With the 10 July declaration in Bangalore that the path was clear for BS Yeddyurappa’s nominee Jagadish Shettar to take over as Karnataka’s Chief Minister, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems relieved. Its central leadership would like to believe that it has solved what is often loosely described as its ‘Karnataka crisis’ by the media. The ‘crisis’ is actually a series of crises that have been thrown up from time to time by severe infighting in the state unit—often fuelled by some party leaders in New Delhi—since May 2008, when the BJP formed its first government in the southern state.
In solving its crisis, as it believes it has, the BJP’s central leadership has once again given up a limb to save a finger. The latest round of the party’s internal slugfest started on 29 June, when Karnataka’s PWD minister CM Udasi told journalists as he stepped out of then Chief Minister DV Sadananda Gowda’s residence that eight ministers had submitted their resignations to Gowda and two more were on their way. “There was a trust deficit between the ministers and the Chief Minister over the past three-four months,” he said, “We had been pressuring the Chief Minister to convene a BJP legislature party meeting. That did not happen.” The eight who had handed in their resignations included Shettar, who headed the state’s Panchayati Raj and Rural Development ministry.
That set off a high-wire contest of nerves and anger between the party high command and the state unit. Getting the ministers to withdraw their resignations last week is the only victory that the central leadership has scored over the divided state unit, and it is only a small one. Dharmendra Pradhan, BJP general secretary in charge of the state, had to rush to Bangalore to stop the ministers from quitting Gowda’s cabinet. The rebel faction served Pradhan and the party high command an ultimatum: effect a switch in state leadership by 5 July or watch the government come apart.
The eight, who had bandied their resignations as a threat to the Gowda government at former CM Yeddyurappa’s behest, were never really interested in resigning anyway. All they wanted was to signal their faction’s dominance of the state unit and thus force the high command to act in their favour. While the party leadership wanted status quo on Karnataka’s chief ministership till at least the end of India’s Presidential poll on 19 July (in which the party is fighting another losing battle), Yeddyurappa and his followers were in no mood to wait that long. They wanted a leadership change before the state Assembly met for its monsoon session on 16 July. It mattered little to them that their rebellion would embarrass the BJP at a time when it was looking particularly weak, with its own allies—the JD-U and Shiv Sena—coming out openly in support of the UPA’s presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee.
The rebels did not even want to wait for BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s son Sarang’s wedding or senior leader M Venkaiah Naidu’s surgery in Delhi.
Of late, the BJP’s central leadership has been left bloody-nosed in brawls with other state units as well—Gujarat’s, notably. But Karnataka’s case exposes confusion as much as a distinct lack of heft. The party seems trapped between two factions that turn more aggressive by the day. The 10 July meeting of the state legislative party was to begin in the
morning. A day earlier in Delhi, Gadkari had already announced that Shettar would be the new CM. Yet, the Gowda faction did not turn up for the meeting till it had extracted a promise from the party high command that it would commandeer the posts of the state party chief and deputy CM. At the end, both sides got to armtwist the central leadership by issuing threats.
In Delhi, the BJP has been trying to retain some sense of dignity. “There is no blackmail involved,” says party spokesperson and MP Shahnawaz Hussain, “We function as a democratic party. Just because I am in Delhi as part of the party’s high command does not mean I can dictate terms to the state units. This is a democratic process, people in the states communicate their needs and our leaders take decisions on those needs.”
In what it claims is its ‘democratic’ mode of functioning, the BJP has almost had to deploy its entire top brass for a truce in Bangalore. The list of those involved in the negotiations (first with Yeddyurappa’s faction and then with Gowda’s) is a long one indeed, from Nitin Gadkari and past party presidents LK Advani, Rajnath Singh and M Venkaiah Naidu, to parliamentary leaders of opposition Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, apart from Karnataka leader Ananth Kumar.
That is not just a list of the BJP’s who’s who in New Delhi, it reads like a roster—if you add Narendra Modi—of the party’s prime ministerial hopefuls since 2004. Yet, collectively, they could not stare down the cronies of a former CM who had to quit office on charges of corruption (the party’s main electoral plank against the UPA), nor could they exercise a decision without appeasing the followers of an interim CM who has not even had a year in office. This reflects poorly on not just the BJP in Karnataka (Assembly polls are in May 2013) but also the party’s central command.
Party leaders say that its core calculations were based on a need to retain its crucial votebank of Lingayats, held under the supposed sway of Yeddyurappa and his CM nominee and protégé Shettar, who are both of this caste. Lingayats account for about 17 per cent of the state’s voters, and are seen as its most powerful group, rivalled though they are in their numbers by Vokkaligas, who constitute about 16 per cent of the population. “Former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son HD Kumaraswamy hold considerable sway over Vokkaligas, so instead of banking on Sadananda Gowda, the BJP decided to throw its weight behind Yeddyurappa,” says a member of the party’s national executive, “Besides, it was at the behest of some central leaders that the Reddy brothers tried to dislodge Yeddyurappa when he was Chief Minister. Now, having got a chance, he has struck back.”
