An outburst by prominent Lingayat leader Jagadish Shettar, after he dumped the BJP, has led to a hushed debate in the Karnataka BJP over how BL Santosh, a Brahmin, has cut to size other leaders, providing much-needed ammunition for a resurgent Congress ahead of assembly elections.
Expressing disgust over how he was denied ticket in the elections despite four decades of ties with the RSS and BJP, Shettar has blamed Santosh’s vice-like grip over the party for what he sees as an assault on the old guard.
Shettar’s remark has predictably initiated a debate in the BJP about Brahmins taking control of the state unit, whose strength is mainly based on the Lingayat vote bank rather than a Hindutva agenda.
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Although Santosh’s name was always spoken about after BS Yediyurappa stepped down as chief minister and also while picking candidates for state and national elections, the issue has come to the forefront for the first time after Shettar’s aggression.
After joining the Congress, a party he had fought for decades, Shettar lashed out at Santosh for taking control of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the strength of his RSS links.
Shettar, born and brought up in a Sangh family, said loyalty to individuals was being given more respect than loyalty to the BJP and warned that Santosh’s actions would end up destroying the ruling party in the state.
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The 56-year-old Santhosh is not bothered by the attacks on him. He is convinced that the party will benefit in the long run from the steps being taken now to infuse new blood.
Born into a Brahmin family in Udupi, Santosh studied at the BDT Engineering College at Davangere. He became a full-time RSS activist in 1993 and was later seconded to the BJP and appointed the Karnataka State Organization Secretary in 2006.
That was when the BJP began growing in Karnataka. In 2004, it emerged as the single largest group winning 79 seats in the 224-member House. Santosh’s attempts to modernize the party by embracing a new political outlook as well as tactics led to a rift with the now late state party president Ananth Kumar, also a Brahmin.
BJP election management committee chairperson Shobha Karandlaje, who worked closely with Santosh, says that if BJP is ahead of other parties in social media usage, it is due to Santosh’s efforts.
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Although relations with Yeddyurappa were initially cordial, differences grew after the BJP government took power in 2008. Santosh objected to the way the government was run. Many felt that mining barons in Bellary were controlling the party.
Recognising Santosh’s work, in 2019, he was appointed a National General Secretary (Organization), a post seen as the second most important in the BJP hierarchy after party president. Some BJP leaders began to speculate that Santosh wanted to be the chief minister of Karnataka.
Although the Karnataka BJP does not have many key Brahmins in its ranks, Santosh’s leadership and ability to take on long-standing leaders in the state because of his RSS connections give him immense clout.
JD-S leader and former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy earlier stated that the BJP planned to make Pralhad Joshi, a Dharwad MP and Union Minister, as chief minister of Karnataka. He pointed out Joshi’s origin in the Marathi Peshwa clan and said Joshi, a Brahmin, was a blue-eyed boy of the Sangh Parivar.
Now the Shettar incident has built a new narrative in the state. Shettar says he was the one responsible for Joshi’s nomination as BJP’s parliamentary candidate. In turn, Joshi did not back his name for the upcoming election, Shettar alleges.
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Shettar has claimed that both Santosh and Joshi were against his candidature in the coming elections and characterised them as part of the Brahmin lobby in the BJP.
The Congress, eager to take power in Karnataka, is also harping on the BJP-Brahmin theme.
Congress leader MB Patil said HD Kumaraswamy’s recent assertion that the BJP planned to make a Brahmin the Karnataka chief minister was correct. “I have spoken on behalf of the LIngayat community and we are not against the Brahmin community. Not to say that Brahmins are bad. However, if some people do bad things, it is necessary to speak up,” he said.
Shettar, Lakshmana Savadi and other Lingayat leaders have joined the Congress.
In 2019, when BS Yeddyurappa stepped down as chief minister, Pralhad Joshi was named for the post. But BSY backed his close aide Basavaraj Bommai for it.
Whatever Yeddyurappa thinks of Santosh, on record, he has backed him. After getting a ticket for his son BY Vijayendra from his home turf Shikaripura in Shivamogga district, BSY said: “A narrative is being created that Santosh is the main conspirator in the operation to remove me as a potential chief minister. This allegation is baseless… I decided to pave the way for the new generation.”
The same principle, BSY added, was applied in the case of Shettar and other seniors in the party. “It is not right to blame Santosh,” he stressed.
But in hushed tones, speculation continues in the BJP over the growing clout of Santosh, a Brahmin by birth, in a state whose politics is largely dominated by Lingayats and Vokkaligas.
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