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Why the BJP finds itself sinking in Karnataka and there may be no easy way out

After last week’s events in Karnataka – following the brutal murder of BJP leader Yuva Morcha, Praveen Nettaru in Bellare – the party’s prospects in the state have become bleak.

Challenges for BJP in Karnataka. ANI

Last week, two events caught the attention of a northerner now settled in southern India. The first was the Prime Minister’s visit to Chennai for the inauguration of the Chess Olympiad. This is part of his systematic outreach to build the ‘Modi brand’ in Tamil Nadu.

He is aware of the apprehensions of a large part of the Tamil population regarding the “hegemonic” designs of the BJP to extend its footprint across the country. He therefore knows that this antipathy will have to be neutralized over time. Apart from wearing a Veshti with squares of a chess board embroidered on it, Modi allowed the Chief Minister to take center stage despite it being a contest sponsored by the Union Government . His address at a convocation ceremony the following morning was equally significant. However, it is the second event – ​​that of the murder of a BJP youth leader in Karnataka – that takes on greater short-term significance.

Karnataka was the first southern stronghold that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broke through and was to be the launching pad for the party’s foray into other southern states. Many ground workers of RSS in Kerala are from Karnataka. And it is no coincidence that the new BJP poster artist, who is leading the party’s charge in Tamil Nadu, cut his teeth as a policeman in Karnataka. With his enthronement, the BJP’s Karnataka expansion model was to be applied to Tamil Nadu with appropriate modifications and adaptations. However, after last week’s events in Karnataka – following the brutal murder of BJP leader Yuva Morcha, Praveen Nettaru in Bellare – the party’s prospects in the state have become bleak.

Karnataka is sometimes loosely compared to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in terms of caste equations that dominate the regime. Much of the BJP’s success in the state is attributed to its cracking of the caste code, especially the influential Lingayat community mainly led by BS Yediyurappa. He and Ananth Kumar, who collected the Brahmin votes, formed a formidable combination. Subsequently, the two were able to make inroads into other prominent caste groups like the Vokkaligas (the community from which HD Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy originated).


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Some credit must also go to Congress for abandoning its Lingayat base through a series of personal goals, beginning with Rajiv Gandhi’s impetuous dismissal of Lingayat Chief Minister Veerendra Patil in 1990 and the dissolution of the Janata Party after the death of Ramakrishna Hegde, a Brahmin who had strong Lingayat support. However, some political analysts see the dispute over Idgah Maidan in Hubli as a mini-Ayodhya as the tipping point for the BJP in Karnataka. Either way, in the early 2000s, the BJP emerged as a formidable challenger to Congress, proving that the South was not invincible for the saffron party.

Karnataka is not just another trophy on the BJP’s list of regional conquests. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Karnataka won 26 of the 303 seats won by the BJP. Retaining Karnataka is therefore important for the BJP, not only to retain its base in the south, but also for the Lok Sabha elections in 2024, when the party is likely to suffer losses in the north. However, the failure of the BJP in Karnataka was the inability to develop a pipeline of tentpoles to succeed Ananth Kumar and Yediyurappa. Kumar is no more and every time the central leadership of the party tried to calm down Yediyurappa, they faced a slip-up and were forced to bring him back to power. Having learned from his previous mistake, when he chose DV Sadananda Gowda as his replacement, this time he chose Basavaraj Bommai, a Lingayat, even though he is not a career BJP or RSS man. However, Bommai was unable to fill Yediyurappa’s big shoes.

The BJP’s strategy in Karnataka had so far been that of soft Hindutva. Although undoubtedly a group of Hindus, they did not wear the Hindutva insignia of Hindus. He consciously avoided the shrill tone he uses in the North. But, in recent months, the party has been seen to shift to a more aggressive form of Hindutva, which was evident in the hijab controversy and the row over the beef ban. This was likely calibrated to raise the stakes ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections to offset potential losses from anti-incumbency. But Bommai is not Yogi Adityanath. His handling of the aftermath of these episodes appeared tentative at best. It is perhaps no exaggeration to believe that these emboldened reactionary elements are engaging in an apparent act of revenge, making Praveen Nettaru an example.

The BJP cadre’s report of angst against the state leadership stems from two factors. First, having bolstered their combative psyche, they feel disillusioned with the government’s lukewarm response and lack of urgency to take retributive action. Second, it has shaken their confidence in the support they can expect from institutions if the situation were to worsen further in the run-up to elections. This is where Bommai has a serious confidence deficit.

The reactions that followed are even more problematic. Karnataka’s Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Ashwathnarayan went further saying that the ‘Yogi model’ would be imported to Karnataka. Going a step further, he said “encounter killings” should be allowed. Others have demanded the banning of organizations like PFI which are suspected of having links with Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS. Incendiary statements are made by some religious leaders and fringe organizations inciting violence. Bommai seems to lack the depth to handle the situation both politically and administratively. He is not a real blue BJP or Sangh member with charisma and popular influence to be able to contain the anger of the cadres. As Chief Minister, he certainly does not have the guts or courage to take strong action.

This puts the prime minister and the central leadership of the BJP in a difficult situation. The BJP cannot allow a “bulldozer” culture in Karnataka. This is precisely what the South is afraid of. Any move in this direction will play into the hands of the opposition and nullify all Modi’s efforts to assuage the region’s reservations about the BJP. Stepping into Uttarakhand, where Pushkar Dhami was appointed chief minister a few months before the elections, would risk angering the powerful Lingayat community. So does this mean calling old workhorse BS Yediyurappa out of retirement? There are no easy solutions in sight.

The author is a news commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. The opinions expressed are personal.

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