Karnataka has for long been BJPs “Southern Gateway” – the first and only state south of the Vindhyas where the BJP has a strong electoral and political presence. BJP even held power for five years from 2008 through 2013 with Yeddyurappa as CM. Despite a drubbing at the hustings in the State polls held in 2013, the BJP made a strong comeback bagging 17 of 28 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections riding a Modi-led Tsunami that swept all in its wake.
Karnataka goes to the polls in 2018 and the State and Central BJP were confident that the BJP would come back to power on the back of a dismal performance by incumbent CM Siddaramaiah. However if recent events are any indication then the BJP is in for a very tough fight if not a rude shock. The claims of winning 150 seats in 2018 ring hollow as the BJP is caught up in infighting and rebellion.
The loss in Nanjangud and Gundlupet bye-elections would have stung the BJP – it was no ordinary loss, it was a comprehensive defeat by huge margins to the Congress and goes against the popular mood across the nation in favour of the BJP. Clearly, Siddaramaiah has dug his heels in and the support from people of his community, the Kurubas remains strong.
Second, the bitter and public spat between the two top state leaders of the BJP, Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa the former the sitting BJP state party president and the latter the Leader of the opposition in the State Assembly has created rifts within the state unit and given sleepless nights to National President Amit Shah and BJP National General Secretary and state in-charge Muralidhar Rao.
On Tuesday, May-2 Yeddyurappa cocked a snook at the Eshwarappa camp by appointing V. Srinivasa Prasad as Vice President of the State unit of the BJP. Srinivasa Prasad is a recent entrant into the BJP from the Congress and the very same man who lost the Nanjangud bye-polls a few weeks ago. This ill-advised move by Yeddyurappa is only going to add fuel to the fire and increase the infighting within the party.
To understand why the central BJP and the Modi-Shah combine are putting up with the antics of Yeddyurappa and are seen to be siding with him in the internecine battle of wits between him and Eshwarappa, one has to understand the caste equations within the State of Karnataka and how they impact the poll prospects of political parties.
The Karnataka Caste equation:
Note: The above chart relies on old caste census data and not the new census data that was commissioned by the Siddaramaiah government because this new data has been the subject of much controversy and has not been universally accepted by experts as well as several bodies within the State.
The Lingayats (18%) and the Vokkaligas (16%) have long been the dominant castes in Karnataka. While it could be argued that the lower castes form the majority (SC + ST = 24%), this has not played out on the ground. The lower castes may outnumber the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, but not one has occupied the CM seat including stalwart backward leaders like late B. Basavalingappa and M. Malliakrjuna Kharge.
Of the 22 CMs since independence, 8 have been Lingayats, 8 Vokkaligas, 2 Brahmins, and 4 belonging to the OBC category. The Lingayat community right up to 1990 was strongly behind the Congress. However the sacking that year of the powerful Lingayat leader and CM Veerendra Patil by late Rajiv Gandhi led to a majority of the Lingayat community moving away from the Congress to the BJP.
Yeddyurappa who is a Lingayat has for long used this to his advantage and he is in fact only the second CM besides JH Patel of the JDS from the Lingayat community to have occupied the CMs post in the last two decades since 1990. Past history has shown that the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas vote largely on community lines and not on party lines – This is probably the reason why the central BJP leadership is wary of disciplining Yeddyurappa particularly when the 2018 assembly elections are just round the corner. Although the shrewd Amit Shah has been working on the ground with tacit support from the RSS in an attempt to build a rainbow coalition in favour of the BJP from amongst the lower castes it is still too early to rock the boat and hence the long rope for Yeddyurappa.
Eshwarappa – the other factor:
Eshwarappa, the former Deputy Chief Minister and present leader of the opposition in the Assembly is in the forefront of the rebellion against Yeddyurappa.
Eshwarappa is a Kuruba (the same caste as present CM Siddaramaiah) and was nursing ambitions of becoming the main leader within the Karnataka BJP. The re-entry of Yeddyurappa and his immediate elevation to the post of party president has upset his applecart.
The central leadership is understandably upset with his public display of displeasure and his “Save BJP” campaign. As BJP National General Secretary and state in-charge Muralidhar Rao noted “Discussing party issues on the streets is not healthy; there is internal democracy in the party to discuss any issue.”
Eshwarappa also holds Yeddyurappa directly responsible for his (Eshwarappa’s) humiliating defeat in the 2013 state elections from Shivamogga (Both Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa are from Shivamogga).
Although the central BJP has been critical of Eshwarappa and has also stripped 4 of his alleged loyalists from key party posts, it has stopped short of initiating any direct action against Eshwarappa as they are wary of losing Kuruba support and also because Eshwarappa has had a long association with the BJP going back to his student days in the ABVP and then the erstwhile Jana Sangh.
BL Santosh – the RSS factor:
BL Santosh an RSS Pracharak and nominee to the State BJP is the third factor. He has been openly blamed by Yeddyurappa as the man behind the present rebellion in the State BJP. It is believed that Santosh was the person who had recommended to the Central Leadership in 2011 that Yeddyurappa had to be replaced by someone with a “clean” record following former Lokayukta head Santosh Hegde’s indictment of Yeddyurappa in a slew of corruption cases involving illegal mining and land deals.
Yeddyurappa knows that he cannot take on BL Santosh from within the party and therefore has come out in the open with his accusations against the latter of engineering the Eshwarappa-led rebellion
Whether or not Santhosh has engineered the Eshwarappa rebellion the fact remains that he is a Pracharak that the BJP cannot afford to offend for now. This explains why, although Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa were summoned to New Delhi and read the riot act and asked to behave, no action was taken against the latter.
The BJP state executive is scheduled to meet on May 6 and 7 at Mysuru. Central ministers, MPs, MLAs, MLCs, and District Presidents (640 party members in total) are all expected to participate in this crucial meeting. The state-in-charge Muralidhar Rao has his work cut out. If the BJP does not bury its internal differences, unite under one leader and project a united front to the people of Karnataka in 2018 they are in serious danger of committing Harakiri and may well snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.