The recent 75th birthday bash of former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has been a significant boost for his party, the Congress, in the state, helping bridge faction rivalries. For the BJP, though, it has been a cause of anxiety. To such an extent that it has pushed the saffron party’s central leadership to consider a shakeup in the state unit.
The shakeup, which does seem imminent, will probably start with present state unit chief Nalin Kumar Kateel. The BJP wants a leader at the helm who can effectively take on Siddaramaiah and a newly invigorated Congress head on.
It is said that the BJP’s central leadership is worried about the top rung in the state unit, particularly since it is banking on Karnataka to act as a gateway to South India, helping it make electoral gains in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There is concern that rather than help the BJP expand in the South, the Karnataka unit may, in fact, erode its base in the region, thanks to the perceived failure of Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and Kateel.
The Siddaramaiah birthday bash (‘Siddaramotsava’) at Davanagere has added to the worries of the BJP leadership, with its massive success in terms of size as well as messaging. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was on a visit to Karnataka immediately after the event, apparently discussed its possible effects with the state satraps.
Solution to multiple problems
Sources said the increasingly clear message is this — if there’s one person in the party who can match Siddaramaiah stroke for stroke, it is BS Yediyurappa (BSY).
The party was, in fact, not keen on having BSY as its linchpin in the state and, in fact, wished to develop alternatives, said the sources. That is obvious from the way the veteran leader has been kept out of almost every important decision of the party in recent times.
On his part, BSY also mysteriously remained aloof, maybe to leave the central leadership guessing on what he might be up to. His recent statement on keeping away from electoral politics to make way for his second son BY Vijayendra in his home turf, Shikaripura, was seen as his first move to test the mood in the party. It did make the top leadership rather nervous.
And, now, the Siddaramotsava shock and the anger emanating from the party’s youth wing following the murder of leader Praveen in Mangaluru have further emphasised the importance of BSY. Many see him as the only one capable of helping the party weather these storms and emerge victorious.
A state leader said it would be a good choice to have BSY again as the president of the Karnataka unit. The main problem is that both Bommai and BSY are from the same community — Lingayat. Though the party doesn’t seem to be happy with Bommai’s functioning, the chances of them replacing him ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections depend largely on the alternative.
Who, if not Bommai?
They know that a good Hindutva face can salvage the situation for the party, but the challenge is to find one to fit the bill.
“Vijayendra could have been a very good choice given the fact that he has proved his leadership credentials in the limited opportunities that he got, but the seniors and anti-BSY leaders in the party like Arvind Bellad and Basanagouda Patil Yatnal (who were frontrunners to become CM when BSY was asked to step down) may not allow him to be projected as the top leader,” a source said, hinting at how the party is weighing its options.
The firebrand leaders waiting in the line are the BJP’s national general secretary CT Ravi, Union Minister of State for Agriculture Shobha Karandlaje, Karnataka Power Minister V Sunil Kumar, Yatnal, and former minister Aravind Limbavali. The party needs to challenge the Congress — a formidable rival in the state — electorally, and also manage the cadres efficiently. These leaders could present a viable option.
Sources said Yatnal might help the party as he has maintained a clean image and has also displayed courage to tackle Siddaramaiah-like leaders. His influence in the north Karnataka region, backed by his huge vote bank of Lingayat sub-sect Panchamasali, is spread over 60 Assembly constituencies, and that is a major factor in his favour. But the problem is having a CM candidate yet again from the Lingayat community.
Limbavali, who can influence Dalit votes along with Hindutva followers, is also seen on as a contender. Ravi and Karandlaje are the choices from the Vokkaliga community, and Sunil Kumar is from the Backward Class. If the party wants a formidable Lingayat-Vokkaliga combination, Karandlaje may hold an edge, said sources.
Kateel’s fate sealed
While replacing Bommai as CM may prove tough, the fate of Kateel appears to be sealed — there’s little chance of his continuation in the post for long. He is completing three years at the helm on August 20, and his innocuous tenure has inspired confidence in neither the leadership nor the cadres.
The murder of Hindu activists is a worrying factor for the party and Kateel is seen to have failed to keep the morale of the cadres intact. They were, according to sources, not particularly happy when he took charge as the president of the state BJP, and now they have no reason to change their minds. The recent murder of Praveen Nettaru in Dakshina Kannada district was the final straw. Several statements made by Kateel previously — which went viral after the Praveen murder — have only worsened his case.
The demand for Kateel’s resignation reverberated loudly enough for the high command to send party president JP Nadda over. This was followed by the visit of Amit Shah.
But the challenge for the party is, if Kateel is to be replaced, who should succeed him? All eyes seem to be turning towards the octogenarian BSY. He may not have the energy to handle such a high-pressure role, but the party may look at the energy he might infuse in the rank and file. In case the party decides to take that gamble, Bommai might have no choice but to step back.