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In poll mode, Siddaramaiah gives BJP a run for its money in Karnataka

No wonder BJP president Amit Shah had to come down to rap the party cadre who seemed to pass up every opportunity to discomfit the state government.

india Updated: Sep 09, 2017 15:57 IST
Preethi Nagaraj
Preethi Nagaraj
Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah has come out firing on all cylinders even as the BJP is struggling to get a grip on its crankshaft in the poll-bound state.(PTI)

Identity politics. Chest-thumping chauvinism. Cabinet reshuffle. Populist rhetoric and measures. No, this is not a BJP strongman but Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, who seems to be beating the BJP at its own game.

The chief minister, who has a low profile with the Congress at the national level, has come out firing on all cylinders even as the BJP is struggling to get a grip on its crankshaft in the poll-bound state.

No wonder BJP president Amit Shah had to come down to rap the party cadre who seemed to pass up every opportunity to discomfit the state government.

For example, it took a full three weeks — after Shah’s dressing down — for the state unit to organise a protest against the alleged corruption of energy minister DK Shivakumar, whose properties were raided by income tax authorities in early August.

The raids reeked of political vendetta, being ordered by the Centre as Shivakumar had helped prevent horse-trading in Rajya Sabha elections by corralling 44 Gujarat MLAs in a Bengaluru resort, thereby helping Congress strongman Ahmed Patel’s re-election.

With the nothing unearthed, the raids boomeranged on the BJP.

Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga leader, turned a hero and has since earned new-found respect with the high command. “The raids helped my voters reiterate their trust in me. Now the whole state knows I’m clean as they couldn’t find any clinching evidence against me.”

But that the BJP failed to seize the moment highlights its poor state of poll preparedness. Shah, during his three-day visit to the state, is learnt to have been incensed over the leadership’s failure to organise itself and use the ‘opportunities’ provided by the Centre to consolidate the party.

Worsening matters is the open feud between BS Yeddyurappa, the party’s public face in the state, and KS Eshwarappa, the not-so-diplomatic contender for the top post.

In the light of such impediments, the only face-saver for the party was the Congress’s defeat of its no-confidence motion to oust legislative council chairman DH Shankaramurthy, a BJP veteran, in June, which led to a sort of infighting in Congress as its MLAs demanded action against VS Ugrappa, the MLC close to Siddaramaiah who moved the motion without doing his homework.

But Ugrappa sees bigger doom for the BJP. “The BJP is out to form an unholy alliance with JD(S) (which voted against the motion). But the relationship won’t last, given the BJP’s loyalty to its nationalist agenda, which is obviously against the welfare of our state and its interests.”


‘Nationalist agenda’, as the Congress dubs, has unexpectedly become a hot potato for the BJP as it cannot alter it to suit the state’s narrative and has been forced to stay neutral on boiling issues — the state flag and Lingayats’ status, as they go against its core ideology of Hindutva and state autonomy.

It cannot counter the Congress on issues such as a separate flag for the state, or call out against the imposition of Hindi or, crucially, the agitation for separate religion status for the Lingayats, Karnataka’s most influential community constituting 17% of the population and capable of economically and numerically shifting political equations. About two lakh Lingayats recently congregated in Belagavi, the seat of their dharma, to press for their demand for independent minority religion status outside Hinduism, with Congress’s tacit support. Lingayats form the biggest voter base for BJP in Karnataka, and this development has left its leaders in a panic.

BJP national president Amit Shah and BJP Karnataka state president B S Yeddyurappa (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

It is a supreme irony that Yeddyurappa, a prominent Lingayat leader himself who has massive following in the community, finds himself at crossroads: the BJP’s nationalist agenda vis-à-vis his own identity and community’s agenda. Even with 17 MPs, he finds himself unable to make any political dent for his party. And, embarrassingly, in the past, he himself had written to then-prime minister Manmohan Singh seeking separate religion status for the Lingayat dharma. This letter began making rounds soon after he and his party criticised the Lingayat issue.


This chink in Yeddyurappa’s armour has come in handy for Siddaramaiah, whose party is moribund at the national level. Upping the ante over regional identity, even flirting dangerously with chauvinism in a 14-minute video a few weeks ago, ‘Kannada Namma Hemme’, the CM sent out a shocking ‘warning’ to migrants asking them to adapt to the local culture if they wanted to continue living in the state, and that he won’t tolerate any attack on “language, land and water”.

