Saturday, August 20th, 2022 04:18:42

Will Basavaraj Bommaibe the silver bullet for BJP in Karnataka?

By Shekhar Iyer
Updated: August 1, 2021 10:16 pm

In a quick pace of events, Basavaraj Somappa Bommai was chosen as Karnataka’s 30th chief minister a day after incumbent Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa stepped down.  What surprised everyone was not the departure of Yediyurappa, which was on the cards considering his age and the pressure building up on the BJP to look for a younger leader.

It was the choice of soft-spoken Bommai as Yediyurappa’s successor that took the wind out of the sail of many opposition leaders who predicted a period of intense infighting in the BJP, which would benefit them.

But nothing of that sort happened when Bommai was named as the new CM with the full backing of Yediyurappa and the central BJP leadership.

In fact, different sections of the Karnataka BJP wholeheartedly welcomed his appointment, looking at his elevation as the best thing that could have happened to the party at this juncture.

 

Bommai, 61, was suddenly seen as the “man of the moment” for the BJP despite his entry into the party only in 2008 and that too from a Janata Dal background.

Never seen as an overly ambitious politician, Bommai could be the “silver bullet” for the BJP, many leaders said, pointing to his abilities to focus on governance and delivery–without ruffling feathers of other senior leaders.

His track record showed that he was never into factionalism, as he would rather confine himself to managing the ministry under his care.

Also, Bommai has been a strong loyalist of Yediyurappa, right from the time he joined the BJP. His loyalty to the BJP was also steadfast. Bommai did not quit the BJP when Yediyurappa left it in 2012 to form his own party to fight the 2013 assembly polls and came back a year later realising his folly. That impressed the BJP leadership.

But Yediyurappa too never held that against him, trusting his wisdom. So, cut to 2021, Yediyurappa trusted him a lot more as his Home Minister. This was the case ever since he became CM again in 2019 with the help of some Janata Dal(Secular) legislators who quit their seats and got re-elected as BJP MLAs.

When Yediyurappa realised that his time was up, he did waste a second in proposing Bommai’s name as his successor, which was accepted immediately by other leaders too for a simple reason that Bommai was acceptable to all sections.As soft-spoken man, he was known to be non-aggressive compared to other leaders. Also, he enjoyed a clean image within the party and outside. Of course, the caste factor is a crucial one too. Like Yediyurappa, Bommai is a Lingayat, belonging to a community that has been one of the main bases of the BJP and accounts for 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population. The community has a big say in more than100 of Karnataka’s 224 assembly seats.

His father, S R Bommai, was the 11th chief minister of Karnataka and the founder of Janata Dal (United). But his rise in politics was not because he was the son of a famous leader.

A mechanical engineer by profession, Basavaraj Bommai began his career with the Tatas in Pune.

Bommai’s political career took off after he led a padayatra (walkathon) of farmers in 2003, covering a length of 232 km from Dharwad to Nargund for the Mahadayi Project.

Basavaraj Bommai was with Janata Dal (United), serving as one of the  general secretaries of the JD(U) in 1995. In 1996, he was appointed political secretary of the then chief minister, J.H. Patel. He was elected a member of the Karnataka Legislative Council in 1998 and 2004 from Dharwad constituency.

Basavaraj learnt many lessons from his father’s political life. But, unlike his father who was the chief minister for a brief period (after Ramakrishna Hegde resigned in 1988) and one of the founders of the Janata Party in 1970, Basavaraj did not hesitate to dump his political ideology to embrace the BJP.

When the Janata Dal (United) was losing shine in Karnataka, Basavaraj Bommai is said to have shown interest to join the Congress but lukewarm response made him turn to Yediyurappa who opened his arms to him.

After he joined the BJP, Bommai was elected to the Karnataka Legislative Assembly from the Shiggaon constituency (in Haveri district) thrice — in 2008, 2013 and 2018.

 

Can Bommai deliver?

In his first meetings with senior officials in the Karnataka government, Bommai called for an end to a “chalta hai attitude”, fiscal discipline and creation of a file movement system that will facilitate speedy decision making. His first decisions as CM was to focus on the “pro-people, pro-poor” agenda that he intends to pursue in the remaining 22 months of the BJP rule.

As a leader who has vast administrative experience, Bommai indicated that while he will follow the governance model of his benefactor Yediyurappa, he would not hesitate to make some big changes.

Bommai promised that there will be a new orientation for the administration. “It will be a very efficient, development-oriented and pro-people governance,” he said after his first round of discussions with state officials. “I have told the officials that they must do micro level management and not restrict themselves to macro level management,” he said.

During his tenure as the water resources minister, Bommai implemented a piped irrigation project for farmers, which was appreciated by many people.

Bommai’s mantra is teamwork, time-bound decision making, fiscal discipline and quick movement of files, according to his aides. “Delays will cause an increase in expenditure and corruption. So there should not be slackness and delays,” Bommai told them.

In a bid to show he means business, Bommai wanted a “file clearance” drive and nothing should be kept pending in any department for more than a fortnight. He also asked all government departments to cut expenditure by five per cent in order to tide over the revenue crisis created by the Covid pandemic.

Bommai knows his immediate challenge is managing the pandemic and speeding up vaccination drive.

As other BJP leaders pointed out, Bommai will certainly use of Yediyurappa’s strength but he would also use his experience and clean image to leave a good mark.

