Caste constant in Karnataka

Print edition : August 27, 2021

B.S. Yediyurappa, outgoing Chief Minister, greets his successor Basavaraj Bommai after the State Governor Thawarchand Gehlot (right) administered the oath of office at a ceremony at Raj Bhavan in Bengaluru, on July 28. Photo: PTI

B.S. Yediyurappa quits as Chief Minister to make way for Basavaraj Bommai in what is seen as a safe choice by the BJP leadership to keep the Lingayat strongman in good humour.

AN era ended in Karnataka politics when the 78-year-old B.S. Yediyurappa resigned as Chief Minister on July 26 and handed over the baton to 61-year-old Basavaraj Bommai, who was sworn in as the 23rd Chief Minister of the State on July 28. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership’s choice of Basavaraj Bommai, who belongs to the Lingayat community like his predecessor, was dictated by history and his clean image. But it is also a fact that he is a close associate of Yediyurappa.

Yediyurappa’s long-time influence over the BJP’s State unit has made his name synonymous with the party in Karnataka. The BJP now enters uncharted waters with the Lingayat strongman and four-time Chief Minister assigned an ambiguous role in the party leadership. (Between 2007 and 2021, Yediyurappa served four truncated terms as Chief Minister. The duration of his four terms lasted seven days, three years and two months, two days, and two years.)

In an interaction with the media soon after he was made Chief Minister, Basavaraj Bommai acknowledged Yediyurappa’s undisputed leadership: “He is our leader, he will be our leader always and mentor our party in Karnataka.”

Dark horse

Basavaraj Bommai’s name was not among the frontrunners for chief ministership when it became clear by early July that Yediyurappa would step down on the second anniversary of his assumption of power. The names of leaders backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) such as B.L. Santosh (a Brahmin and the BJP national general secretary), Prahlad Joshi (a Brahmin and Union Minister of Coal, Mines and Parliamentary Affairs), C.T. Ravi (a Vokkaliga and the BJP national general secretary), and Lingayat leaders such as Murugesh Nirani (Minister of Mines and Geology) and Arvind Bellad (Member of the Legislative Assembly) were mentioned as possible contenders. Basavaraj Bommai emerged as the dark horse.

Yediyurappa proposed his candidature at the BJP’s Legislature Party meeting in Bengaluru on July 27 and secured its unanimous endorsement. Basavaraj Bommai, who is the son of former Chief Minister S.R. Bommai, joined the BJP in 2008, and, significantly, is not a member of the RSS.

Also read: Basavaraj Bommai to be the new Chief Minister of Karnataka

Two events from history led to his elevation to the post in what political pundits consider as a “safe” choice. The first event happened more than 30 years ago but continues to dictate the trajectory of contemporary politics in Karnataka. In 1990, Congress president Rajiv Gandhi unceremoniously removed Veerendra Patil, a prominent Lingayat leader, from the post of Chief Minister. As a result, Lingayats, one of the two dominant communities in Karnataka along with Vokkaligas, politically abandoned the Congress. Subsequently, this politically astute community shifted its support to Ramakrishna Hegde’s Janata Dal. After his demise, Yediyurappa gradually consolidated his position in the Lingayat community, winning its support for the BJP. So, by the 2008 Assembly election, the BJP had emerged as a powerful political force in Karnataka politics. The party did not want to alienate the Lingayat community by appointing a non-Lingayat as Chief Minister, considering that the caste’s steady support anchors the social base of the BJP in Karnataka.

The second event playing on the minds of BJP leaders at the State and national levels on the choice of Chief Minister was the 2013 Assembly election. Yediyurappa was forced to resign as Chief Minister in 2011 when the Lok Ayukta report indicted him in the illegal iron-ore mining issue. Miffed at being asked to resign, he walked out of the BJP, a party with which he had a four-decades-old association, and formed the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) in December 2012, a few months before the 2013 Assembly election. The KJP won eight seats in the election and secured close to 10 per cent of the popular vote. The BJP was defeated badly, with its seats tally reduced to 40 from the 110 it won in 2008 with Yediyurappa at the helm.

The Congress came to power in 2013. In 2014, Yediyurappa merged the KJP with the BJP, returning to hold sway over the party. However, the BJP had to wait until 2019, when Yediyurappa spectacularly lured away 17 MLAs from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), which had formed a coalition government in 2018, to return to power. The BJP did not wish to risk provoking Yediyurappa again and so selected Basavaraj Bommai with some murmuring that Yediyurappa will continue to wield influence as a “shadow Chief Minister”.

Ideological compromise

“Bommai is an ideological compromise between the hard and soft Hindutva camps in the BJP,” said Muzaffar Assadi, professor of political science at the University of Mysore. He said the RSS was keen on “choosing someone who would further the Hindutva agenda in Karnataka but they were stymied in this by the Lingayat matadhipathis”. In the weeks preceding Yediyurappa’s resignation, Lingayat seers (the powerful heads of the Lingayat mutts), who have been pampered and cultivated by Yediyurappa since the 2000s, gathered in brazen support of the Chief Minister in Bengaluru with some of them even recalling the unceremonious dismissal of the Veerendra Patil government. The implication of bringing this up was clear: if the BJP did not appoint a Lingayat as Chief Minister, then the community will withdraw its support to the party.

Also read: BJP’s use of allurements to come to power in Karnataka

Janaki Nair, retired professor of modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recently argued in an analytical piece that “the Lingayat mutts’ influence and their heterogeneity have been a tough nut for the BJP to crack”. The choice of Basavaraj Bommai has reiterated this aspect as Lingayat seers have ensured that the chief ministership stayed with a member of their caste. Basavaraj Bommai will be the ninth Lingayat Chief Minister of Karnataka.