Coincidentally, Siddaramaiah is the leader of Kurubas, who come after Lingayats and Vokkaligas in terms of population and political clout. These three communities hold the key to power equations in Karnataka.

Convinced that language and identity politics are tied to its return to the seat of power in Karnataka, the Congress has been playing its cards with the ease of a seasoned player. When the Centre came up with the three-language formula with respect to signage and boards at Metro rail stations in Bengaluru, the Siddaramaiah government managed a swift response through pro-Kannada groups. The agitation that started on social media ended in Hindi being erased from the Metro’s signages.

Signage at Mahatma Gandhi Metro station written in Hindi language along with English and Kannada in Bengaluru. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)


“They [NDA government] gave it to us on a platter,” chortled AICC spokesperson Brijesh Kalappa. “They never insisted on three languages for Kochi or any other place serviced by Metro rail. Even with the Mahadayi river water-sharing issue, Karnataka was made to bend over backwards as the BJP openly sided with Goa, where their interests lie. It was a situation where Karnataka was given no preference at all. And now, additional solicitor general Atmaram Nadkarni will appear for Goa in the Mahadayi issue. Isn’t this blatant partisanship?”

Back in the BJP camp, Union human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar has been named the election in-charge for Karnataka, with RSS functionary BL Santhosh overseeing matters. It is an open secret that Santhosh and Yeddyurappa dislike each other.

Asked to comment, CT Ravi, an influential MLA in the party, snapped: “It is not appropriate for the media to term them as foes per se. BSY and Santoshji have well-carved-out responsibilities for each other and there are no intersecting points. Both will strive to get the party back to power. The media should stop spreading lies and focus on Congress’s misdeeds.”


Strategy is key to the BJP’s rise to power nationally but it doesn’t appear to work in Karnataka, which often bucks the national trend. Incidentally, this is the state that helped Indira Gandhi get back into the Lok Sabha after she was kicked out for her Emergency excesses. It is also the first state in the south where BJP got its toehold by sharing power with JD(S) in 2006, before emerging as the single largest party by clinching 110 seats to form the government, with the support of six independents. That Yeddyurappa government was beset with corruption allegations and Amit Shah’s anointing him as leader again has caused some disquiet within the party.

In all this, Prithvi Reddy, state in-charge of the Aam Aadmi Party, feels it is high time the state had a political alternative. “North Karnataka is upset with the BJP for not supporting it over Mahadayi. JD(S) has no (standing) there at all and BJP managed to (anger) Mandya farmers over Cauvery. Now, all those IT raids and assaults on the Congress by the central government have surprisingly become non-issues. BJP needs a stronger narrative than this to fight the Congress,” he said.

BJP also needs better PR. Amit Shah, in a bid to forge bonds with the Vokkaliga community, called on Sri Nirmalanandanatha Swamiji, head of Adichunchanagiri Mutt. Soon, pictures of him sitting in an ‘improper’ manner before the Swamiji went viral.

Senior BJP leader Vamanacharya sought to play down the faux pas saying: “He went to the Adichunchanagiri Mutt to meet the seer. That way he met other religious leaders too. The media chose to selectively ignore all that and highlighted only this as a failure. That was never the case.”

Asked if the BJP had lost the golden hour to respond to the constitution of the committee that will decide on the Kannada flag or on consolidating significant voices to counter the separate religion tag for Lingayats, or even confronting the government on corruption, suicides of police officers and river disputes, Vamanacharya said, “Our strategy is to wait it out. We have been very measured in our response to issues. We do not want to hurt communities’ feelings to gain political mileage.”


Both the parties are not having it easy. Both are faction-ridden. Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) chief Parameshwara is reportedly sulking over the cabinet reshuffle. The Anti-Corruption Bureau is expected to reopen cases against Yeddyurappa, in which he had got some respite after having served a few days in prison. The ghost may well be back to haunt him.

As for Siddaramaiah, he has not created a niche for himself. “There is no doctrine bearing his name nor any model that he can boast,” observed political commentator Pruthvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, a scholar associated with Karnataka State Open University, commenting on the chief minister’s political acumen. “He maintains a low-key presence in a ‘high-command-culture-heavy’ Congress. He isn’t the darling of the English media. But then again, those can also be termed his strengths. Given his longstanding experience with administration, he is sharp and focused.”

He has armed his party with a strategy for April 2018. But will this help deliver the results? Or will the BJP pull off yet another coup?

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Sep 09, 2017 15:47 IST