the eve of 2014 Lok Sabha elections. 

The BJP now seems to have decided to break free from its dependency on these leaders, whose steadfast loyalty to the party has been questionable and commitment to the Hindutva ideology, never firm. The BJP wants to chart its own course by broad-basing its social coalition and by cultivating a band of leaders who are loyal, ideologically committed, and are in sync with the changed electoral profile. 

The surprise choice of C N Ashwath Narayan (Vokkaliga), Laxman Savadi (Lingayat), and Govind Karajol (SC-Left hand) as deputy chief ministers while sidelining old veterans such as K S Eshwarappa, Jagadish Shettar, and R Ashok seems to be part of this strategy. Although leaders of the old guard meticulously built the party over the years, a simple majority in the 224-member Assembly has always eluded it under their stewardship.

Will the BJP’s new strategy help it achieve its Mission-150 in the next Assembly election? The party, no doubt, is much stronger now and it will be able to weather the storm of dissidence that its strategy has given rise to. However, the party’s further consolidation and growth depend on how well it cultivates its image as a provider of good administration. Herein lies the challenge. 

The central leadership’s moves so far have left Yediyurappa’s ego badly bruised. The simmering discontent among the old-timers is palpable. The resultant tension will certainly have ramifications as far as governance goes. More importantly, the new government also has to ensure that the 17 legislators, whom it practically ‘purchased’ from the Congress and the JD(S) to come to power are kept adequately pleased. This means making unavoidable compromises on the principles of sound governance.

The story of the State BJP’s transition will not be complete without noting a crucial sub-text. It is about the recent rise into prominence of two leaders from coastal Karnataka in the party organization – new national general secretary B L Santhosh and new state unit president Nalin Kumar Kateel. Both Santhosh, who is said to be the brain behind the selection of a new team of ministers, and Kateel, known for his communally-provocative speeches, have been groomed in the hardline Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) tradition. The duo has played a big role in converting the coastal region into the so-called laboratory of Hindutva. Would all of this mean communal polarisation which was confined to only coastal Karnataka so far is going to be a statewide electoral strategy?

Legislators who masterminded disgraceful Operation Kamala 2.0 (Ashwath Narayan and Laxman Savadi) have been prioritised over others for plum positions in the Cabinet. Leaders known as unrepentant subscribers to the hardcore Hindutva ideology dominate the party organisation. A heady mix indeed! Irrespective of the stability and the performance of the new government, the state politics seems to be heading for some explosive times before the next elections.

(A Narayana is an associate professor with Azim Premji University. He is a policy researcher and a political commentator)  

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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