While Yeddyurappa is the only mass leader in the BJP’s fold in Karnataka, and is known to command a sizeable following among Lingayats, the ugly scenes over the party leadership in the state have put off many Vokkaligas. In fact, the widely publicised wrangling has worsened caste polarisation in the state. What this means is that the BJP may not be able to win support from voters across caste lines in the next polls.
Gowda’s 11-month tenure as CM has been relatively corruption free, in sharp contrast to Yeddyurappa’s scam ridden phase. But all the instability—with the Reddy brothers of Bellary hovering in the background with their iron ore mining interests—has earned the BJP the dubious distinction of having had three CMs in four years, capped now with a clean CM being replaced on the orders of a tainted one.
Ever since Yeddyurappa lost his CM’s post in July last year after the state Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde indicted him in corruption cases, he has been smarting under the humiliation. First he got Sadananda Gowda installed as his successor to keep Shettar at bay. Back then, central leaders had to camp in Bangalore to oversee the succession; each legislator was asked to submit a choice of either Shettar or Gowda (the joke in BJP circles was that Yeddyurappa submitted his own name). And now the Lingayat leader has got Shettar, who was given the speaker’s post, back as his lackey in a bid to keep control of the state’s governance.
Karnataka is India’s only southern state where the BJP has a strong political presence, and the party’s 2008 victory was seen as something of a saffron debut in the South. The BJP had even declared that the state would follow the ‘Gujarat model’. However, Yeddyurappa appears intent on being a leader in his own right. In this, he does seem to be trying to emulate Gujarat’s CM. Like Modi, he entered the BJP fold through the RSS, but has worked to ensure that his own supremacy goes unchallenged. This has meant running roughshod over all those who do not kowtow to him.
In Gujarat, BJP leader and Modi-baiter Keshubhai Patel is all set to announce a breakaway outfit. In Karnataka, Vokkaligas are so upset with the BJP that some of them marked Gowda’s ejection and Shettar’s elevation as a ‘black day’.
Incidentally, when Yeddyurappa’s government was going strong in Karnataka in 2009, the Reddy brothers had tried to engineer a coup against him. They were close to Swaraj at the time, but she distanced herself from them after their arrest in connection with cases of illegal mining. At the peak of the current crisis, Open asked Swaraj how the BJP would resolve the factional feud. Her reply: “We will sort this out. ‘How’ is not spelt out in the media.”
Swaraj may have kept a safe distance from Karnataka since the Reddy brothers’ failed coup attempt, but power games in the state have seen intense lobbying behind the scenes, something that has clearly ended up weakening the central leadership’s hold over politics there.
The BJP’S loss of central authority is arguably starkest in Gujarat’s case. In May, Modi rubbed the high command’s nose in the dirt by getting the RSS’s Sanjay Joshi to quit the party. The Gujarat CM had made this his price for attending the party’s national executive meeting in Mumbai. Back in 2005, Joshi had been forced to resign as BJP’s organisation general secretary after a sex CD surfaced that allegedly featured him. He had been playing a peripheral role till Gadkari brought him back, despite resistance from Modi, and put him in charge of the 2012 UP polls.
In Mumbai, a bristling Modi struck back with vengeance. By forcing Joshi’s exit, he demonstrated what many had suspected—his indispensability as a mass leader as far as the BJP is concerned. At the public rally that marked the end of the Mumbai meet, Modi’s swagger was hard to miss. The rally, which was not attended by Advani and Swaraj, appeared to all but hold him up as the party’s PM candidate for 2014.
At the same meet, the BJP also modified its constitution to let Gadkari claim a second consecutive term as party president. Once a political nobody, this is a man who was thrust upon the party by the RSS, and his probable re-election suggests a deal of sorts between him (on behalf of the RSS) and Modi that would have them reinforce each other’s quest for greater power. And Modi is supposed to be a regional leader.
“The core problem is that the BJP’s central leadership is weak and getting weaker,” says a party leader in New Delhi, “If leaders like Modi and Yeddyurappa have mass followings, why would they listen to those who have small followings or none at all?”
Hussain seeks solace in contrasting the BJP with the Congress. “We are not a party run by remote control,” he says, “we are run by ideology.”
Ironically, the goings on in the BJP only underline the obvious. While its headquarters may still be located at 11 Ashoka Road in New Delhi, its crucial decisions are often dictated either by Nagpur or Gandhinagar. With a new bully around, Bangalore might just join this list.