It was one of those tough calls for the BJP central leadership. With the rebel BS Yeddyurappa camp hell-bent on DV Sadananda Gowda’s scalp and his replacement with their man Jagadish Shettar, and threatening grave consequences if their demand was not met, the central BJP virtually had no option.
In fact, there was one more option. They could have rebuffed Yeddyurappa, sending a strong message to him that Gowda can’t be replaced and that they have no problem if the government collapsed. But then it would have been disastrous for the BJP, which is keen to bag a good number of Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka in the next Parliamentary elections in 2014.
BJP central leaders could ill-afford to antagonise Yeddyurappa, who is the face of the BJP in Karnataka who played a key role in bringing the party to power in 2008. Dumping him with just ten months to go for Assembly elections would have been a sure recipe for defeat in the polls due in May next year.
Also importantly, BJP needs a “resourceful” Yeddyurappa as he has the capability to raise funds for the party, and the party is aware that it’s better to have Yeddyurappa on its side, despite his nuisance value at the national level in view of corruption charges against him. But the acrimonious leadership tussle left a bad taste in every body’s mouth. For the first time, party leaders openly talked of caste equations, pushing for community-based representation in the government.
With Gowda’s exit, the party needed another member of Vokkaliga community in key position and made Transport and Home Minister R Ashoka as Deputy Chief Minister. State unit party president KS Eshwarappa, who belongs to the Kuruba community like Leader of Opposition Siddaramaiah (Congress), was made another Deputy Chief Minister.
JAGADISH SHETTAR: STEADY RISE
In politics there are no permanent friends or enemies. So goes a famous saying. And some say patience is a good virtue when you want to be in a long haul. And when you have a solid backing that’s hard to be ignored by decision-makers, your chance to get a top post certainly brightens. Coming from the right caste, region and political background will help in no small measure. Jagadish Shettar fitted the bill from all counts, and his time has certainly come.
Nearly a year ago, Karnataka BJP strongman BS Yeddyurappa hand-picked DV Sadananda Gowda and ensured Shettar’s defeat in the legislature party meeting to elect a new leader after he had to quit as Chief Minister following his indictment in a Lokayukta report on illegal mining. Yeddyurappa wanted to be the undisputed leader of the influential Lingayat community, to which Shettar also belonged, and plumped for Gowda, who comes from Vokkaliga caste, in August last year.
Yeddyurappa hinted at the time he would return as Chief Minister within six months after clearing his name in courts which, in other words, meant that Gowda would only be a “stop-gap arrangement”. But things did not happen according to his script. Gowda turned to be a man having a mind of his own, and in recent weeks the Yeddyurappa camp launched a sustained campaign to dislodge him after he refused to dance to their every tune.
It was also time for Yeddyurappa to “correct his mistake” as he came under fire from a section of Lingayat community for not backing Shettar last year. And this time, his message to the party high-command was loud and clear: Make Shettar the Chief Minister or face the consequences.
The BJP central leadership bought “resourceful” Yeddyurappa’s argument that it makes lot of sense to face the next Assembly elections, due in May next year, under a Lingayat leader. After all, the party counts this community as its key political base. What is also important for the central BJP is that the party should win a good number of Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka in Parliamentary elections in 2014. So, for 56-year-old Jagadish Shivappa Shettar, not exactly the Yeddyurappa camp follower, political life has come a full circle, as it were, in less than a year.
Shettar, propped by senior party leader HN Ananth Kumar and state BJP president KS Eshwarappa last year, had taken the reverse at the time supportively likening it to a semi-final cricket match and said age was on his side. Today, it was proved right. He will however have a more or less the same tenure as his predecessor Gowda, who had 11 months in office.
His task appears to be cut out now, and the writing appears to be on the wall. He has to refurbish the image of the ruling BJP, which has got to put its house in order and has to do so quickly, as infighting and acrimonious tussle on the leadership issue has significantly dented its public rating. Shettar inherits a legislature party which is deeply divided along caste lines, with ugly factionalism in full public display.
Soft-spoken Shettar, who served as Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister under Gowda, comes from a family that’s rooted in the erstwhile Jan Sangh. He was born on December 17, 1955, in Kerur village of Badami Taluk in Bagalkot district. His father Shivappa Shivamurthappa Shettar had made Hubli his home base. He was an activist of Jan Sangh and had been consecutively elected as member of Hubli-Dharwad City Corporation for five times. He was also first Mayor of Jan Sangh in Southern India.
