The ruling BJP has a tough task ahead in Karnataka as it prepares to identify a Lingayat leader who can connect with its voter base and also rise as a mass leader as big as former chief minister BS Yediyurappa.
The central leadership, which is aiming to retain power in the southern state without depending on any one person’s charisma, is thinking differently this time, ahead of the 2023 Assembly and 2024 Parliamentary elections.
As the political equations in Karnataka are based mainly on castes, the BJP can’t depend just on Hindutva votes. Also, a series of allegations of scams on the ruling saffron party — first under Yediyurappa and now in Basavaraj Bommai’s leadership — and perceived administrative failure are the reasons the BJP wants to scout for a prominent face, a senior leader told The Federal.
BJP’s tallest Lingayat leader
Earlier, Yediyurappa was the face, and the tallest Lingayat leader in the BJP because he has been a mass leader. However, he was asked to step down from the chief minister’s post for various reasons including graft allegations against him and his advanced age. But the central leadership tried Bommai to make Yediyurappa’s successor as suggested by the former CM. Recently, Yediyurappa was appointed to the party’s Parliamentary Board, and still holds major influence in state politics.
But this did fetch it the desired results and Bommai’s government has been struggling with governance issues. It also faces several allegations including over ’40% commission’.
The worrying factor for the BJP is that Bommai did not meet its expectations though he had a big chance of becoming the next Lingayat leader. Also, the BJP is the only party in Karnataka poised to gain Lingayat votes for the time being, as the Congress is always accused of being anti-Lingayat and JD(S) is termed a Vokkaliga party.
The Congress was seen to have failed the Lingayat community after it removed its chief minister Veerendra Patil. The Janata Dal was divided into JD(S) and JD(U) in the state, between HD Devegowda and Ramakrishna Hegde. Though he was a brahmin, Hegde received huge support from Lingayats due to political reasons at the time.
There are leaders including Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, Aravind Bellad, Murugesh Nirani and a few others, who have proved their worth in their constituencies. But except Yatnal, no other leader has proved to be a mass leader among the Lingayats, according to a BJP leader.
At present, leaders who are in the race to take over the Lingayat ‘leadership’ in the BJP are from the subsect Panchamasalis. The leaders of the influential Panchamasali sect within the Lingayat/Veerashaiva community are unhappy with the BJP leadership as they were denied the CM’s berth or other prominent posts while replacing Yediyurappa. So, this time, the Panchamasalis among Lingayats are the real threat to the BJP.
Though the Lingayats are the single largest community in Karnataka, at nearly 17% of the population, supporting the BJP for a decade, the Panchamasalis are influential in around 68 Assembly constituencies in north Karnataka with an average vote share of 20%. Hence, Panchamasali leaders including Yatnal, Bellad, Nirani and others are trying hard to get noticed by the party’s leaders in Delhi.
There is a demand from the Panchamasalis for reservation under the Other Backward Class (OBC) category for government jobs and education. However, the BJP government is not in a position to satisfy them. And this has irked the Panchamasalis and their leaders like Yatnal. So, if the BJP wants a strong Lingayat leader ahead of polls, it has to look at Panchamasali leaders too and convince the community that it is recognised by the party.
If the Panchamasalis feel neglected, then there is a possibility of a chunk of vote share shifting to the Congress and it’s a big worry for the BJP, said sources.
Vijayendra in the race
Yediyurappa’s son BY Vijayendra is also a strong contender for the Lingayat leadership in the BJP. His political shrewdness and strategic plans for the electoral wins of party candidates are already noticed by the party’s central leadership. But the party is not ready to carry forward the baggage of family politics at the senior level as Yediyurappa’s first son BY Raghavendra is also an MP from Shivamogga. Vijayendra is also facing a few cases and the top leaders are thinking of giving him a chance later.
So, who is the next big Lingayat face in the BJP?
If the party needs a strong leader like to take on the Opposition, Basanagouda Patil Yatnal is a good option. Murugesh Nirani comes next as he has a business background, but lacks skills in mass leadership. Aravind Bellad , has a good political and academic background and once his name was discussed for the CM post while replacing Yediyurappa, but he doesn’t have a pan-Karnataka presence. However, party sources said that Yatnal, Bellad and Nirani have more chances as they hail from the Panchamasali subsect and it will be an advantage for them to get the nod from the central leadership.
At the moment, Yatnal has emerged as the frontrunner but what can go against him is he is seen as being in the anti-Yediyurappa camp and has made comments against the former CM and his son Vijayendra.
If the BJP does manage to find a strong Lingayat leader, it has to make him or her the CM or state party president. But again Bommai is a Lingayat and they will need to replace him, for both state unit president and CM cannot be from the same community. The Lingayat equation does present a challenge to Karnataka BJP, pointed out a leader.