The Countdown

An absence of leaders with wide appeal makes for an unpredictable political field in Karnataka

The induction into the BJP of SM Krishna, a veteran Congress leader in Karnataka, seemed like a political coup. But the move failed to yield electoral dividends in bypolls held in April. vipin kumar / hindustan times / getty images
01 June, 2017

On 22 March, SM Krishna, the former Congress leader in Karnataka, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party at a ceremony held in the party’s national headquarters in Delhi. It was a typically muddled ritual. The party president, Amit Shah, gifted Krishna a shawl, various lackeys confusedly passed bouquets around, and the two leaders smiled awkwardly long for cameras.

Krishna’s entry was a significant boost for the BJP. The party had just scored a massive victory in the Uttar Pradesh election, and was strategising for upcoming polls—particularly in Karnataka, which will hold an assembly election early next year, and is the only southern state in which the BJP has ever held power. Krishna, a former Karnataka chief minister and union cabinet minister, is a prominent leader in the state, and the party’s success in wooing him boded well for its prospects against the ruling Congress.

Several other factors, too, seemed to align in the BJP’s favour. No party had been voted in for two consecutive terms in power in Karnataka since 1985. The incumbent Congress government, under Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, has had a largely unremarkable term: it has avoided ignominy, but has no striking achievements to show off. The ruling party had also been hit by desertions of leaders other than Krishna, including the former state minister Kumara Bangarappa and the former member of parliament Jayaprakash Hegde. The saffron party’s rise in the state, and the Congress’s downward spiral, appeared inevitable.

But political developments since then have suggested that the story will not be so straightforward. Internal battles in the BJP, the role of a determined third player in the form of the Janata Dal (Secular), and the Congress’s unexpected success in recent bypolls have all dented the impression that the BJP’s success is a foregone conclusion. With no party boasting a unified organisation or a strong leader, the state’s political future for the moment looks far from clear.

The BJP’s internecine fight is playing out between the state party president, BS Yeddyurappa, and the former state party president KS Eshwarappa. The rivalry between the two leaders, who have been at loggerheads for several years, grew particularly heated last year, after Eshwarappa launched the Sangolli Rayanna Brigade, an organisation dedicated to the welfare of oppressed communities, which Yeddyurappa claimed was a competing political centre to the party. Their differences spilled into the open in recent months after the BJP lost two by-elections in April, in the assembly constituencies of Nanjangud and Gundlupet. The Congress had won both seats in the 2013 election, and these polls were seen as an opportunity for Yeddyurappa to display his electoral clout, as well as for the newly inducted Krishna—who campaigned extensively in both constituencies—to prove his popularity. But the Congress improved its victory margins in both seats. Scenting blood, Eshwarappa launched an attack against Yeddyurappa, criticising him for his leadership style and his choice of appointees to various party positions.

It is not only this infighting that is causing turmoil within the BJP—Yeddyurappa’s role and functioning, too, have led to some consternation within the ranks. The party’s decision to reappoint him as state president last year, and then declare him its chief-ministerial candidate, was at odds with the formula generally followed by Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of fielding new faces to fight state elections. Yeddyurappa had quit the party at the end of 2012, ahead of the 2013 election, and floated a new outfit, the Karnataka Janata Paksha. He returned in 2014, before the Lok Sabha election, and was elevated to the state president’s post. The BJP seems to have calculated that, as the most prominent leader of the dominant Lingayat community, Yeddyurappa would help the party secure those votes, even as the Vokkaligas of the southern districts remained largely supportive of HD Deve Gowda, and the Dalit, Other Backward Classes and religious-minority voters aligned behind the Congress.

Further, the former chief minister will have turned 75 by the time of the next election, and thus have crossed the informal limit that Modi and Shah have set for party leaders in positions of power. Many in the party fear that if the BJP wins and Yeddyurappa is not appointed chief minister, he will insist on the former minister Shobha Karandlaje being given the post. Karandlaje, a close confidante of Yeddyurappa’s, held key portfolios when he was the chief minister. She quit the BJP along with Yeddyurappa, and when he decided to return, she, too, followed. Dissidents in the party have on several occasions openly questioned the prominence Yeddyurappa accords to her.