Bommai’s observations when he took office were a pointer to the shape of things to happen. Dismissing speculation that, with Yediyurappa being active in Karnataka politics, he might not have actual power, Bommai said, “In our system and the constitution there is the position of the Chief Minister, there is a cabinet, there is bureaucracy, executive and judiciary. The CM is first among equals, he is the team leader and I want to take everyone together. When I say that I will work under the guidance of Yediyuyrappa, it means, following the strong and pro-people decisions taken by him during Covid. Despite corona and financial distress, he has formulated several schemes in the budget and has given a good administration,” he said. In effect, it means that Bommai will not abdicate his authority as CM.

At the same, Bommai will not rub Yediyurappa in the wrong way. Even the central BJP leadership does not want that to happen.

Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Basavaraj, he made it a point to shower praises on Yediyurappa. “No words will ever do justice to the monumental contribution of Yediyurappa-ji towards our party and for Karnataka’s growth. For decades, he toiled hard, travelled across all parts of Karnataka and struck a chord with people. He is admired for his commitment to social welfare.”

Replying to Modi’s tweet, Bommai said: “Thank you Prime Minister for your kind wishes. I will definitely continue the good work done by the state government under the able leadership of Yediyurappa. We, as a team, will work for the development of the state and the nation under guidelines of all our senior leaders.”

Yediyurappa too congratulated Basavaraj and wished him a successful tenure.

Bommai’s first challenge will be constituting his team of ministers, ensuring a mix of experienced hands and fresh faces. Since there is pressure from the central BJP leadership not to include controversial leaders in his Cabinet, Bommai will have to do a tight-rope walk.

Yediyurappa wants Bommai to accommodate “migrant” MLAs who came from the JD(S) into the BJP for their contribution in stalling the BJP government. These former Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) legislators  had switched over to the BJP and helped Yediyurappa form the government in 2019.

Before his exit, Yediyurappa had sought assurance from the central BJP that the interests of these leaders would be protected. Bommai’s responsibility would be to honour such commitment.

One of the irritants in the BJP in Karnataka has been that these “migrant MLAs” get more importance than the original BJP loyalists. In July 2019, the BJP had to induct these Congress and JD(S) legislators to topple the H.D. Kumaraswamy government and brought Yediyurappa back as chief minister. The reason was because  the BJP had stopped eight short of the majority mark in the 224-member state assembly in the 2018 polls.

What will be the Role of Yediyurappa?

Having led a very active political life, Yediyurappa is in no mood to hang up his boots. He has already shown disinclination for taking up any governor’s post –as he would like to remain in Karnataka, tour different constituencies and be in touch with the masses.

Yediyurappa had to bow out because of the unwritten code in the BJP of leaders retiring from active politics at age 75. Yediyurappa is the second BJP chief minister after Anandiben Patel resigned as Gujarat CM in 2016 because she crossed 75 years.

In fact, Yediyurappa’s exit was on the cards since the last Ugadi. Left to himself, Yediyurappa would have liked to be in office for a few more months.

However, Yediyurappa was finally told by top BJP leaders that he should quit and suggest his successor when he completes two years in office, which fell on July 26.

Yediyurappa should have no worries about Bommai protecting the interests of his supporters. But if the central BJP leadership were to insist on major changes, Bommai would abide by its decision.

Jagdish Shettar ,who was a minister in the Yediyurappa cabinet, has already said he won’t be part of the new cabinet as he is senior to Bommai and has served as a chief minister earlier.

“As I am a former Chief Minister and have seniority, I have decided not to be a part of the new cabinet. I was Minister in the Yediyurappa cabinet despite being a former CM as he (Yediyurappa) is senior to me and I had worked in his government in the past too, but now keeping seniority and morality in view I am not ready to be part of the new cabinet,” he said recently. But another senior leader, K S Eshwarappa, is keen for another innings, at least as a deputy chief minister.

 

Role of Yediyurappa’s family will be crucial

Yediyurappa’s problem was that his detractors often accused him of promoting his family members. His elder son, B.Y. Raghavendra, is a member of the Lok Sabha whereas the younger son, B.Y. Vijayendra, is a vice-president in the BJP state unit.  Raghavendra has kept a low profile unlike Vijayendra who has always been on his father’s side, attracting a lot of attention.  It must be said to the credit of Vijayendra that he has been singularly working for the growth of the BJP in the Vokkaliga strongholds, particularly in southern Karnataka.

Therefore, the central BJP leadership cannot completely ignore Vijayendra. He represents the younger generation of Lingayat leaders though his style has invited controversies.

One cannot ignore the fact that Karnataka politics has been dominated by caste groups led by the Lingayats and Vokkaligas whose leaders dominate H D Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress led by D K Shivakumar.

Once a JD(Secular) leader, Siddaramaiah successfully experimented with the AHINDA plank (acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalit) to remain as CM between 2013 and 2018.

Therefore, the BJP cannot ignore Yediyurappa or his support among the Lingayats. When he quit the BJP after differences with L K Advani and formed his own outfit, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), in 2012, the BJP was reduced to 40 seats in Karnataka in the 2013 assembly election. Of course, the KJP got only six seats. Later, Yediyurappa returned to the BJP before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when Modi was leading the campaign as the party’s PM candidate.

One of the tasks ahead for the central BJP will be to balance the caste equations as well as encourage younger leadership to make the party attractive for voters before the 2023 assembly polls and the Lok Sabha polls.

 

By Shekhar Iyer

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