Despite a number of BJP leaders insisting that Basavaraj Bommai won’t be replaced as Karnataka Chief Minister ahead of elections due in eight months, talk of a possible surprise from the high command continues to grow.
In the latest, leaders in the state unit say the party may go in for “community balance” as former chief minister BS Yediyurappa — a Lingayat like his loyalist Mr Bommai — has been elevated to the BJP’s top decision-making body, its Parliamentary Board. Mr Bommai’s replacement, thus, may be from the Vokkaliga community, with the veteran Yediyurappa, 79, playing a lead role in the campaign to keep the Lingayat sect happy.
Lingayats are about 18 per cent of the state’s population — and are seen as a BJP vote bank — while the Vokkaligas are estimated to be around 15 per cent.
Speaking of the “balance”, sources in the BJP said that by giving a Vokkaliga the chair, the party could try to take some votes away from the Janata Dal (Secular) of ex-PM HD Deve Gowda.
It’s going to be a precarious balance, though. The Congress has lately doubled up on its attempts to at least divide Lingayat votes. Rahul Gandhi recently visited a temporal seat of the sect.
The community was unhappy with the BJP when it made BS Yediyurappa quit as chief minister last year. The party then accepted Mr Yediyurappa’s loyalist and fellow Lingayat, Basavraj Bommai, as the replacement. Mr Yediyurappa, too, has a top job again now.
But Mr Bommai continues to have the “puppet” jibe thrown at him, both from within the BJP and the Opposition.
His tenure so far has been marked by corruption charges, besides his alleged failure to control communal violence, particularly after the murder of a BJP youth wing leader. Party workers held protests and alleged that the chief minister has been “unable to protect our own people”.
Even when he was appointed, many in the party said he does not have the RSS ‘shakha’ background and thus is “not an original BJP man”. In recent weeks, he has tried to get some Hindutva heft by speaking of emulating UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
But it may be too late for that spin.
“Yes, we are not happy with Chief Minister Bommai,” said a top BJP leader, also a part of decision-making in the RSS, the party’s mentor organisation. “One must remember, though, Mr Bommai was chosen by PM Narendra Modi after consulting with BS Yediyurappa and the RSS. They will not change him; even if the high command does replace him, they will be risking their image just ahead of elections,” he said, unwilling to be named.
A cabinet expansion might happen instead, as early as next week, this leader added.
Conflicting statements alone don’t reveal much, but the speculation about Mr Bommai is rooted also in the recent past.
BS Yediyurappa’s fate, in particular, shows how the BJP under PM Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah functions.
Having brought the party to power in Karnataka for the first time in 2008, Mr Yediyurappa has had four incomplete terms as chief minister.
In 2018, the BJP didn’t actually win the election, but got power a year later, after the Congress-JDS government fell apart. BS Yediyurappa was seen as the man who managed that, hence was rewarded with the chair again.
When talk of his replacement began last year, a section of the central leadership had insisted he’d stay put.
But he had to go.
A generational shift was cited as the reason why Modi-Shah asked him to resign. He faced infighting and corruption charges too. Due to the community factor, his nomination of Mr Bommai was accepted. Others like Murgesh Nirani, Jagdish Shettar and Arvind Belland lost the race.
Mr Yediyurappa recently announced that he’s retiring from electoral politics.
Days later, he finds himself in the BJP top panel, and now has a big role in deciding who’ll be the CM candidate for 2023. Yet, old loyalist Bommai finds himself all but out of favour.
The back-and-forth shows the BJP isn’t as ready as it would want to be.
The Congress, though beset with infighting of its own, is hoping to come together in time for a victory next year. Former chief minister Siddamaramaiah’s 75th birthday was a massive show of strength. Being from a backward community, he has appeal among Dalits and religious minorities too. He is banking on a statewide stature to get across the line again. But state unit chief DK Shivakumar, who is from the Vokkaliga community, also has chief ministerial ambitions.
The JDS is struggling to keep its Vokkaliga base together, as seen in some recent poll results. That math aside for now, however, the focus is on the BJP and Mr Bommai’s immediate fate.