Why BJP picked Basavaraj Bommai as Karnataka chief minister

40-basavaraj-bommai, Smooth succession: Bommai with outgoing chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

I am just first among equals, said Basavaraj Bommai, who was sworn in as the 30th chief minister of Karnataka on July 28. The 61-year-old Lingayat leader from north Karnataka clinched the top post from a clutch of contenders.

The BJP ensured a smooth and swift transition within 30 hours of its poster boy and Lingayat strongman Yediyurappa announcing his decision to step down as chief minister. Bommai’s anointment was undoubtedly a strategy to placate the politically influential Lingayat community that accounts for 17 per cent of the state’s population. The Veerashaiva-Lingayat community pontiffs, who were miffed with the BJP for dethroning Yediyurappa, can now find solace in his confidant occupying the top seat.

The winds of change indicate that with the exit of a mass leader like Yediyurappa, the BJP high command will now have greater control over the state unit and the government, say insiders.

Bommai is the son of former chief minister S.R. Bommai, who, along with J.H. Patel, H.D. Deve Gowda and Ramakrishna Hegde, founded the Janata Party. Bommai grew up in a joint family in Deshpande Nagar, Hubballi, did his schooling from Rotary School, mechanical engineering from BVB college and underwent technical training at Telco, Pune.

Bommai dreamt of becoming an industrialist, but dived into politics, becoming political secretary to chief minister Patel in 1996. He also won two terms as a legislative councillor in 1998 and 2004 from Dharwad local authorities’ constituency. He lost the 2004 assembly elections from Hubli Rural (now Hubballi-Dharwad Central) to BJP’s Jagadish Shettar. In 2007, he took part in the 232km-long farmers’ padayatra from Dharwad to Naragund. He joined the BJP in 2008. He has won the Shiggaon seat in Haveri district for three consecutive terms.

Given his background, Bommai’s move to the BJP was surprising. His late father was a follower of Marxist-turned-radical humanist M.N Roy, but Bommai, also a voracious reader, chose the public life inspired by socialist Jayaprakash Narayan. He belongs to the Sadar Lingayat sect. He is a moderate leader like his mentor Yediyurappa in the right-wing party. But it is his father he looks up to the most. “My father was a principled politician and I will walk in his footsteps,” said Bommai.

His nuanced understanding of the irrigation sector and his previous stint as water resources minister (2008-2013) in the first BJP government is bound to benefit the state which is entangled in many legal battles with its neighbouring states over river water sharing (Krishna and Mahadayi rivers) or the Mekedatu reservoir project in the Cauvery basin with Tamil Nadu.

In the recently dissolved Yediyurappa cabinet, Bommai handled home, law and parliamentary affairs. The way he handled the August 2020 attack on Congress MLA and Dalit leader Akhanda Srinivas Murthy was a high point in his stint as home minister. While the opposition blamed him for the intelligence failure, the Centre lauded the state for “averting” a major communal riot. During the pandemic, he handed over his Shiggaon house for use as a Covid Care Centre.

Bommai is known for his simplicity and sobriety. The only time he raises his voice is perhaps inside the assembly, while defending his party or the government. His non-confrontational nature has earned him friends across parties and his socialist roots make him a “consensus” leader not only within the BJP, but also with the opposition. In a lighter vein, the Janata Dal claimed that both the Congress and the BJP are outsourcing their chief ministers from the Janata parivar—first Siddaramaiah and now Bommai.

At a time when the BJP is witnessing the “insider-outsider” tussle with the influx of leaders from rival parties, the party leadership, by picking Bommai for the top post, is sending out a message that it will give recognition and post where it is due without discrimination.

Bommai is considered a party loyalist. In 2011, Yediyurappa was forced to resign as chief minister after being indicted by the Lokayukta in the illegal mining case. He quit the BJP and formed a new party. Bommai, however, chose to stay with the BJP.

Bommai’s family, including wife Chennamma, son Bharath and daughter Aditi, live in Hubballi. His house in Bengaluru was built by his father. The famed street in RT Nagar has housed five chief ministers—R. Gundu Rao, S.R. Bommai, M. Veerappa Moily, Dharam Singh and now Bommai. The only other family in Karnataka to have seen father and son as chief minister is the Deve Gowda family.