In a conversation with Frontline, Janaki Nair said that “they [the Lingayat matadhipathis] are representatives of caste interests rather than a unified Hindutva interest and often their positions run counter to Hindutva.” The “orange” (of the matadhipathis) could have countered the “saffron” of Hindutva in Karnataka, she said.

Assadi brought up this point as well: “If Yediyurappa had been removed unceremoniously like Patil, it would have been risky. Thus, the BJP went ahead with this safe choice. ‘Hard’ Hindutva also does not work in Karnataka except in the coastal region. This factor also worked in Bommai’s favour as he is considered an inclusive leader and still retains the influence of his ‘Janata’ days.”

Basavaraj Bommai’s political career began with the Janata Dal, and when it split he joined the Janata Dal (United) in 1999. The mechanical engineer-turned-politician was a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) representing the Janata parivar for two terms between 1997 and 2008. After he joined the BJP in 2008, he was elected from Shiggaon Assembly constituency in Haveri district for three consecutive terms. He was Minister for Home, Law and Justice and Parliamentary Affairs in the Yediyurappa Cabinet.

Also read: Development boards for Maratha and Lingayat communities in Karnataka

S.R. Bommai, was a member of the Janata Party and an intellectual follower of M.N. Roy, the Marxist-turned-radical humanist. Having been groomed in the political tradition of the Janata parivar, there is a feeling that Basavaraj Bommai will not toe the RSS line easily. Yediyurappa also had a tense relationship with the RSS. Senior journalist and political commentator Sugata Srinivasaraju summed up Yediyurappa’s political career aptly: “A Mandal politician with a Hindutva air cover.”

Mass leader

Yediyurappa is the only mass leader of the BJP with a pan-Karnataka appeal. He built up the party in the era that preceded the rise of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah by assiduously using his unchallenged leadership in the Lingayat community to manufacture a broader coalition that included sections of the backward castes, Scheduled Castes (like Madigas) and Scheduled Tribes (like Nayaks) rather than aggressively resorting to the divisive lure of Hindutva like the new generation of BJP Chief Ministers such as Adityanath, Manohar Lal Khattar, Devendra Fadnavis and Himanta Biswa Sarma. As in other BJP-ruled States, Muslims and Christians in Karnataka did not find any political space under Yediyurappa but in an era when muscular Hindutva requires the brutal targeting of religious minorities, Yediyurappa ensured that the more rabid elements within the BJP did not run amok.

Yediyurappa’s latest stint as Chief Minister was lacklustre and not marked by significant policy interventions. Marooned by the BJP central leadership, he lurched from one crisis to another as he warded off dissidence within the party and also faced charges of corruption and accusations that he supported his son B.Y. Vijendra’s interference in party affairs. Nonetheless, it was hard to disagree with Yediyurappa when he, in an emotional and teary farewell on July 26 at the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of government in Bengaluru, claimed credit for building the BJP in Karnataka. In his final speech as Chief Minister, he said: “When [A. B] Vajpayee was Prime Minister, he invited me to become a Minister in the Central government but I told him that I have to build the party in Karnataka. Whenever Vajpayee, [L.K] Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi toured Karnataka, only 300 or 400 people turned up at their public functions but we have grown tremendously since those days.”

Basavaraj Bommai has a chance to make his mark in the political history of Karnataka, but he has big shoes to fill. Will he carve out his own space and emerge as a popular leader away from Yediyurappa’s shadow and the RSS’ influence as the BJP readies itself for the 2023 Assembly election? Sources within the BJP said the party high command would find it easier to handle Basavaraj Bommai for the simple reason that he is not Yediyurappa, who was not beholden to the BJP central leadership in any way for his stature in Karnataka. In a sign that things have changed, there is no Deputy Chief Minister in Basavaraj Bommai’s Cabinet of Ministers that was sworn in on August 4. Yediyurappa was saddled with three Deputy Chief Ministers much against his wishes.

Also read: Panchamsali and Kuruba caste groups demand increase in percentage of quota in Karnataka

There is also the question whether Basavaraj Bommai will lean towards the right and adopt an aggressive Hindutva position or continue to retain his image of being an ‘inclusive’ leader. Mohan Kumar Kondajji, Congress MLC, said, “There are several political questions confronting Bommai. He is a ‘liberal’ who is not originally from the BJP or the RSS, so it remains to be seen how he will run the government.”

The crisis caused by the floods in parts of northern Karnataka and the COVID-19 pandemic are some of the immediate administrative challenges facing the new Chief Minister. Basavaraj Bommai, who belongs to the Sadar subsect of the Lingayat community, will have to ward off challenges posed by the numerically significant Panchamsali subsect, whose leaders have been demanding that the sub-sect be included in the 2A category of the backward castes list in order to be entitled to higher reservation, and whose religious leaders wanted a Panchamsali to be chosen as the next Chief Minister. He would also have to ‘reward’ all the 17 MLAs who crossed over to the BJP in 2019.

While Basavaraj Bommai has accommodated 10 of them in the newly formed Cabinet, it remains to be seen how the rest will be rehabilitated. Their support is crucial for the BJP government but their quick elevation to ministerial positions by Yediyurappa at the cost of old timers had caused disgruntlement. The spectre of groupism (on the basis of caste, region and loyalty) and dissidence which characterised Yediyurappa’s tenure has the potential to erupt at any point to upset Basavaraj Bommai’s time at the helm.

According to A. Narayana, a political commentator who is associated with Azim Premji University, Basavaraj Bommai’s “most important challenge” will be ensuring the Lingayat community’s continued support for the BJP. “If he can ensure this, his own and the party’s future will be assured in Karnataka.” The BJP will be in serious trouble if it ruffles Yediyurappa by sidelining his family members or supporters or in any other way, Narayana said.

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