Jagadish Shettar’s uncle Sadashiva Shettar was Member of Assembly from Hubli Constituency representing Jan Sangh in 1967. He was the first Jan Sangh MLA from South India (Jagadish Shettar holds BCom and LLB degrees and had been a practising lawyer for 20 years at the Hubli Bar. He was an activist of the Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
He became President of Hubli Rural unit of BJP in 1990 and four years later was elected head of Dharwad district unit of the party. Shettar was first elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1994 from Hubli Rural segment and had been reelected from the constitutency successively for four terms. Shettar was made state BJP secretary in 1996 and Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly in 1999 and served in that position when External Affairs Minister SM Krishna was the Chief Minister.
In 2005, he was appointed state president of BJP, and served as Revenue Minister in the BJP-JD(S) coalition government headed by H D Kumaraswamy in 2006. In 2008 after BJP came to power, he was made Assembly Speaker, much against his wish as Yeddyurappa allegedly chose to sideline him as he belonged to the same community. In 2009, he made a strong pitch to quit that post, and was made Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister. Shettar married Shilpa in 1984 and the couple has two sons—Prashant and Sankalp.
For the first time, Karnataka has two Deputy Chief Ministers and that speaks volumes about how caste factors weighed heavily on the party, as well as the pressure tactics adopted by lobby groups who pushed for their pound of flesh for the stability of the BJP’s first and only government in south India. Yeddyurappa ensured that another Lingayat (Jagadish Shettar), a community counted by the BJP as the party’s main vote base, as Chief Minister. And now the question is who would head the party. Sadananda Gowda is the front-runner for the post and, for obvious reasons, the Yeddyurappa camp is strongly opposing his candidature.
State unit president of the party wields considerable influence in ticket distribution for Assembly elections and Yeddyurappa does not want his “adversary” to sit in that position. He fears Sadananda Gowda may try to cut him to size during that time. Sadananda Gowda also did not bow out without putting up a fight. He also sought to play the caste card, seeking to mobilise the support of Vokkaligas to fight his cause and also send a message to the central leadership that he is no pushover. Gowda appears to have grown as a leader even as he had to make way for Shettar.
Gowda also did not appear to be a loser and it’s likely that he would definitely play a key role in the future of BJP in the State. He carved a support base among the legislators, and emerged as a leader in his own right and appears set for bigger things. Lingayats, Vokkaligas and Kurubas form top three castes in the state in terms of numbers. BJP has also been vigorously wooing the backward classes and in fact, announced programmes and projects worth Rs 1000 crore for their benefit in the recent budget.
All the ministers of the Sadananda Gowda ministry retained their portfolios in the Jagadish Shettar ministry. There were also a number of new faces as Shettar chose to form the Cabinet in one go. The party realised that leaving a few slots would only lead to fresh trouble with ministerial aspirants resorting to pressure tactics.
But it’s not going to be a smooth affair for Shettar. Legislators who failed to make it to the Cabinet have continued their dissident activities and sought to target “tainted” ministers. They have sought their removal. They are likely to intensify the pressure seeking ministerial berths for themselves.
So, the next few months are going to be crucial for the ruling BJP as the Karnataka heads for Assembly elections. Already there are talks that the party is thinking of opting for early elections, likely in December, along with Gujarat. But there is also another school of thought which advocated no such move. Any way, the party has ample time to take a call on this.
The BJP’s public image has taken a severe beating. The power struggle, pressure tactics and jockeying for positions have disgusted the public. Most parts of Karnataka are reeling under drought, and the government has also failed to tackle the issue of drinking water supply leading to anger in the people.
The writing is on the wall for the BJP. The party needs to get its act together and do so in quick time, and bury the differences and infighting if they entertain any chance of returning to power. Anti-incumbency factor appears pronounced now, and the BJP has its task cut out now.
Fortunately for the BJP, the main opposition Congress too is a divided house. There is no love lost between Siddaramaiah and president of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President G Parameshwara. Siddaramaiah recently resigned his post of Leader of Opposition in the Assembly complaining that he was not consulted during selection of party candidates for the recent Legislative Council elections. He was later persuaded not to press the resignation.
The other political party of significance, JD(S) of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda is a largely caste-based (Vokkaligas) party and is confined to the community stronghold areas. JD(S) had also been reaching out to the Muslims, holding a convention of the minority community recently in Bengaluru. So, political scene is set to hot up in Karnataka.
By Rajesh Kamath From Bengaluru