Is Karnataka’s BJP losing the plot?

The brewing discontent within the State BJP which reached a crescendo recently when four party leaders were stripped of their responsibilities by party in charge for Karnataka Murlidhar Rao has cast a long shadow on the party’s prospects in the upcoming 2018 state assembly elections. Insiders warn that if concrete steps are not taken to stem the rot immediately, things may go from bad to worse.

It is an irony that the BJP, which has a strong organizational structure in Karnataka compared to other southern states, including Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has been hit by internal dissidence.  This in a party which had formed a government its first ever in Karnataka in 2008 on its own strength.Then in 2008, the BJP managed to form the government despite a shortfall of a few seats with the support of five independent legislators.
The stand-off between the state party chief B S Yeddyurappa, who is also a Member of Parliament from Shivamogga, and his one-time confidante, K S Eshwarappa has unsettled party workers, who fear the old rivalry between the two could put hurdles in the BJP’s journey to the seat of power in Karnataka.
Incidentally, both leaders hail from the same district. They were trained and tuned in the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS) together. And they had gone to jail during the Emergency together. They had then teamed up to build the party’s base in the state.  But their paths diverged when the BJP made it to the Third Floor of the Vidhana soudha on its own strength in 2008.
Yeddyurappa, who became chief minister after 2008 victory, was reluctant to create the post of a Deputy Chief Minister in his Cabinet for Eshwarappa, fearing that the latter’s ambitions could create another power centre within the government.
The party high command had to intervene and Yeddiyurappa had to back off. But he had the last laugh when he created another created notone but two DCM posts and appointed R Ashok and Eshwarappa as deputy chief ministers in his cabinet.
That effectively put Eshwarappa in his place, and maintained the balance of power in the government.
“The seeds of discontent between the two (BSY and KSE) can be traced to 2008” said a senior state BJP leader, who did not want to be named.
The feud intensified when Yeddyurappa quit the saffron party and formed his own political outfit, the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP), ahead of the 2013 assembly elections, which proved to be disastrous for the BJP.
The party, which had ruled for a full five years, even if  turbulently, was relegated to third position, leaving a JD(S) leader and former chief minister to emerge as the main opposition leader on the floor of the Karnataka Assembly.
The BJP sans Yeddyurappa in the 2013 assembly elections managed to secure only 20 per cent of the popular vote. Yeddyurappa’s KJP garnered 10 per cent. The result was the Congress party, which had lost two back-to-back assembly polls, returned to power.
However the saffron party turned the tables on the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by bagging 17 seats, the highest by any party in the state, largely due to the homecoming of B S Yeddyurappa and the Modi wave sweeping the country.
The BJP secured nearly 40 per cent of the popular vote in the 2014 LS polls in Karnataka. With hopes rising that the BJP could return to power in the state, the party chalked out a plan – Mission-150 – to achieve that goal by reinstating B S Yeddyurappa as the state party chief.
This decision did not go down well with other senior state leaders including Prahlad Joshi, JagadishShettar and K S Eshwarappa, all of whom were biding time to vent their anger on Yeddyurappa, who is known for his impulsive nature and propensity to make mistakes.Their time to torment Yeddyurappa came when the latter appointed his henchmen as district party chiefs in the majority of the districts.
BJP leaders nursing a grouse against Yeddyurappa found in Eshwarappa the best person to tame Yeddurappa. The former deputy CM had a reason: Yedyurappa had appointed Eshwarappa’s bête noire, Rudregowda as party president in Shivamogga district, the very person who had as a KJP candidate made Eshwarappa taste the dust in the assembly elections.
The dissident leaders rallied behind Eshwarappa and formed the ‘Sangolli Rayanna’ brigade, ostensibly to organize the HINDA community in favour of the BJP, which was not taken well by Yeddyurappa supporters.
This act had a partial effect. It forced Yeddyurappa to make some cosmetic changes but the core group - formed at the intervention of the party high command - hardly met.
While pinpricks of Eshwarappa and his supporters became the order of the day, the reverses the BJP suffered in the two by-elections informed the central leadership of the BJP that the party will likely pay dearly in the upcoming assembly elections.
The BJP high command sent Muralidhar Rao, the party incharge for Karnataka, to douse the fire. Warnings were issued to the warring factions; they were told to bury their differences, not wash dirty linen in public. Rao is said to have submitted a report to the party high-command regarding the incident.
However, expressing his personal view to Karnataka Today, BJP Spokesperson and MLA S Suresh Kumar said, “Amongst our top leadership, he (Yeddyurappa) is the only leader with very big mass following. That is needed for any political party especially from the election point of view. About Loyayukta, legally speaking, He is relieved of all those issues. He is the only leader who can command."
The Eshwarappa group – which was planning to organize a meeting of the Rayanna Brigade immediately after the executive body meeting – had to shelve its plans and attend the State Executive meeting, which the group was planning to boycott, following the stern warnings issued by the party high command.
Party leaders who chose not to identify with either of the groups let out a collective sigh of relief when Eshwarappa and his supporters abandoned plans to hold the Rayanna brigade meeting and chose to fall in line with the party high command’s diktat to attend the party executive meet at Mysuru.
“Even if the Yeddyurappa faction seems to have got the upper hand at this juncture, things may not be the same for Yeddyurappa, as he cannot act arbitrarily in handling party affairs in future,” said a party leader.
“Indications that BJP chief Amit Shah will have the final say in the selection of party candidates for the 2018 assembly polls have made Yeddyurappa’s tormentors mellow their stand,” another state BJP leader said.

But expressing anguish over dissident activities, party MLC D S Veeraiah said that “it is unfortunate that such things are being seen in the party when the people of the state, who are fed up of the mis-governance of the Congress government, are waiting to teach the Congress a lesson.”
The central leadership, watching the unsavory developments unfold, is in two minds. Should it take action against Eshwarappa or not? The latter is playing it safe, claiming that Rayanna Brigade activities were aimed at strengthening the hands of Yeddyurappa.
If one goes by the track record of the state leaders – including Yeddyurappa, JagadishShettar and Sadananda Gowda – dissident activities and violating party discipline were the order of the day when the party was in power during 2008-2013.
Yeddyurappa had fumed after receiving directions to step down following his indictment by the Karnataka Lokayukta in the mining case. He exhibited all his well-known tantrums to hold on to power and put in his papers only after receiving a stern warning from the central leadership.
Sadananda Gowda too had to step down as CM in favour of JagadishShettar who was propped up by Yeddyurappa.
Shettar, who was leading the dissident group, went to the extent of boycotting the legislative session when Gowda was all set to present his maiden budget. He and his supporters camped in a posh resort before trooping into the house on the directions of the party high command.
Today, with state BJP leaders engaged in a continuous feud, and after spectacular victories in two by-elections, Congress leaders in Karnataka are in an upbeat mood.
“Congress leaders who were in constant touch with the BJP to desert the party now have had a change of heart as prospects for the BJPrecede,” a senior Congress leader said.
The Congress, which got a drubbing in the assembly elections held in five states including Uttar Pradesh, replaced Digvijay Singh with Venugopal, a young Lok sabha member from Kerala, as state party unit chief.
The setback to the BJP in two by-elections has also raised hopes in JD(S). Its leaders are making an all-out effort to ‘come back’ to the centre-stage of state politics.
It is an irony that while the ruling Congress is doing all its best to retain power and JD(S) leaders  are busy strengthening their base, central BJP leaders are struggling to educate its state leaders to “unite or perish”.

(M Venkatesh is a Bengaluru based senior political writer.)

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