Yeddyurappa’s detractors have sought to promote other leaders as potential chief ministerial candidates. After the by-election debacle, a prominent party ideologue in the state, Chakravarthi Sulibele, tweeted that the party should look for an alternative to Yeddyurappa, and suggested the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh strongman BL Santosh, commonly referred to, with respect, as “Santosh-ji.” The leader has been the RSS’s key back-room strategist in the state for several years. Many party leaders chimed in, supporting the idea of putting Santosh up as the chief ministerial candidate. The discussion has died down now, but these developments have signalled that the leadership question is open in the BJP, sending confusing signs to the party ranks, and, more importantly, to Lingayat voters. For now, the BJP central leadership has imposed an uneasy truce between Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa. Party leaders are once again chanting the name of Yeddyurappa as their chief ministerial candidate. But the discontent within the party is palpable.

Siddaramaiah, meanwhile, has emerged more confident after the successful by-election results, which cemented his position as the unchallenged Congress leader in the state. Soon after, the party appointed KC Venugopal, an MP from Kerala, as the in-charge of the party’s affairs in the state, replacing Digvijaya Singh.

The Congress is also looking to appoint a full-time president for its state unit, to replace G Parameshwara, the state’s home minister, who has been holding the post since the time of the last state election. This has become a tricky issue for the party: while Parameshwara, a Dalit leader, is keen on continuing in the post, Siddaramaiah favours replacing him with a Lingayat leader to counter Yeddyurappa. Meanwhile, Vokkaliga leaders, especially the power minister, DK Shivakumar, are also eyeing the post. They contend that a Vokkaliga leader as the party president in the state will help woo the community’s voters away from former prime minister Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular).

Despite the delay in finding a new party chief, the Congress has largely stood united. The Siddaramaiah government has stayed away from major corruption scandals of the kind that rocked Karnataka under the BJP. The chief minister’s position has largely been stable, despite the occasional demand to appoint a Dalit leader as chief minister; in contrast, the years of BJP rule saw three chief ministers come and go.

The Siddaramaiah government has stuck to a social-justice agenda, focussing on the poorest of the poor. The latest in a series of measures in keeping with this programme is the decision to run highly subsidised “Indira canteens” across the state, reminiscent of the late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa’s “Amma canteens” in Tamil Nadu. The media and the opposition have often accused Siddaramaiah of being too populist, and partisan towards minorities, OBCs and Dalits. Siddaramaiah supporters, however, believe that the government’s pro-poor initiatives, especially a free rice programme and a range of assistance measures for farmers, have wide appeal among the rural poor across caste lines, and will bring rich electoral dividends.

The consistent emphasis on pro-poor redistributive policies has, however, led to some discontent among the urban middle class. The party lost the municipal elections held in Bengaluru two years ago, but managed to hold on to power in the city’s municipal corporation with the support of the JD(S).

The presence of the JD(S) as a third player further complicates an unclear situation. Although Gowda’s party does not have the electoral base to pose a direct challenge to the two principal contenders, it is powerful enough to upset their calculations because of its hold over parts of the state’s southern belt. The party will do whatever it can to eat into the votes of the Congress and the BJP to push the state towards a hung assembly, where it could play the kingmaker. Towards this end, the party is playing the regional card to neutralise the BJP’s nationalist vision. Roping in pro-Kannada groups, the JD(S) has been organising public events across the state to mobilise sentiments against the two national parties. Gowda’s birthday celebrations in Bengaluru this year were converted into a discussion on the alleged injustice meted out to states in the Indian federal system. Among the questions the party has raised is why Karnataka, unlike other south-Indian states, does not have its own regional party.

The JD(S) has also looked to offset the so-called “Modi wave” by citing the prime minister’s failure to help Karnataka in water disputes over the Cauvery and Mahadayi rivers, with Tamil Nadu and Goa, respectively. Attempting to ride on these regional sentiments, the party leader, HD Kumaraswamy, Gowda’s son, who served as chief minister for 20 months starting in 2006 in a coalition government with the BJP, has already launched a campaign to seek a full term this time.

The fact that the Congress has to depend on Siddaramaiah, who came to the party from the JD(S) in 2006, is an indication of the absence of credible leaders within the party. Similarly, the fact that the BJP had to bring Yeddyurappa back after forcing him to resign on corruption charges, and despite the fact that he deserted the party ahead of the last election, shows that it, too, is in a desperate situation. Gowda is the JD(S)’s unchallenged head, but his age and declining health may keep him out of the heat and dust of electoral politics. Kumaraswamy, meanwhile, is yet to establish himself fully. At a time when other southern states have seen the emergence of powerful regional politicians, it appears that Karnataka is going through an era of weak leaders.