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Karnataka Elections 2023: The “National versus Regional” dilemma haunting BJP and Congress

Karnataka polls: Both BJP and Congress have to deal with powerful regional leaders and factionalism in Karnataka, which constrains the choices before the high commands of both parties in cultivating loyalties, awarding tickets and driving political strategy

March 18, 2023 / 10:01 AM IST
The Congress high command is on tenterhooks over the conflict between two of its most prominent regional leaders: Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar.

The Congress high command is on tenterhooks over the conflict between two of its most prominent regional leaders: Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar.

A majority of the BJP’s Karnataka leaders and functionaries have averred that the central leadership will micro-and-macro manage the impending assembly elections, the most critical aspect from their viewpoint being ticket distribution.

The Congress high command was on tenterhooks over the conflict between two of its most prominent regional leaders: Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, who by virtue of holding important posts insist that their word was final on the vital parts of electioneering. Siddaramaiah, a former chief minister, is the Opposition leader in the Karnataka legislature, while Shivakumar heads the Karnataka Congress.

Reckoning With Satraps

Underlying the BJP’s claim that its national leadership will arbiter and settle issues including nominations hangs the larger-than-life shadow of its four-time CM, BS Yediyurappa. Although Yediyurappa announced his withdrawal from electoral politics, the central BJP recognised his continuing salience in Karnataka and his work in building the party from scratch.

The Siddharamaiah-Shivakumar tension has a new angle. The Congress president, M Mallikarjun Kharge, a long-time MLA and MP from Gulbarga (he lost the 2019 election), with a base among a section of Dalits, has signalled time and again his intent to have a say in election management. Kharge also nurses ambitions for his son and Chittapur MLA, Priyank Kharge.

The central BJP’s dilemma in handling Yediyurappa, one of its successful regional satraps, arises from his indomitable status as a leader of the Lingayats who constitute 17 percent of the population (although there are sub-castes who do not necessarily follow the BJP) and an image as a peasant “neta” with a pull in rural Karnataka offset by his overt aspirations for his younger son, BY Vijayendra.

A Son Rise BJP Resents

Vijayendra, vice-president in the Karnataka BJP, was denied a ticket in the 2018 elections and later nominated to the legislative council. The father and son made it clear several times that Vijayendra would contest from Shikharipura, the seat Yediyurappa vacated after opting out of electoral politics.

Yediyurappa’s “putra moh” (blind love) for Vijayendra was publicly resented by the state leaders who are convinced that the son’s win might become an alibi for the father to call the shots in Karnataka politics by proxy. Additionally, Vijayendra’s nomination could erode the BJP’s stated opposition to dynasts, a contention that has already been called out in several states where leaders’ progenies were given tickets and ministries on being elected.

The BJP’s “high command” tried to mollify Yediyurappa without yet addressing its quandary over Vijayendra by drafting him in the central parliamentary board, its apex decision-making body, and giving him a pride of place in the meetings addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Karnataka.

The first move might not have helped because lately, the board did not meet when important decisions were taken such as the anointment of Manik Saha as the Tripura CM and partnering Conrad Sangma in Meghalaya after the polls notwithstanding the pre-poll rancour. While Yediyurappa’s prominent presence at Modi’s functions made for good optics, was it a gauge of his influence?

Balancing Acts

The final test of the former CM’s relevance will come when nominations are short-listed. Yediyurappa stands alone against the phalanx of Karnataka leaders who seemed determined to relegate him and his son to the margins. However, the central brass did another balancing act when the election campaign and election management committees were formed.

While Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai heads the campaign panel, Yediyurappa and Vijayendra are members while the management committee is headed by Shobha Karandlaje, a central minister and close political associate of Yediyurappa.

The BJP’s national general secretary and MLA, CT Ravi, who represents another dominant caste, the Vokkaliga (making up 15 percent of the population), stated this week that Vijayendra was not an “automatic choice” from Shikharipura and “the decision on candidates will not be taken in anyone’s kitchen”.

A Trend In BJP?

The BJP attempted to counter the “Yediyurappa factor” by reaching out directly to top Lingayat seers with political clout and broad-basing its support by working on the Vokkaligas, backward castes and Muslims. However, successive polls established that the party draws its support and sustenance from the Lingayats, particularly the preponderant Veerashaiva sub-caste to which Yediyurappa belongs.

His presence points to a trend in the BJP. Even with an overreaching central command, it has been difficult to side-step regional leaders such as Yediyurappa, Rajasthan’s Vasundhara Raje and Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

The Congress learnt its lessons for marginalising regional satraps the hard way. Two of them at the receiving end of the high command’s whimsies belonged to Karnataka. S Nijalingappa and Veerendra Patil, former CMs, were humiliated by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi respectively. Both were Lingayats and the experience cost the Congress the loss of Lingayat votes.

Radhika Ramaseshan is a senior journalist and columnist. She was the political editor at The Telegraph. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication