Challenges are manifold

BJP in Karnataka

Ultra right-wing leaders who talk of rewriting the Constitution and shooting progressive intellectuals in public must be ostracised and moderate voices within the party encouraged.

The performance of the BJP in the recent assembly elections in Karnataka, coming close to power, and the way it was finally made to sit in the opposition, provides an opportunity to analyse the role of the party in the state’s politics. The party was a non-entity in the electoral politics of the state till 1983, though as Jana Sangh it had won four seats in the 1967 assembly elections.

The BJP’s electoral debut coincided with Yeddyurappa becoming a member of the Karnataka legislative assembly in 1983, with the party winning 18 seats in that election. However, the party won only two seats in the 1985 election when Ramakrishna Hegde sought a fresh mandate, following the Janata Party’s dismal performance in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. The party’s position improved to four in 1989 and dropped to one in 1994.

But a decade later, the BJP had won 79 seats, more than a third of the 224-seat assembly, in the 2004 election.

Four years later, it came to power on its own, riding on a wave as it campaigned about HD Kumaraswamy’s betrayal of Yeddyurappa in the previous coalition arrangement.

Yeddyurappa, as chief minister, presented the first ever ‘agriculture budget’ and waived off the loans of farmers. However, he had to step down on corruption charges. He was replaced by DV Sadananda Gowda, who enjoyed a clean image and during whose time certain people-friendly governance reforms like ‘Sakala’ were introduced. But he, too, was replaced a year later by Jagadish Shettar, thanks to factional feuds in the party. In the 2013 election, the party fared badly, winning only 40 seats in the assembly. In the present assembly, the party has 104 members. Such has been the BJP’s electoral journey in the state.

An analysis of the BJP in state politics shows that it is largely perceived as a party with Lingayats as its main support base. Though Yeddyurappa has over the years built the party with his mass base and organisational capabilities, the role of Rama Bhat who helped the party win 18 seats in 1983, and in later years VS Acharya and Sadananda Gowda in the coastal region, BB Shivappa and KS Eshwarappa in Hassan and Shimoga districts, respectively, and Jagadish Shettar in North Karnataka, and HN Ananth Kumar and R Ashok in urban Bengaluru cannot be ignored.

Recently, there were rumours that Yeddyurappa would be replaced by another leader as state president of the party. But the BJP ‘High Command’ seems to have decided to retain him till the Lok Sabha elections are over. In the longer term, however, given Yeddyurappa’s age, the party will have to look for an equally mass-based leader with organisational skills and a pan-Karnataka image to head the state unit.

While the BJP needs to expand its electoral base in the southern region of the state, from a larger perspective, it has to accord priority to broadening its social base, too.

In the 2018 assembly election, the party won 16 seats in the SC category, largely those of the ‘left’ group from among SCs, who were dissatisfied with the Siddaramaiah government’s failure to implement the Sadashiva Commission recommendations, and nine seats from the ST group and 16 from the OBC category.

While this seems to be good performance, expanding the party’s outreach to the SC, ST and OBC categories would help it refurbish its image, which is largely of being a Lingayat-Brahmin-trader party. Influential SC, ST and OBC leaders will have to be given key decision-making positions in the party. It would also do good for the party to draw up plans for improving the living conditions of the disadvantaged sections of society. Likewise, it should truly reach out to the minorities if its secular credentials are to be believed.

The hard reality is that the party gave no tickets to Muslims in the recent election though it was the beneficiary of votes from some sections of Muslims. Strengthening the women’s wing and involving women in electoral politics in a substantial way also merits serious attention. The party has only three women MLAs in the present assembly.

The dilemma before the BJP at the national level, which is true at the state level, too, seems to be, how to reconcile its commitment to the core Hindutva ideology and associated vote bank with the compulsions of realpolitik.

It is imperative that the party commits itself unequivocally to the values of secularism and pluralism, which are the bedrock of Indian polity.

Ultra right-wing leaders who talk of rewriting the Constitution and shooting progressive intellectuals in public must be ostracised and moderate voices within the party encouraged. That is the only way the party can make itself acceptable to the larger Indian populace.

At the state level, the party would do well to function as a credible opposition, instead of constantly going into the past, as its leaders did during the recent budget session. Confronting the government by projecting policy alternatives from time to time is the best course of action to follow.

As regards the upcoming Lok Sabha election, though the top leadership of the party has not supported separate statehood for North Karnataka region, it has indirectly encouraged lower level local leaders to support such demands. The party may, however, exploit the wider issue of north-south divide for electoral advantage. The challenges are manifold and whether the party’s senior leaders can rise above their factionalism to tackle them will determine its future in Karnataka.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, ICSSR)

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