While his family is happy with Bommai’s elevation, like his elder sister Uma Patil in Hubballi said, they “hope he completes two years, unlike father who was abruptly removed”. In 1988, S.R. Bommai became chief minister after Hegde resigned following allegations of phone tapping of politicians and businessmen. But he lost the chair after the Centre dismissed his government claiming lack of majority. President’s rule was declared. Bommai petitioned the Supreme Court, which ruled that a government’s majority should be tested only on the floor of the assembly, and not be based on the governor’s opinion. The case is often quoted in instances of arbitrary dismissal of state governments by a hostile Central government.

The Bommai family keeps a low profile. Bharath, 32, says nothing will change for him as a son. “My father is like a friend to me,” said the industrialist and cricket enthusiast. “I still remember what he told me when I was going to the US for studies in 2008. It was what his father had told him—‘what you do is a reflection of who I am.’ I thought about it on my flight. It is a profound statement.”

But Bommai was not the only candidate for the top post. The saffron party was keen on a “generational shift”, and wanted a fresh face with a clean image and commitment to the party ideology. Apart from Bommai, Union Minister Pralhad Joshi (Brahmin), BJP national general secretary C.T. Ravi (Vokkaliga), Dharwad-West MLA Arvind Bellad and Mines and Geology Minister Murugesh Nirani (both Panchamasali Lingayats) made it to the final list.

While BJP insiders say that Yediyurappa was kept in the loop all along, his tearful farewell speech during the grand event marking two years of the BJP government triggered outrage in the Lingayat community. While Yediyurappa said he was stepping down “voluntarily” and “happily”, Lingayat pontiffs suspected that he had been forced to resign.

In Delhi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP national president J.P. Nadda went into a huddle. Central observers were rushed to the state. The BJP was treading with caution as it did not want to repeat the mistakes committed by the Congress. The Lingayat community had shifted its loyalty to the saffron party after the Congress unceremoniously removed an ailing Veerendra Patil from the CM’s post.

The BJP, therefore, played it safe by picking another Lingayat leader. Bommai, with his amenable nature, Yediyurappa’s trust and vast political and administrative experience became the safest and surprise pick. “This was totally unexpected. I had belief in my hard work. I will try to implement the schemes announced in the budget by Mr Yediyurappa,” said Bommai, who has assumed office at a crucial time when the state is reeling under economic crisis triggered by the pandemic and staring at devastating floods and threat of a third wave of Covid-19.

Yediyurappa’s stature in the party is not diminished though. Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who was in Bengaluru with his cabinet colleague G. Kishan Reddy to oversee the election of the legislature party leader, said that no one could replace a tall leader like Yediyurappa. “Yediyurappa has resigned from chief ministership with grace to create new leadership, and set an example for all of us,” he told legislators at the BJP legislature party meeting.

Yediyurappa was beaming with pride as he proposed Bommai’s name in the closed-door meeting at Capitol Hotel and also accompanied Bommai to Raj Bhavan. In a role reversal, he was seen prompting Bommai during the media briefing. Bommai, who is fluent in English and Hindi, used to be the communication link between Yediyurappa and the Central leadership.

Yediyurappa, however, is not one to take the back seat, reiterating that he will not be retiring from “active politics” for another 10-15 years. “Whether I am in power or not, I will work for the party and ensure that it wins with absolute majority in the 2023 assembly polls,” he said, even as his role in the party remains a suspense. “I want to see Modi and Shah get re-elected in the 2024 parliamentary polls and for that the party should win 25 seats in Karnataka.”

The biggest challenge before Bommai is to step out of Yediyurappa’s shadow, even as he tries to fill his shoes. The winds of change, however, indicate that with the exit of a mass leader like Yediyurappa, the high command will now have greater control over the state unit and the government, according to insiders. They say the party’s dependency over one community and leader would end in 2023, when it would move away from Lingayat-centric politics and broaden its base by assimilating all castes and communities to build a level-playing field for the ordinary party worker.