Can BJP's social engineering win it another term in Karnataka?

Both Congress and BJP are keen to keep JD(S) out

PTI03_03_2023_000190B Winning mood: Union Home Minister Amit Shah flanked by Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai (to his left) and senior leader B.S. Yediyurappa at the BJP’s Vijay Sankalp Rath Yatra | PTI

Even as the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress in Karnataka are engaged in a tough fight in the assembly polls being held on May 10, both parties agree on at least one issue. They have been asking the voters to avoid supporting the regional player―the Janata Dal (Secular)―to avoid a hung assembly. Both national parties are vying for a 3 per cent to 4 per cent increase in their vote share and to form a government on their own.

The Congress is hoping to benefit from the rebellion in the BJP and has put up 51 Lingayat candidates compared with the BJP’s 68. Even a marginal split in the Lingayat votes could hugely benefit the Congress.

The BJP is aiming for 140 seats in the 224-member house, although its best performance till date has been the 110 seats it won in 2008. The Congress hopes to emulate its 2013 performance, when it won 122 seats. For the JD(S) led by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and his son H.D. Kumaraswamy, the primary task is to safeguard its Vokkaliga vote bank and its current vote share of 18.3 per cent. “A strong opposition and a stable government are a must for democracy and development,” said Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. “People have realised this and will vote decisively to prevent a hung verdict.” Former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa of the BJP, too, made a similar assessment. He said BJP workers should convince the people that a hung verdict would lead to chaos.

B.L. Santosh, the BJP’s national general secretary (organisation), said the party’s performance in Old Mysuru would determine whether it would retain power. The BJP got 1.8 crore votes in the 2014 general elections and it could cross the half-way mark in the assembly polls by polling about 1.5 crore votes.

Internal surveys of the Congress showed that the party would get 135 seats, according to Chittapur MLA and Congress spokesperson Priyank Kharge. “In the past few elections, we have consistently got a vote share of 38 per cent. The idea is to push it up to 42 per cent and the swing is going to come from Kalyana Karnataka and the Belagavi regions where we performed average to low last time,” he said.

The BJP, meanwhile, has reached saturation levels in the Mumbai-Karnataka Lingayat belt and also the coastal and central Karnataka regions. It is eyeing new frontiers, like the Vokkaliga heartland with 59 seats, which is the stronghold of the JD(S). The Congress is relying on the ‘Ahinda’ (minorities, backward classes and dalits) vote base and is also eager to eat into the Lingayat and Vokkaliga vote banks. To offset the JD(S)’s influence among the Vokkaligas, the Congress has elevated D.K. Shivakumar as its state party chief. But the party is worried about the BJP chipping away at its ‘Ahinda’ vote bank with its social engineering experiments. The recent hike in quotas for the SCs and the STs and the internal reservation among the SC communities are seen as a step in this direction.

The JD(S) is also trying to expand its vote bank, giving tickets to as many as 18 Muslims. But the party seems hurt by the political narrative set by the national parties. For instance, Congress leader Siddaramaiah calls the JD(S) the BJP’s ‘B team’ , which alienates Muslims from the party. The JD(S) could, however, benefit from the BJP’s plan to drop tainted leaders and non-performers and the Congress’s efforts to balance caste equations. The entry of disgruntled leaders from both parties could offer a fresh lease of life for the JD(S). Priyank, meanwhile, said the rebellion in the national parties would not benefit the JD(S) because of the consolidation of dominant communities like Lingayats and Kurubas in Old Mysuru.

The BJP hopes that the social engineering experiments initiated by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai would work to its advantage. He scrapped the 4 per cent reservation for Muslims and moved them to the 10 per cent pool for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). The abolished quota was split equally between the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas. Bommai has also increased SC/ST reservations and has tweaked the internal quota for the SCs to reward communities that back the BJP. While this could affect the Ahinda platform of the Congress, there could be a backlash against the BJP from the dominant SC communities like the Bhovis and the Banjaras.

Priyank said the BJP’s reservation policy failed on two counts. “The enhanced reservation to the SCs, the STs and the OBCs has fallen flat as the BJP does not intend to increase the 50 per cent cap on reservation. The Supreme Court has observed that taking away the 4 per cent reservation from the Muslims to redistribute it among Lingayats and Vokkaligas is unscientific. The internal quota in the SC reservation has aggrieved Bhovi and Banjara communities.”

