WHEN BS YEDDYURAPPA TOOK OATH as chief minister of Karnataka on 30 May 2008 in front of the imposing Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore, nearly every national leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began repeating the same refrain: that the state would become the party’s gateway in South India. A beaming Yeddyurappa said his next priority was to make LK Advani the prime minister. Now, four years later, the BJP’s southern gateway prediction seems to have met the same fate as the dream of Advani’s prime ministership. Karnataka is the BJP’s southern disaster. As Yeddyurappa’s friend-turned-rival-turned-friend, Jagadish Shettar, assumed office on 12 July as the party’s third chief minister in just over four years, neither the BJP nor Yeddyurappa seem to have any clue as to where the party is heading in the state.
After stepping down as chief minister in August last year following charges of corruption, Yeddyurappa had his trusted lieutenant DV Sadananda Gowda installed as his successor, but continued to function as a kind of de-facto chief minister with the help of MLAs loyal to him. But when Gowda, whose clean administration was a welcome reprieve from Yeddyurappa’s scam-tainted regime, began asserting his independence and refused to follow the dictates set forth by Yeddyurappa, it cost him his post. Bowing to Yeddyurappa’s demands once again, the BJP has given the chief minister’s seat to Jagadish Shettar, who belongs to Yeddyurappa’s Lingayat community. The BJP found it difficult to defend the leadership change, but indicated that aside from keeping Yeddyurappa in good humour, it wanted a Lingayat as chief minister in the election year—the party is banking on the support of the Lingayats, who constitute roughly 16 percent of the state’s population. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which claims to work for a casteless society, did not raise even a finger to protest this. It had no qualms replacing Gowda because he did not have the right caste tag to contest the 2013 Assembly elections. In asking Yeddyurappa to step down last year, the BJP had claimed that it did not tolerate corruption. But by replacing Gowda with Shettar, it sent out a message that when it suits the party’s electoral purposes, it would not shy away from caste-based discrimination. The hypocrisy within the party and its ideological wing was a sign of how desperate the BJP was to win.
The lengths to which the BJP has gone to remain in power, however, reveal how tenuous their hold in the state has been to begin with. In 2008, the party won 110 seats in the 224-member Assembly—the largest number that the BJP has ever held in Karnataka. However, these figures alone were not an indication of the party’s strength. The BJP government that came to power in 2008 was a single-party government only in a technical sense. In reality, it was a coalition made up of three incompatible partners. First, there were the politicians who migrated from the erstwhile Janata Dal, JD(S) and JD(U). These feudal lords, most of who are from the politically powerful Lingayat community, have in the past switched parties as it suited them—and this time around it was to the BJP. Second were the Reddys of Bellary who constituted the state’s new super-rich class, which could win elections by the sheer heft of their wallets. The original core of the BJP, led by Yeddyurappa, was the third partner, dependent on the other two groups for money and political support. All three benefited equally from the groundswell of Lingayat support that had come the BJP’s way in 2008, when the JD(S) chief minister HD Kumaraswamy reneged on his commitment to hand over the position to coalition leader Yeddyurappa after 20 months in power.