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BJP's Karnataka Conundrum: Finding a Successor to BSY, and the Long, Tumultuous Road It Opens

File photo of Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa. (PTI Photo).

File photo of Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa. (PTI Photo).

One set of voices within the party feels it is better to face the next election under a different CM — one who can take charge perhaps by the end of 2020, and go on to demonstrate his or her leadership and governance skills in the remaining two years.

A year into office, BS Yediyurappa, the Bharatiya Janata Party's only chief minister who is above the 75-year threshold, finds himself at a crossroads.

In the past two months, the party high command has given scant regard to his choice of legislative council and Rajya Sabha candidates, when elections were notified for these.

And now, he has not been able to keep his promise of ministerial berths to leaders who defected from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) to help him come to power last year. A cabinet reshuffle and expansion has been on the cards for a long time: defectors like MTB Nagaraj and R Shankar who have been made members of legislative council (MLCs) after nearly six months are waiting in the wings to be crowned ministers.

Yet, there have been inordinate delays, amid a buzz that refuses to go away that the 'high command' may not only go for a cabinet reshuffle but may also look at a new CM face who can front the party for the next elections.

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Nobody knows whether this buzz is serious or just wishful thinking on the part of other aspirants. But the one thing everyone knows is that, in Karnataka politics, BSY is quite, quite irreplaceable.

"Actually, they have already started looking at it (a potential replacement) for almost six months," says political analyst Harish Ramaswamy. "They also realise they can't replace Yediyurappa unless they have a clear strategy on the ground, for the simple reason that he is a grassroots leader, and he has his roots clearly spread in the Lingayat region."

After all, who can forget the drubbing that the BJP suffered when BSY parted ways with it seven years ago and floated his own splinter party?

So the strategy is threefold right now, Ramaswamy says.

"They want an RSS person in the picture. They are also trying to find an alternate Lingayat candidate. Although you have Lingayats in the BJP, you don't have candidates who can replace Yediyurappa in the public space. The third thing they are working on is, if they have a new leader, will he be deep-rooted enough to garner votes for the BJP? There is one set of votes that will go to the BJP anyway. But there is political mobilisation capacity needed to garner more votes to defeat another party that is regionally strong like the JD(S) or has a national stature like the Congress with its formidable leaders like Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar," Ramaswamy says to News18.

There is still another two and a half years to go before Karnataka faces an assembly election, but the BJP has always been known to start and prepare early. So one set of voices within the party feels that it is better to face the next election under a different CM — one who can take charge perhaps by the end of 2020, and go on to demonstrate his or her leadership and governance skills in the remaining two years.

There is another set that believes it is better to face the next election under BSY at the helm. But if they win the next election, then it would be better to get in a new 'surprise' face installed as the CM, with Yediyurappa being given a graceful exit as, perhaps, a governor.

"They can continue with him till the next election, so that the party comes back (or stands a good chance of coming back) to power. Everything else is secondary. The party must come back," says a senior minister in the BSY cabinet, adding, "They can then decide the next CM after winning the election based on BSY's popularity." He is a CM aspirant himself.

The problem would, of course, be that BSY would be at the ripe age of 80 by then. The party has, hitherto, prided itself on asking its 75+ leaders to move to the so-called 'margdarshak mandal', which is supposed to be an apex advisory body.

But if they make an exception for a 77-year-old now, would it matter if the age were 78, 79 or 80?

"They are likely to let him complete his term (till 2023), extracting a promise perhaps that he will be at the forefront of the next election campaign and help win it. If they win the election, the possibility of another Lingayat leader close to BSY like Bommai becoming the CM is not ruled out. An alternative option might be to make a Dalit leader like the present deputy CM, Govind Karjol, the CM for half the term and then accommodate a powerful upper caste leader for the remainder of the term (assuming the party comes to power)," says Chandan Gowda, political observer and professor at the Azim Premji University.

These leaders, however, may not be close to the party's national general secretary (organisation) BL Santhosh. Over the past year, Santhosh has been calling the shots over many issues, be it choice of candidates in various elections or taking on the Opposition on issues like the Bengaluru riots. He has kept a close watch over politics in Karnataka, and is said to be not averse to chief ministerial dreams himself.

But the camp that feels BSY could be replaced earlier, believes that the time may come as early as six months from now.

A Lingayat MLA from north Karnataka has been puzzled over why the cabinet expansion has been put off for over a month now.

The CM had given his word to defectors like MTB Nagaraj and R Shankar to reward them with cabinet berths. Not only this, there has also been considerable lobbying from the 'original' BJP MLAs to be accommodated in a cabinet expansion. Perhaps the expansion plans have been held up because of the high command's calculations on who should be included and who shouldn't and whether they need to have a new leader in, in six months, he feels.

"Maybe it will take another six months. What I feel is, naturally the party will look for a Lingayat face. There is a feeling in Karnataka that the votes are based on caste — the Gowda votes are with the JD(S), most of the Lingayat votes are with the BJP, so changing that to a non-Lingayat face will make us lose out our core vote bank. So the party won't take a chance on that," he says, on condition of anonymity.

He adds wryly, "Our high command can take any decision, they are known for it. Only they know what calculations run in their mind."

The party has, in the past, tried to taunt BSY in various ways — it installed three deputy CMs without consulting him, it went against his choice in MLC and Rajya Sabha elections, against his choice of state party president. But all this has not deterred Yediyurappa.

"If it had deterred him, he may have done other things (like going against the high command.) But it has not. However, they are pushing him into a situation where he may want out of the race by the next election," points out Ramaswamy. He says the party will probably take this up seriously only about six months before the election.

"Probably one idea that Yediyurappa had earlier was to find a place for his son and he could move away. But they did not agree. With many strategies combined, they have to carefully choose the successor, and give him a graceful exit," he says.

Another political analyst, Prof Sandeep Shastri, says the party has given BSY enough hints — even some not-so-subtle ones — about the need to change the CM.

The chief minister also realises where the shots are being called — whether in appointment of deputy CMs or MPs, the ground is being prepared for a handover.

But the party is also eager that the handover be smooth, Shastri says.

"Who is the ideal replacement, is the million-dollar question. There are a lot of people in the BJP who say, 'Don't put me in the list of contenders.' Because the minute a name is floated, that person would be out of the reckoning. Look at the choice of the President, of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana CMs, at the choice of Tejasvi Surya for Bangalore South Lok Sabha seat. Whenever there is a decision left to the Centre, they believe in an element of surprise," Shastri says.

While surprise is one element that is part of the style of this leadership, the other is that whoever the choice is, must be their choice. Not the media's choice, nor anyone who fancies himself as the next CM or anyone who tries to promote himself.

Again, the man to watch out for is BL Santhosh, Shastri believes.

"I don't think Lingayats have a mass leader of that stature. If you look at how Ramakrishna Hegde emerged as the leader who could bring the Gowdas and Lingayats together, here too, the party may find a Brahmin is the uniting factor— whether Santhosh or Pralhad Joshi. Since Yediyurappa is dead against Santhosh, Joshi may emerge as the compromise candidate," he says.

Caste is not the only calculation. The loyalty test is the only test — loyalty to the party's core principles and to the Delhi bosses — similar to Indira Gandhi's way of functioning, he feels.

first published:August 23, 2020, 07:54 IST