39-Rahul-Gandhi White revolution: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with his party colleagues D.K. Shivakumar and K.C. Venugopal at a Nandini milk shop in Karnataka. The Nandini versus Amul controversy has emerged as a major political issue in Karnataka | PTI

The immediate threat facing the BJP is the rebellion within the party after its experiment to “infuse new blood”. The ambitious experiment began with removing Yediyurappa from the chief minister’s post in July 2021. Many others like Madal Virupakshappa (Channagiri) and Nehru Olekar (Haveri) were dropped as they were facing corruption charges. Former deputy chief minister and five-time MLA from Shivamogga City K.S. Eshwarappa announced his retirement from electoral politics a few hours before the BJP announced its first list of 189 candidates on May 10. The Kuruba leader from the RSS stable vowed to help the party win a ‘clear majority’.

The BJP was jolted by the decision of veteran Lingayat leaders Laxman Savadi and Jagadish Shettar to join the Congress. Former deputy chief minister Savadi quit after he was denied the Athani seat in Belagavi. Shettar, who is former chief minister and six-time MLA from Hubballi Central, too, was unhappy about ticket distribution. The BJP denied tickets to as many as 21 MLAs, including ministers, bringing 72 fresh faces to the fray.

The Congress believes that Shettar and Savadi can help the party woo back a section of the Lingayats. While Savadi’s support can help the Congress improve its performance in Belagavi, a politically significant district with 18 assembly seats, Shettar’s clout is not strong enough to make any major impact in his Hubbali-Dharwad district.

Savadi’s exit has brought the focus back on Belagavi, a region ruled by the “feudal” families who draw immense political clout through their sugar factories, cooperative banks and educational institutions. Savadi, who has no pedigree to boast, rose through the ranks and was elected thrice from Athani before Congress’s Mahesh Kumathalli defeated him in 2018. A year later, Savadi was forced to campaign for Kumathalli in the bypolls after he switched over to the BJP. To pacify Savadi, he was appointed as one of the three deputy chief ministers. Savadi’s quick elevation in Bengaluru sealed his fate in Athani as the party renominated Kumathalli, a close aide of Gokak MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi, who quit as minister following a sex scandal. While Jarkiholi’s ongoing feud with his friend-turned-foe Laxmi Hebbalkar (Congress MLA from Belagavi Rural) and Shivakumar is no secret, the Jarkiholi brothers, who belong to the numerically strong Valmiki (ST) community pose a challenge to prominent Lingayat leaders in the BJP as well.

The Jarkiholi brothers tactfully identify with different political parties to ensure that their family enjoys uninterrupted power. Satish Jarkiholi, one of the state Congress working presidents, represents Yemakanmardi, a reserved seat. Ramesh and his younger brother Balachandra who are with the BJP represent general constituencies―Gokak and Arabhavi, which many believe should have been represented by Lingayat leaders. This has led to growing resentment within the BJP.

The Congress, which managed to win only 17 of the 50 seats in the Mumbai-Karnataka region last time, is hoping to increase its tally by welcoming the heavyweights from the BJP. It hopes that Savadi can win Athani and also pose a challenge to turncoats like Ramesh Jarkiholi and Kumathalli. The Congress has been trying to woo the Lingayats for quite some time. In 2018, it backed the Lingayat demand for a separate religion tag, but the move backfired. And as soon as Yediyurappa stepped down as chief minister, it alleged that Lingayat leaders were being sidelined by the BJP. Many Congress leaders, however, fear that the new entrants might upset the applecart as there is already a power tussle among Lingayat leaders in the party who might see the new entrants a threat to their political aspirations.

The mood in Hubballi is charged with Shettar joining the Congress. While the BJP urged him to make way for new faces, Shettar wanted one last shot at power. As he was rebuffed, he joined the Congress despite his long association with the RSS, ignoring offers like a Rajya Sabha seat, a berth in the Union cabinet or a governor’s post. “I built the party in north Karnataka under the guidance of Yediyurappa and Ananth Kumar. But the party failed to give me a graceful exit from electoral politics. I am hurt and so is my self-respect,” said Shettar. Yediyurappa blamed Savadi and Shettar for betraying the party and the people. “Shettar comes from a family associated with the sangh parivar from the Jana Sangh days. The party has given him ample opportunities―he was leader of the opposition, party president, minister, speaker and chief minister,” he said.

