Clad in white dhoti and shirt with kumkum on his forehead, the quintessential image of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national general secretary B L Santhosh is that of a saint in the minds of his friends and fellow Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members.
“He’s a saint, except that he doesn’t wear full saffron cloth. He has no samsara (family), he’s a poornavadi karyakarta (full time volunteer), and he’s a guiding force for others,” says Ravi Subramanya, three-time MLA from Basavanagudi Assembly segment and RSS member.
Subramanya knew Santhosh much before he entered active politics. For him and his friends, Santhosh is a leader who recognised ‘talent’ among his fellow karyakartas (party workers) and pushed them to perform better. One such pick is Subramanya’s nephew Tejasvi Surya, the member of parliament from Bengaluru South.
Known for his organising skills, adept decision making and innovative ideas, Santhosh rose through the ranks from being an RSS worker to BJP national general secretary in the past three decades.
Santhosh, who is from Hiriadka, a small town in Karnataka’s coastal district of Udupi, is seen among BJP supporters as a possible successor to Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa.
Of late, many ministers and MLAs have been making pro-Santhosh statements indicating the rise of his stature in the political affairs of the state.
In his early 50s, Santhosh has age on his side unlike Yediyurappa who turned 77, two years more than BJP’s purported upper limit for ministerial posts.
As a full-time RSS pracharak (promoter), he was first posted in Mysuru for about two years, followed by a transfer to Shivamogga in 1997-1998, and then to Bangalore for another two to three years in the early 2000s.
“He had the commitment, conviction, capacity and continuity to serve as a long-timer. Once he moved to Bangalore his exposure, the dimension and the problems increased and he handled it well,” says RSS member Pattabhiram from Shivamogga.
Santhosh and Pattabhiram worked together in building the organisation. After his short stint at Bangalore, Santhosh was sent back to Shivamogga coinciding with the rise of Yediyurappa around that period.
Pattabhiram says Santhosh used to collect information for the BJP about the ground reality besides focussing on routine RSS work.
“That talent was recognised by the BJP back then and hence they wanted him to take the lead in building the party in Karnataka,” he says.
Until 2008, he stayed away from active politics. However, after that period his growth paralleled the rise of BJP at the state and national level. He replaced Ram Lal who served as BJP’s national general secretary for 13 years and is now seen as a key strategist to push the party’s prospects in South. In political circles some people today believe Santhosh wields more power than CM Yediyurappa.
Former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has asserted that a ‘Remote Control Government’ was in place in Karnataka, making it clear that BL Santhosh calls the shots in the state with the blessing of the central leadership.
Even as a section of the party is reportedly trying to dethrone Yediyurappa, his Lingayat caste in North Karnataka outweighs his tainted image and alleged nepotism.
Having spent much time in Shivamogga, Yediyurappa’s home turf, Santhosh always disliked the way the chief minister functioned, says a party worker in the district. But his focus remained on building the party.
“Being in RSS, we never send any volunteer to become an MLA, MLC, MP or even aspire for Chief Minister’s post. They only engage in building the organisation,” said Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, a staunch RSS leader in the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada.
“But when the party (BJP) asks for support, we let them get involved in active politics and then it takes a different route,” he adds.
BJP built its base from Dakshina Kannada in Karnataka and spread across the state. But they haven’t been able to make a dent in the rest of South India. The high commands think a “clean” man could pave the way.
Today, Santhosh is the link between the party and its ideological partner RSS. It’s just a matter of time as to when Yediyurappa will be replaced by Santhosh, if the RSS lets him.
A hardline Hindutva proponent, Santhosh is credited with grooming party members like Tejasvi Surya, the journalist-turned Mysuru MP Pratap Simha, and Yuva Brigade founder Chakravarthi Sulibele, among others.
Besides promoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on every platform, Santosh has consistently targeted dissent, and refers to opponents as “urban naxals” and “anti-nationals”.
Even on social media, he targeted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who described the recent Delhi riots as anti-Muslim mob violence. Santosh said his action “compelled” them (BJP) to “play a role in the upcoming US elections”.
Santhosh’s strained relationship with Yediyurappa is also a challenge to the chief minister’s continuance in office.
In January 2018, ahead of the state elections, Yediyurappa raised a banner of revolt against Santhosh complaining to the state and national leaders that he should be kept out of state politics.
Santhosh was also accused of engineering rebellion against Yediyurappa via senior politicians like K S Eshwarappa.
In September 2018, their differences came to the fore when Santosh took to Facebook posting a message quoting ancient philosopher Chanakya that those who do not have team spirit and not share the credit for victory can never win. He was referring to the Yediyurappa camp’s failure to win the mayoral seat in Bangalore.
Ahead of the 2018 assembly elections, Yediyurappa’s aide, now Udupi-Chickmagalur MP Shobha Karandlaje did not make it to the core committee list and this is attributed to Santosh’s machinations.
Also, instead of a 22-member list sent by Yediyurappa, a 12-member team was selected for the core-committee which included people like Nalin Kumar Kateel, Prahlad Joshi, Sadananda Gowda, Aravind Limbavali among others, all with a RSS background. All are in key posts today, both at the state and national level.
For the recent Rajya Sabha elections, it was Santhosh’s nominees that made it to the list. Yediyurappa’s nominations were left high and dry.
But given that Yediyurappa quit the BJP to form his own party in 2013, in a show of revolt against the high command, the party satraps in Delhi are cautious about replacing him. But at the same time they are carefully working on an alternative leadership in North Karnataka.
Given that Karnataka hasn’t had too many Brahmin chief ministers, except for Gundu Rao and Ramakrishna Hegde, Santhosh’s journey to the top may be marred by political difficulties.
However, Pattabhiram says Santhosh is in no way competing with Yediyurappa, and and that he cannot become the CM in the present circumstances.
“All this is media creation. As a pracharak he cannot become an MLA, MP, or a chief minister as he’s there to build the party and not aspire for the state’s throne. Until RSS endorses such a decision, BJP will not project him as an alternative. If he chooses to and RSS lets him become a full-time politician, he will no more be a pracharak, much like Modi,” Pattabhiram says.