Bommai resists tag of ‘puppet’ CM, sparks insecurity in state BJP

Just five months in the saddle, the new Karnataka Chief Minister, who walked in replacing the all-powerful BS Yediyurappa, is feeling the pinch

Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai budgeted bonanza for caste groups in his maiden budget

The penny has finally dropped.

Widespread speculation over the length of Basavaraj Bommai’s tenure as Karnataka Chief Minister has now been answered with senior colleague K S Eshwarappa’s statement of a change at the helm sometime in the future.

Though Eshwarappa set the cat among the pigeons in a restive BJP, he said Bommai would continue for now. But the import is clear.

If the party returns to power in the 2023 Assembly elections, chances are that someone will replace Bommai, and it could be fellow Lingayat leader Murugesh Nirani, going by Eshwarappa’s statement.

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Nirani, incidentally, was a frontrunner to the chief minister’s position when various names were discussed at the time former chief minister BS Yediyurappa was to step down earlier this year.

For Bommai, Eshwarappa’s statement is the latest in a series of events that appears to have taken the sheen off his government.

Coming in quite unexpectedly as a replacement to Yediyurappa, Bommai was viewed as a non-controversial and clean candidate for the top job.

The fact that he was not from the Sangh Parivar stable, having shifted from the Janata Dal (United) during Yediyurappa’s first tenure as chief minister in 2008, proved convenient for the BJP top leadership which was desperate to stem the incessant infighting within the party’s state unit.

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The BJP leadership calculated that Bommai, being an outlier within the party, would steer clear off the internal politics that had roiled the state unit since Yediyurappa came to power after engineering defections in the then ruling Congress-JD (Secular) coalition government in July 2019.

Bommai did not have an independent power base within the party and that would disable him from creating trouble if and when he was replaced.

The fact that Bommai belonged to the dominant largely pro-BJP Lingayat community and was a protégé of Yediyurappa helped prevent any possible revolt by the former chief minister.

In short, the nomination of Bommai was almost a master-stroke by the central leadership desperate to salvage the party’s battered image and its electoral chances in the next round of voting for the Assembly in 2023.

For a while, the central BJP’s calculation seemed to be working. But over the last few weeks, Bommai has faced a series of setbacks both politically and in his attempts to run a clean government.

The party’s loss in the recent Hanagal Assembly by-election in October was seen as a personal defeat for Bommai as he has was invested with the constituency which falls in his home district Haveri.

A scam involving among other things the cryptocurrency and irrigation projects were linked to the BJP and placed Bommai in a sticky situation.

He was unable to convincingly respond to opposition allegations that his government delayed the investigation into the scams as some BJP leaders were linked to it.

Having taken over the portfolio as minister for Bangalore, Bommai has also stalled two projects that were cleared by his predecessor. According to local reports, Bommai was not particularly happy with the way the projects were progressing and implementation.

One project was to do with setting up a cultural hub on land on which now sits the defunct state-owned Mysore Lamps and the other is again to do with converting into a public space land on which stood another defunct state-owned enterprise NGEF (New Government Electrical Factory). Interestingly, both parcels of land run into several acres – worth hundreds of crores of rupees in real estate value within the city.

After a heady start since July 28 when Bommai was sworn in chief minister, he went about his job with gusto trying to erase as quickly as possible the image of the BJP as a party that had no time for anything other than infighting.

At a recent meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the chief minister who brought up the issue of the bitcoin scam was apparently told to focus on a clean administration and not get distracted by such issues.

However, Bommai has been increasingly finding it hard to keep his focus as in the last month or so one controversy over another has kept tumbling out much to his consternation.

The latest is Eshwarappa’s statement about Nirani being a possible replacement for Bommai.

Clearly, the attempts to whitewash the party’s image has again floundered and the senior-most minister has once again opened up fault lines within the state unit.

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Speculation has it that the defeat of the BJP in the Hanagal by-election may have been engineered by a section within the party that did not want Bommai to score more brownie points and entrench himself in his position as chief minister.

Senior BJP politician and union minister Amit Shah during a visit to Karnataka in early September had said Bommai would be the face of the party for the 2023 election. That appears to have again triggered a fresh bout of insecurity among senior aspirants within the state unit. Eshwarappa’s statement makes sense seen in this context.

It fits neatly into the narrative of an unwritten understanding that possibly existed to the effect that Bommai was named only to keep the chief minister’s chair warm and enable a smooth transition at a later stage to a hardcore Sangh Parivar chief minister.

Amit Shah, by hoisting Bommai’s name, may have inadvertently upended this impression.

Meanwhile, Bommai in his nouveau-BJP avatar, has attempted to prove that he can match any hardcore activist of the Sangh Parivar.

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He recently defended moral policing and vigilantism by Hindutva activists, triggering widespread outrage within the state. Reacting to incidents of moral policing, Bommai was quoted as saying, “There are several sentiments in society. Those emotions should not be affected. When such emotions are hurt there is likely to be an action and reaction.”

Bommai was playing to the Sangh gallery, but civil rights activists and sections of the mainstream media were not amused.

But that has not deterred the chief minister from executing his plans. His government is now reportedly contemplating a stringent anti-conversion law on the lines of some BJP-ruled states.

Christian congregations in parts of Karnataka have been under attack. The latest was one last week in Belagavi where, instead of giving protection, the police advised pastors not to have prayer meetings, according to local reports.

Worse, cases have been registered against certain pastors on grounds of forced conversions, the reports said.

Some weeks ago, the local administration near Mysore demolished a temple that was purportedly built on illegally acquired land, as per a Supreme Court directive. But, following a backlash from some sections of Hindus, the Bommai government ordered a stop to all such demolitions. It is now contemplating regularising such structures.

The chief minister realises that if he needs to continue in power beyond what was originally delineated for him, he must not only be committed to Hindutva but also appear to be so.

For Bommai, who came to occupy the chief minister’s chair as a moderate and more socialist than conservative, if the metamorphosis does happen, it will be in line with other states, including Assam, where erstwhile outliers to the Hindutva ideology (like Chief Minister Himanta Biswas Sharma) now appear more stringent than the original practitioners.

But the moot question is whether all this will ensure the longevity of Bommai in power.

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