Bommai, who visited Shettar’s residence along with Union ministers Pralhad Joshi and Dharmendra Pradhan for negotiations, said [Union Home Minister] Amit Shah and [BJP president] J.P. Nadda offered him a bigger post in Delhi, “but he behaved like an opportunist”.

While the Bommai government’s decision to hike the quota for Lingayats by 2 per cent has pacified the agitating Panchamasali Lingayats, the BJP’s challenges are far from over. The exit of Shettar, a Banajiga, and Savadi, a Gaaniga, might lead to discord among various smaller subsects in the community. The Congress is hoping to benefit from the rebellion and has put up 51 Lingayat candidates (10 more than the last time) compared with the BJP’s 68. Even a marginal split in the Lingayat votes could hugely benefit the Congress. The BJP, in damage control mode, keeps on reminding the Lingayats of the “insult” and “hurt” caused by the Congress to the community in the past, especially when it replaced Veerendra Patil as chief minister in 1989 and brought in S. Bangarappa, an OBC leader. Amid the chaos, former chief minister Siddaramaiah’s remarks on “corrupt Lingayat chief minister” has stirred a fresh row. Siddaramaiah, who was campaigning in Varuna, lost his cool when reporters told him that the BJP had dared the Congress to declare a Lingayat as its chief ministerial candidate. “We already have a Lingayat chief minister who has indulged in corruption and spoilt the state,” said Siddaramaiah. The BJP has demanded a public apology from Siddaramaiah and called his remarks an “insult” to the Lingayats.

Soon after Savadi and Shettar quit, Nadda landed in Hubballi and visited the powerful Lingayat mutts―Siddaroodha and Moorusaavira. Yediyurappa held a meeting of Lingayat leaders to discuss the possible impact of the defections and to find ways to pacify the community. “We dare the Congress to declare that a Lingayat would become chief minister if it wins,” said Housing Minister and Lingayat leader V. Somanna, who is fighting Siddaramaiah, one of the leading chief ministerial aspirants of the Congress.

Siddaramaiah, a Kuruba strongman, and Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, are the leading contenders for the chief minister’s post from the Congress. But both might lose out if the elections throw up a hung assembly as the JD(S) could emerge the kingmaker. In that case, Gowda might insist on a dalit chief minister like G. Parameshwara or Mallikarjun Kharge―or even pick a Lingayat leader like M.B. Patil, a five-time MLA from Babaleshwara, to dwarf the influence of the Congress bigwigs.

In the BJP, even as Yediyurappa is hoping to see his younger son and BJP state vice president B.Y. Vijayendra emerge as his political successor, there is a long list of chief ministerial aspirants. Arvind Bellad, a two-time MLA from the Hubbali-Dharwad West constituency, is among the leading contenders for the top post. He is the son of five-time MLA Chandrakant Bellad, a veteran RSS leader who helped the BJP expand in north Karnataka by bringing in the Lingayat votebank. Arvind, an engineering graduate and a businessman with a clean image, is said to be in the good books of Santosh.

Industries Minister Murugesh Nirani is another contender. A three-term MLA from Bilgi constituency in Bagalkote, he is a successful industrialist. He has been backing the Panchamasali movement for higher reservation quota. Former Union minister and Vijayapura MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, a staunch hindutva leader and a vocal critic of Yediyurappa, too, is in the race. Housing Minister V. Somanna is another Lingayat leader with chief ministerial ambitions.

The BJP’s desire to reduce its dependency on the Lingayat vote bank might see Vokkaliga leader and four-time MLA from Chikkamagaluru C.T. Ravi making it to the top post. Also in the reckoning is Pralhad Joshi, the four-time MP from Dharwad, who is Union minister for parliamentary affairs. The Brahmin leader from the Lingayat heartland could end up as consensus candidate for the top post.

Lingayats, however, still hold the edge. BJP general secretary and Karnataka in charge Arun Singh said the party had been enjoying overwhelming support from the community for three decades now. “Of the four BJP chief ministers, three have been Lingayats,” he said. “It is now a universal truth that the next chief minister from the BJP will also be a Lingayat.”