Flying into Karnataka with a tight schedule, union home minister Amit Shah’s visit to the southern state on Tuesday is expected to create quite a flutter, say Bharatiya Janata Party insiders.
BJP sources say that on top of the senior leader’s agenda would be to discuss a possible leadership change in the state as well as clear the names of ministers to expand the Basavaraj Bommai cabinet.
Shah is in Karnataka as part of a series of programmes including the valedictory ceremony of the Khelo India University Games that began a week ago in Bengaluru.
He will also pay tribute to 12th-century social reformer and Lingayat saint Basavanna on the occasion of Basava Jayanthi.
Shah’s visit to the state comes at a time when the BJP-led government is seen grappling with a series of controversies including rising communal tensions and a rash of corruption allegations.
BJP sources told News18.com that the union minister is expected to hold one-on-one meetings with Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai, state party chief Nalin Kumar Kateel as well as senior leaders such as former CM BS Yediyurappa on issues relating to governance, chart out the action plan for the 2023 assembly elections, and reiterate the target of 150 seats out of a total 224.
Though party leaders said they were confident that there would be no change in the chief ministership, they added that “anything can happen in the BJP if the senior leadership put their mind to it”.
This comes against the backdrop of national organising secretary BL Santhosh’s recent statement that the BJP top brass has the courage and strength to implement wholesale changes in leadership in states, which triggered fresh speculation on such a possibility in Karnataka.
However, party sources said that it would not be an easy task to change the CM at this time. Not only would it send out a negative message, but it would also upset the BJP’s caste applecart.
Bommai, who replaced BS Yediyurappa as the chief minister, was the choice of the former CM himself. The BJP central leaders do understand the clout that Yediyurappa has in the state unit and the party’s vote bank, one that they would not like to agitate ahead of elections. The BJP is determined not to upset the Lingayat vote bank, one that proved very costly during the 2013 and 2018 elections. In 2013, Yediyurappa quit the party and floated the Karnataka Janata Paksha, which won six seats and made a considerable dent in the BJP’s Lingayat vote bank.
“Unless BSY agrees, Bommai cannot be shifted out. Even if that happens, the CM post will have to find another Lingayat face and, as of now, there is no other acceptable face except Bommai— both to Yediyurappa and the central leadership. At this time it is important to ensure that too many changes aren’t made which may cause dissent. There is a need to keep the ministers happy, the Lingayat vote bank and North Karnataka leaders satisfied, and ensure that an acceptable face continues to run the government,” said a senior party functionary on condition of anonymity.
Another top priority would be to anatomise the impact of the recent controversies such as the hijab ban, halal row, and corruption allegations on the minds of the voters, said BJP leaders.
“All leaders are quite concerned about the party’s image and its likely performance in the coming elections,” a senior BJP leader told News18. “But for hijab, halal, and the murder cases of Harsha (right-wing leader) and Chandru, we were on the back foot. We haven’t been able to shift the public debate focus from corruption and price rise.”
Another state leader agreed that the BJP government had not been able to create a strong narrative against the opposition Congress.
“Rather the government has found itself embroiled in cases that have led to embarrassment and allegations of divisive politics. We have only been firefighting and issues such as commission-led corruption, PSI recruitment scam, infrastructure project delays have hurt the image of the party,” a North Karnataka BJP leader told News18.com.
During his visit a month ago, Shah, at a state core committee meeting emphasised that the BJP should form the next government on its own and fixed a target of 150 seats for the 2023 state elections. The leader had also asked the state unit to lay out a comprehensive workable plan for the polls, perform and deliver, or be ready to face the axe.
During Shah’s April visit, there had been a growing demand within the party to appoint a new state unit chief, replacing Nalin Kumar Kateel ahead of the 2023 polls. “While no decisions were taken then, this visit may see some significant changes in the party structure,” said a BJP functionary on the condition of anonymity.
News18.com has learnt that the party bosses have been contemplating changing the state unit leadership as Kateel’s performance is not rated as satisfactory and the party also found itself on the back foot and lacking when it came to issues such as allegations of corruption. Those who have been seeking a change in leadership say that they found the party president ineffective in handling the political attacks of the Opposition.
“The president has not been effective enough to tackle the likes of Siddaramaiah or DK Shivakumar on issues like the Mekedatu project or corruption. He is neither seen on the ground nor taking on the Congress. In turn, it has made the party look weak when it isn’t. He has also not been able to gain the confidence of the CM and the ministers,” another senior BJP leader said, wishing to remain nameless.
Udupi Chikmagalur MP Shobha Karandlaje’s name has been doing the rounds for party president if a change is made. Karandlaje, who on the instructions of the BJP high command had remained on the sidelines, may now find an opportunity to rise.
“It would not surprise us if they make Shobha ji the party president. It would be a reward for her silence all these months. It also sends a message to the state unit that every leader follows the diktat of the party and if found crossing limits will be sidelined completely,” a leader explained.
The party will also take a call on filling the remaining five posts in Bommai’s cabinet. The CM had mentioned after his lunch meeting with Shah in Delhi last week that cabinet expansion would be discussed during this visit. The Bommai cabinet presently has 29 ministers against a full strength of 34.