Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, center, is seen with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah second left, and state ministers in Bangalore. Photo: AFP
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, center, is seen with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah second left, and state ministers in Bangalore. Photo: AFP

Most State elections have gone in favor of the BJP over the past four years, but Karnataka is turning out to be a tough one for the Bharati Janata Party.

The BJP is in power in 21 states and Karnataka is one of the last states held by the Indian National Congress. The BJP ran a coalition government that lost in Punjab last year, but the loss came after a long spell of anti-incumbency. Karnataka is crucial because it could affect the BJP’s chances of a win in the 2019 general election.

But even in the last lap of the campaign, the party is ironing out its internal differences in the state. The fissures in the Karnataka BJP have been bothering the central leadership, which is hoping to displace the Congress when the poll is held on May 12.

But the fact the Karnataka BJP is a house in disarray is not new. It has been this way since 2008, when the BJP held power and saw three chief ministers and factional wars among its top state-level leaders. That eventually led to the Congress returning to power in 2013.

Many theories have been doing the rounds since the party refused to nominate Vijendra, the son of BJP state president BS Yeddyurappa, or his close confidant Shobha Karanladje, a Lok Sabha member from Udupi-Chikmagalur, as the party’s candidate to be chief minister.

One of these was that the PM and BJP president Amit Shah wanted to cut the overbearing influence of Yeddyurappa on the State’s party unit and that is the reason that Shah sided with Yeddyurappa’s bête noire Ananth Kumar, ex-deputy chief minister Eshwarappa and national deputy general secretary BL Santosh to deny tickets to Yeddyurappa’s son and his close confidant.

Another theory was that Modi and Shah not only wanted to cut the overbearing influence of Yeddyurappa but also aimed to send a message to the chief ministers of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

After Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will also conduct state polls. Like Yeddyurappa, all three chief ministers are powerful in their respective states. Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s son Dushyant is an MP from the Jhalawar constituency. Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh’s son Abhishek Singh is an MP from Rajnandgaon and Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s wife Sadhana Singh also plans to contest the upcoming election in that state.

By denying a ticket to Yeddyurappa’s son, Shah sent a clear message to all three chief ministers that the party won’t allow sons and confidants to contest elections in their respective states – so the theory goes.

Doubts over Yeddyurappa

BS Yeddyurappa might be the BJP’s candidate to be chief minister but his position is far from secure. There are many formidable challengers in the party lining up to take him on. They include Yeddyurappa’s old rival KS Eshwarappa, Jagadish Shettar, cabinet minister DV Sadananda Gowda and Ananth Kumar. Barring Kumar, the other three have held truncated terms as chief ministers, which gives them some entitlement as claimants to Karnataka’s top job. Besides these senior leaders, Yeddyurappa has competition from younger leaders like Anant Kumar Hegde, a Minister of State in the Modi-led federal Government. Dharwad MP Pralhad Joshi and Mysore MP Prathap Simha are also aspirants.

Sources close to party president Amit Shah told Asia Times that “Yeddyurappa is a little over 75 years old. He is already breaching the cap that Modi and Shah have set for those aspiring to hold office for the party or government, but his Lingayat caste background made him fit for the chief minister’s post. Yeddyurappa lacks the Karnataka BJP’s unqualified support and Shah knows that.”

“Yeddyurappa will be sworn-in as the chief minister only when the BJP gets a majority in the Karnataka elections. If the BJP fails and seeks support from the (regional party) Janata Dal (S) or any other party then Yeddyurappa may be replaced by a younger face”, another senior BJP leader and a cabinet minister of the Modi Government told Asia Times. But a close associate of Yeddyurappa countered these misgivings. “We know how some leaders are trying their best to stop Yeddyurappa. [But] we are focusing on [the] election now, [and] after [the] election we will deal with traitors.”

The major issue, according to BJP sources, is that Yeddyurappa is trying to have an upper hand in every decision, while his detractors are trying to prevent him dominating events. So, while the BJP campaign looks disjointed and faction-driven, the Congress seems to be riding a wave. Led by current Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, it has become combative and responds quickly to any challenge posed by the BJP’s formidable election machine.

Siddaramaiah was quick to declare a separate religion for the politically influential Lingayat caste, undermining Yeddyurappa’s hold on them. This immediately put the BJP on the back foot.

The incumbent chief minister also made an issue about local state pride by highlighting its regional language and symbols, to counter the BJP’s Hindutva planks. His performance as a chief minister is also backed by good development indices, a fact that Siddaramaiah has managed to successfully communicate to the voters.

As some political observers say, the Congress seems all set to beat the anti-incumbency threat and head back to power when the elections take place two weeks. The BJP’s furious infighting in the state seems to be aiding that distinct possibility.