The BJP and ‘cosmetic’ change in Karnataka

The K`taka crisis has weakened BJP’s claim of being a credible alternative to Congress.

Ritesh K Srivastava

BS Yeddyurappa is smiling again. Karnataka’s powerful Lingayat leader has categorically proved that only he calls the shots in this BJP-ruled southern state.

By asking incumbent Chief Minister DV Sadananda Gowda to quit, paving way for Jagdish Shettar, the BJP might have contained the Karnataka crisis for the time being, but the bitter developments have also exposed the fact that it lacks ideas, vision and patience to handle dissidence.

Whatever one says, the BJP leadership has lost face for asking Sadananda Gowda - a leader who had given corruption free administration in the past eleven months after the party was mired with several scandals and scams -to step down for no compelling reasons.

The inept handling of the Karnataka crisis and the unceremonious exit of Gowda will only complicate things for the saffron leadership, which has once again succumbed to Yeddyurappa’s pressure tactics and continuous political blackmail.

The manner in which the top BJP leadership handled the challenge thrown at it by one of its tallest leaders and his loyalists has only weakened its claim of being a credible alternative to the Congress. The top BJP leaders may be relaxed that they have managed to save the party’s strongest bastion down South from a possible split, but they might not know that they have got only a temporary breather.

Considering the infighting within the party and Karnataka`s fractious caste-based politics, the BJP central leadership knows that the truce brokered with the Yeddyurappa faction will not last long. Moreover, the frequent change in the leadership is also likely to hamper the party’s prospects in the coming Assembly Elections scheduled to be held in less than a year.

Under the compromise formula, the BJP top brass sanctioned a leadership change with the appointment of Jagdish Shettar – a BSY loyalist - as Karnataka CM, and in return, the Yeddyurappa faction agreed to withdraw its aggressive campaign.

The caste factor

The reason why the BJP high command agreed to remove Gowda, despite his clean administration, is its compulsion to retain the support of the powerful Lingayat community, which Yeddyurappa represents. The party is aware that BSY is very popular among the Lingayat leaders and to retain power in Karnataka, it will need the backing of the community, which will come only if Yeddyurappa’s demands are met.

However, it can also not afford to lose support of the Vokkaligas - Karnataka`s other powerful caste group, represented by Sadananda Gowda. That’s why the central leadership is mulling to give key positions to party chief Eshwarappa and Gowda.

Since Assembly Elections in Karnataka are just 10 months away, the saffron leadership is under tremendous pressure to end the rebellion in its ranks and get its caste calculations right if it has to retain power in Karnataka.

This is evident from the fact that the Lingayats constitute about 17% of Karnataka’s 65 million population, while Vokkaligas make up for about 16 %. The two groups have dominated Karnataka politics for decades. Lingayats’ inclination towards the BJP began since 1990 when the then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi unceremoniously sacked Veerendra Patil as chief minister of the state.

The great BSY blackmail

Though the crisis seems to be over for now, the BJP will have to deal with Yeddyurappa carefully, who had in the past played the ‘caste card’ whenever he confronted a major crisis threatening his political existence.

Last year, when Yeddyurappa was forced to resign as chief minister after being indicted in illegal mining cases by the state ombudsman, he was reluctant to hand over power to Shettar – a prominent Lingayat leader - and later handpicked Gowda for the top post.

He then feared Shettar may challenge his claims as the sole leader of the Lingayat community. Shettar was consequently forced by the BJP central leadership to accept the Speaker`s post then.

Yeddyurappa was confident that he would come clean on the graft allegations in a few months and occupy the chief minister’s chair again. However, things became worse when a CBI probe was ordered against Yeddyurappa and his family earlier this year in corruption cases, shattering his dream to become chief minister again.

Sensing the situation, the BJP veteran changed track and played the community card. He paraded more than half of BJP legislators in a show of strength before the party high command and demanded that a Lingayat leader be made chief minister.

This time, in a bid to step up pressure on the BJP central leadership, nine ministers including Shettar resigned demanding Gowda’s immediate ouster. They retracted only after the party assured them that their demand would be addressed soon.
Jagdish Shettar’s rise

Having failed in his earlier attempt to become chief minister, Shettar, who had projected himself as BSY’s natural successor, this time got lucky when the BSY faction agreed on his name. Though, Shettar is now set to formally take charge as the state’s new chief minister after being elected BJP’s legislative party leader, the tag of being a ‘Yeddyurapa man’ will haunt him as long as he retains the post.

Shettar will have to fight hard to get rid of the tag of being a "rubber stamp" chief minister and a political slave to his master. Shettar needs to draw tough lessons from Gowda, who also tried hard to come out of Yeddyurappa’s shadow, but ended up losing the chief minister’s post.

This is beyond doubt that Yeddyurappa secured the Lingayats’ support for BJP in the May 2008 Assembly Elections, which helped the saffron brigade to form its first government in southern India. He was duly rewarded by the party for his pivotal role in the 2008 electoral success and made BJP’s first chief minister.

Ironically, since then BSY has graduated from being the chief architect in BJP’s 2008 electoral win to its biggest political blackmailer. Unfortunately, the apex BJP leadership has time and again fallen prey to his pressure tactics. The party’s failure to tackle him seriously and utilise the opportunity to reduce the caste divisions has only caused it huge embarrassment.
Sadananda Gowda- The martyr

The biggest gainer in the Karnataka episode is undoubtedly Sadananda Gowda, who agreed to step down as the Chief Minister, without throwing many tantrums and is now being hailed as a martyr. His unceremonious ouster has caused a discontent in the National Democratic Alliance constituents, which feel that the BJP has compromised on graft and succumbed to the blackmail of its corrupt leader.

However, in a clear indication of deepening caste polarisation in the state, most Lingayat MLAs have thrown their weight behind Yeddyurappa and almost the rest have aligned with Gowda. Shettar, 56, was elected only after some last minute muscle flexing by Gowda loyalists, who demanded that the state unit party presidency would be given to their leader, Deputy Chief Minister’s post to Eshwarappa and at least 20 ministerial berths to them.

Though the BJP top brass has rejected allegations that the latest change of guard has anything to do with Yeddyurappa`s caste politics, it has still fallen victim to deepening caste equations in Karnataka. As a result of this, the party has no choice but to appease various factions and accommodate them in the Cabinet and in the state-run corporations and boards.

The Yeddyurappa-Gowda faceoff has only dealt a huge blow to what the BJP terms as its soul - its discipline and nation first motto – since the party has fallen prey to caste politics and succumbed to pressure tactics.