Karnataka polls: BJP at the receiving end, stung by exodus and infighting

Karnataka polls: BJP at the receiving end, stung by exodus and infighting

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing an uncharacteristic exodus in Karnataka. In just the month of March, the party lost two sitting MLCs and an MLA, four former ministers and legislators to Congress. There has been talk of as many as four sitting ministers and several party heavyweights following suit.

As the election approaches, politicians are switching between parties, with most heading towards the Congress. The Janata Dal (S) has also lost two sitting MLAs and a prominent party leader to the Congress with another popular MLA all set to switch. A prominent JD(S) leader has joined BJP as well.

But for the BJP, the desertion is looking like a stampede. For once, the resourceful party with a tight leash on power, which has built a nationwide reputation for engineering defections, is at the receiving end.

Also read: Karnataka polls: Will Yediyurappa’s son Vijayendra take on Siddaramaiah in Varuna?

Anxious BJP leaders

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai recently complained that the state Congress president DK Shiva Kumar had been calling up BJP MLAs and asking them to join his party. The response these phone calls seem to be getting would be making him anxious.

Besides the loss of potential candidates, the perception that these politicians are abandoning a sinking ship is damaging. The party swallowed pride and pressed the estranged leader BS Yeddyurappa to stem the flow. Amit Shah, who has no time to meet serving chief ministers, is meeting possible deserters and getting them to reconsider.

After a counselling session in New Delhi, a minister aborted the exit plan and stayed back. Another is still deciding and sulking. The Congress is yet to announce candidates for K R Puram and Yeshwantpur constituencies in Bengaluru where it expects two powerful ministers to defect.

Rift within the party

This is just half of the BJP’s headache. The party is also hit by crippling infighting, which is showing no signs of abating. In the crucial Kittur-Karnataka region, it is BJP vs BJP, a free-for-all fight between former minister Ramesh Jarkiholi and other key party leaders.

Jarkiholi wants BJP to give a ticket to a confidant from Athani constituency, which former Deputy Chief Minister Laxman Savadi is also eyeing. He is threatening to drop out of the contest if his demand is not met.

He had earlier openly helped his brother Lakhan, who had contested as an independent, defeat an official BJP candidate at a legislative council election.

Jarkiholi comes from a highly politically influential family and had led the defectors from the Congress, a move which brought the BJP to power in 2019.

Minister vs minister

Two prominent Lingayat leaders, Somanna and Yediyurappa, are still at odds with each other. The strife between them almost made Somanna, a serving minister, join the Congress till Amit Shah met him and made him stay back. Somanna’s son has publicly accused Yediyurappa’s son of being arrogant and rude to him.

Somanna, a powerful politician from Bangalore, is also at loggerheads with another city heavyweight, R Ashok. They argued during an election roadshow over the destination of the procession, prompting Ashok to get off the vehicle and abandon the roadshow mid-way. A furious Somanna also left the roadshow as the baffled party workers looked on.

There is a long-running public feud between another minister, Murugesh Nirani, and party MLA, Basangouda Patil Yatnal. They dealt with each other in rather ‘strong’ terms and the party watched on from the sidelines for months.

Also read: Namaskar politics: Reading into Modi’s ‘special’ treatment of Yediyurappa in Shivamogga

How did the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, known for their strong command and control, land in such a sorry mess in Karnataka? In contrast, the Congress, divided into two powerful factions, is looking like a unified camp.

The political crisis in BJP has been brewing for long though its corrosive fallout is becoming clear as the elections approach.

Party in trouble?

Shivarudraiah Swamy, a political analyst, says: “Opportunistic politicians are abandoning BJP, sensing it may not return to power. The party is in trouble.”

The BJP is facing severe anti-incumbency resulting from corruption scandals and poor governance. The uncertainty over Yediyurappa’s role and the fallout of the party’s reservation gamble has added to its anxiety.

The BJP has proposed to hike SC-ST quota from 15 per cent to 17 per cent, and evenly divide the 4 per cent Muslim quota between Lingayats and Vokkaligas. It has further sought to split the SC quota internally between different Dalit groups.

“The internal reservation will cost the BJP votes. The Banjaras and Bhovis will vote against it,” says Swamy.

Neck-and-neck race

Speaking off the record, many BJP leaders admit to poor governance and corruption. But, they say, despite anti-incumbency, the race remains neck-and-neck. They point at four recent opinion polls of which two predicted a hung assembly and two were split over the winning chances of the Congress and the BJP.

They say the BJP was forced to give tickets to those who had not come up through the Sangh Parivar ranks, to win elections. “The outsiders do not have ideological commitment and chase only power. But their defection is unlikely to have any effect outside a few constituencies,” said a former MLC, who is a ticket aspirant for the coming elections.

Leadership vacuum

The power struggle between Yediyurappa and Sangh Parivar has resulted in a vacuum at the top. When Yediyurappa was at the helm, he had the stature and authority to curb defection and infighting. After his removal, there is no one in BJP of his stature to manage the crisis.

RSS leaders like B L Santosh and Mukund exercise enormous clout in party affairs. But so far they have confined themselves to backstage manoeuvres and seem to be reluctant to take these challenges head-on.

Chief minister Bommai, Yediyurappa’s chosen successor, has failed to step into his mentor’s shoes. He is seen as a weak CM, who shifted loyalty to RSS and did its bidding without questioning. He has failed to gain authority that could have turned him into a successful crisis manager.

Powerful leaders of the Kittur-Karnataka region, such as Laxman Savadi, Iranna Karadi and Shashikala Jolle, a serving minister, recently boycotted a function Bommai attended at Gokak, Jarkiholi’s constituency.

Also read: Karnataka: Protestors seeking reservation pelt stones at Yediyurappa’s house

Bommai’s plight

A source close to Bommai says he never had the political authority to start with because he was an accidental Chief Minister,

“The party also never projected him for fear of creating another powerful Lingayat leader. Modi sits next to him at public functions, but does not even mention his name on many occasions,“ he says.

He has been under immense pressure from Yediyurappa and RSS and also from ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ within the party, all firing from different directions. “Bommai’s focus has been mostly to balance all interests and prevent the government from collapsing. This led to administrative lapses,” he adds.

A spokesperson of a prominent Lingayat organisation said the RSS wanted a chief minister without a backbone. “Bommai played that role. He could have asserted himself but chose not to,” he says.

Self-inflicted woes

Many of the BJP’s problems are self-inflicted. There is a widespread belief that to cut down Yediyurappa to size, a section of leadership encouraged Yatnal to attack him and his son’s alleged corruption. Though Yediyurappa was a serving CM and a powerful satrap, the high command protected Yatnal from any action and made him eat the humble pie.

Yatnal later joined the Panchamasali reservation agitation and turned acrimoniously against his own party, especially minister Nirani, who was seen as opposing the demand. Panchamasalis, the largest Lingayat group, agitating against the community’s favourite party, broke down BJP’s aura of invincibility.

There is again a widespread perception that the Panchamasali agitation was instigated by a section of Sangh Parivar to build parallel leadership to Yediyurappa. Yatnal continued with his tirade till he was called to Delhi and silenced.

Also read: Karnataka polls: After mulling options, Siddaramaiah settles for ‘safe’ Varuna

The former MLC conceded that the exodus and infighting had weakened the party organisation. “But the worst is behind the party. In the coming days, you will see us putting up a good fight to win the elections,” he said.

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