On Tuesday when Dakshina Kannada MP Nalin Kumar Kateel officially took charge as the BJP president for Karnataka, several senior party leaders skipped the event. The rumbling discontent among the leaders was evident with the recent allocation of cabinet portfolios and the choice of party president.
Kateel, who rose to the top rank from being an ordinary party worker, comes from a humble family with a strong Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) background. He replaced BS Yediyurappa as the state chief of the saffron party.
He worked as a civil contractor in the district and represents the Bunt community. In the recently-concluded Lok Sabha election, Kateel defeated his Congress opponent Mithun Rai by a margin of over two lakh votes.
For the BJP leader who emerged from the coastal town of Mangaluru, where the party built its roots in the late 2000s, there’s much on the plate to resolve.
The absence of senior leaders at the event to felicitate him is not a matter of concern for Kateel. According to him, ideologies, not individuals, are important in the party which believes in the work of its cadres.
“I am an ordinary party worker. The Sangh workers have raised me and today I have a responsible position to fill. For me, the party’s ideology comes before any individual,” he said.
Kateel is happy with his growth, considering that he hailed from a remote village in Dakshina Kannada district and despite that his work as a RSS pracharak was recognised by the party rather quickly. But his success came with controversial remarks and a strong Hindutva stand that he took in the coastal region.
His tasted his debut victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the success came in the backdrop of the infamous Mangaluru pub incident, during which the saffron brigade resorted to moral policing and attacked churches in the city.
Ever since, the three-time MP from Dakshina Kannada, Kateel, along with MP Ananth Kumar Hegde, have made provocative speeches against the Muslim community.
During his first election in 2009, the issues of cow slaughter, religious conversions and love jihad took prominence. In 2014, the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his promises of bringing development took to the fore. And in the last one, the killing of RSS workers in the state became a talking point for him, besides playing the Hindutva cards.
Kateel once went on to say that he will set the district on fire if the police did not arrest the alleged murderers of BJP workers in Mangaluru. A regional court had issued a non-bailable warrant against the MP for not attending the hearing regarding the case. In another instance, he had openly threatened a police officer, demanding the release of detained BJP workers.
Just days before the Lok Sabha election, the BJP leader along with two others — Pragya Singh Thakur and Ananth Kumar Hegde — were served show cause notices for their controversial remarks in favour of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse.
But the controversial remarks did not thwart his rise in the party ranks. In fact, it now seems that the party promoted them for making such statements.
While he admired RSS ideologue Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat from the coastal region, with the growing unpopularity and differences with the RSS leader BL Santhosh (now BJP’s national general secretary), Kateel sided with the latter. They worked closely in building the party’s roots in the coastal area.
For the BJP, which elevated Santhosh to the post of general secretary recently, the push comes in the back of its core Hindutva agendas. Santhosh recently said that after the abrogation of Article 370, which gave Jammu and Kashmir its special status, now the party’s target will be building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
And to play their cards, the support of the RSS cadre is critical, and the elevation of Kateel is a clear sign of that.
For Kateel, besides the coastal and northern Karnataka where the BJP has already established its presence, the challenge now will be to sow seeds in the Old-Mysuru region, which the party has been finding hard to penetrate until now.