Karnataka CM and BJP leader BS Yediyurappa (left) has slammed Jagadish Shettar (right), another former Karnataka CM, who quit the party, ahead of Karnataka assembly polls Image Credit: ANI/AFP

In last week’s column I argued that in Karnataka’s forthcoming state elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was slightly ahead. The reason? Though anti-incumbency and corruption charges might weaken the party’s victory margins, the principal opposition party, the Congress, was a house divided.

Moreover, they had not got their act together to mount a massive campaign to oust the BJP. The third player in the three-cornered tussle, Janata Dal (United), with its strong Vokkaliga or Gowda support base, might well end up as the kingmaker if neither the BJP nor the Congress got a clear majority.

Since then, however, in the fast-changing political scenario in the runup to the elections on May 10th in India’s “Silicon Valley” state, the BJP’s chances seem to be reduced. Now, observers see it as trailing the Congress instead of leading it. What has changed in just a week’s time?

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Exit Shettar, Savadi

For one, the spate of defections of senior and important leaders. Chief among them is Jagadish Shettar. Beside Shettar, the other important Lingayat politician to switch sides is Laxman Savadi, former deputy chief minister.

Shettar, not only former chief minister, BJP state party president, and leader of the opposition in the Karnataka assembly, is also a prominent Lingayat leader. In his well-publicised rebellion, Shettar quit the BJP after being denied a ticket.

He was invited to Delhi and offered other sops including a reported gubernatorial posting. But Shettar refused, as it were, to be kicked upstairs. After joining the Congress, he alleged a conspiracy against him among the BJP’s top handlers and managers, even naming a party national secretary and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh strongman.

Without giving credence to such a contention, what is clear is that Shettar is likely to split the Lingayat votes. Lingayats constitute a powerful faction in the state. Despite hailing from different castes and communities, they form a relatively cohesive religious and social vote bank.

Tussle for power

In fact, much of Karnataka’s politics, since the very formation of the state, can be seen as a tussle for power between the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas.

But such a simplification may actually be misleading, not to mention reductive. For instance, Siddaramaiah, former Congress chief minister and once again a contender for the top job in the state, belongs to the Kuruba community, classified among the OBC (other backward classes).

There is a considerable, if underrepresented, section of the population that hails from the OBC category. They are clamouring for recognition. As are the underreported Schedule Castes, which are believed to be higher than the conventional 15% of the population.

In addition, the Muslim inhabitants of Karnataka, who have just lost their 4% reservation in government educational institutions and jobs, is also expected to play a role, voting against the BJP.

To return to the Lingayats, they constitute the bedrock and backbone of the BJP’s support base. Since the unceremonious humiliation of their leader and former chief minister, Virendra Patil, by the Congress, they are known to have switched their allegiance to the BJP, voting for the latter in both the state assembly and general elections.

Now, some of their leaders, including Shettar, have switched sides. Shettar’s body language and facial expressions during his induction to the Congress by party chief Mallikarjun Kharge showed his bitterness.

After being in the BJP for three decades, crossing over to the other side at the age of 67 must have been painful. Speaking to a news channel, Shettar said, "I requested everybody to give me the reason. The age factor? I am 67, they have given the ticket to leaders who are 75. Do I have any criminal background or any corruption allegations? Nothing. My political life is clean chit, no black spot."

In response, the BJP’s tallest leader, former chief minister, BS Yediyurappa, countered, “Let Him Go.” BSY, as he is popularly known, who is also a Lingayat, said the people would never forgive Shettar for his defection.

Over 80 years old, he has fielded his son, under BJP’s one-family-one-ticket rule, at the hustings. It is another matter that BSY himself broke away from the BJP to form his own party when he was denied the chief ministership some years back.

But the central issue, in my view, is neither caste nor defections, neither anti-incumbency nor corruption—although all these are significant, even swing, factors. What really matters is leadership and the promise of an efficient and clean administration.

BJP has no superior option

Voters have something to choose from when it comes to the latter, but as far as the leadership question is concerned, the BJP has not offered a clearly superior option.

BSY is too old, while the present incumbent, his one-time protégé, Basavaraj Somappa Bommai, a decent and well-spoken politician, is thought of as weak and unimpressive. States, too, need credible and effective leaders.

Those who think the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo are alone sufficient to win state elections may be in for a nasty surprise. Without a strong chief ministerial candidate, the BJP may find it difficult to woo voters into giving it another chance to rule the state.

The lessons of Himachal Pradesh, where the BJP lost to the Congress, ought to be fresh in the minds of party’s top brass. An incumbent chief minister, undermined from within, and a party machinery debilitated by infighting and defections, is a sure recipe for defeat.

Moreover, losing Karnataka will strike a huge symbolic blow to BJP’s 2024 general election campaign. Perhaps, it is not too late.

To ensure victory, both the BJP and its RSS-backed cadres will have to make a determined and concerted final push. However, as of now, one can only wonder where the signs of such a big move are.