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BJP in Karnataka: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

In Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been essentially thriving by working through caste - specifi cally on the consolidated support of upper caste Lingayats - and not on the basis of a broader Hindutva ideology. The irony is that the tenets of Lingayat ideology are inspired by the liberal humanism espoused by the 12th century poet-philosopher-reformer Basavanna and his followers and this philosophical position is in direct antagonism with the Hindutva ideology. But then "Basava Dharma" as practised and preached by most of the Lingayat maths in Karnataka today is in tune with Hindutva.


BJP in Karnataka

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea


Gowda, who was his own candidate. The choice of Sadananda Gowda was over Shettar, another Lingayat leader. Now that the High Court of Karnataka has struck down one case fi led against him by the Lokayukta, Yeddyurappa is demanding that the high command keep

In Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been essentially thriving by working through caste – specifically on the consolidated support of upper caste Lingayats – and not on the basis of a broader Hindutva ideology. The irony is that the tenets of Lingayat ideology are inspired by the liberal humanism espoused by the 12th century poet-philosopher-reformer Basavanna and his followers and this philosophical position is in direct antagonism with the Hindutva ideology. But then “Basava Dharma” as practised and preached by most of the Lingayat maths in Karnataka today is in tune with Hindutva.

Shivasundar ( is a journalist based in Bangalore.

he Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finds itself in an ironic situation in Karnataka today. It is at once at the zenith of political power and in a deep organisational morass. In its 32-year history, the party has never enjoyed so many consecutive electoral successes as it has done in Karnataka over the past three years. At the same time, never have the national leaders of the “party with a difference” had to face so many embarrassments on account of intra-party squabbles, scams and scandals. It is also a paradox of history that B S Yeddyurappa, the BJP stalwart in Karnataka, is pushing the party to the brink. Going by the developments and the very minimal choices that Yeddyurappa has left the party with, the party at this juncture can only compromise either with its existence in the state or with its image.

The crisis in the BJP has nothing to do with principle and all with an unadulterated desire to hang on to power. Yeddyurappa, who faces more scam charges than any past chief minister of Karnataka wants to get back to the chief minister’s seat by threatening the BJP high command of a possible split in the party if the gaddi is not given back to him. He was forced to quit the post following a serious indictment by the Lokayukta of a misuse of power to favour and profi t himself and after a series of corruption cases were filed against him by private persons. This was at a time when the BJP was claiming the high moral ground in its campaign against corruption in the Congress Party at the national level.

The BJP high command had no choice but to persuade him (with great diffi culty) to quit the post with an assurance of bringing him back once the charges were cleared. Thus, Yeddyurappa had to vacate the post in favour of Sadananda

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its promise. But there are still eight important cases pending against him and there is the threat of a possible C entral Bureau of Investigation inquiry hanging over his head in corruption deals in mining contracts. On the other hand, the anti-Yeddyurappa faction within the party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) loyalists have rallied behind Sadananda Gowda and have impressed upon the high command not to relent until Yeddyurappa is cleared. Thus, the central leadership is facing a strange situation of finding it diffi cult to choose between a corrupt politician and a clean image.

The roots of the present crisis lie in the way the BJP and its ideological benefactor, RSS, compromised with the so-called “principles” in the political power game that has unfolded in Karnataka.

The BJP, which had never dreamt of seizing power on its own in the state, had nearly occupied the gaddi on its own during the 2008 assembly elections, by riding on the sympathy wave in favour of Yeddyurappa. The earlier 2006 arrangement in the previous assembly between the Janata Dal (Secular) – JD(S)

– leader H D Kumaraswamy and Yeddyurappa of sharing the chief ministership for 20 months each had been broken by the latter, creating a sympathy wave in the former’s favour. (Prior to this arrangement, Kumaraswamy had broken his alliance with the Congress to join hands with Yeddyurappa.) Yeddyurappa took the betrayal of the 20-20 formula in the beginning as a personal one. But soon he cleverly portrayed it as a betrayal of the Lingayats – the dominant community in Karnataka to which he belongs – by the Vokkaligas, the community to which Kumaraswamy and his father and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda belong.

This “betrayal” was also portrayed as the continuation of a similar act of


treason by the equally dominant Vokkaliga community right from the days of the unification of Karnataka.

An interesting bit of post-independence history is that the unification of the state was resented by many north Karnataka Lingayat leaders because of the possible domination by the Vokkaligas who are numerically strong in south Karnataka. In the post-unifi cation period, there has remained a strong feeling among Lingayat leaders that the Vokkaliga and other non-Lingayat leaders of the Congress have consistently denied them political positions, including the chief ministership. Thus, once Kumaraswamy refused to hand over the chief ministership to Yeddyurappa at the end of 20 months of JD(S) rule, all these factors were given much play during the 2008 elections. The numerically strong Lingayats consolidated in favour of the BJP through Yeddyurappa.

Lingayats and the BJP

In fact, the journey of the Lingayats towards the BJP and away from the Congress had started right from the days of the iconic chief minister, Devaraj Urs, who brought in a radical shift in the caste configuration in the corridors of power by promoting the non-Lingayat, non-Vokkaliga Other Backward Classes (OBCs) leaders in the legislature and in the Congress. He was also instrumental in bringing in a better, though not radical, version of land reforms in the state which challenged the hegemony of upper caste feudal elements. This had induced a dynamic in the state which resulted in feudal upper caste elements moving away from the Congress.

When the then Janata Party, under the leadership of Ramakrishna Hegde, emerged as a political alternative to the Congress in the state, most of the north Karnataka Lingayat feudal elements drifted towards the Janata Party. Even though A K Subbaiah, the fi rebrand crusader against corruption, was the president of the BJP in the early 1980s (he was subsequently thrown out of the party for working against the RSS ideology), and there were Lingayat leaders like B B Shivappa and Yeddyurappa, the BJP still had the image of a brahmin-baniya party.

The Lingayats had supported the Janata Party and later the Janata Dal (JD) under Hegde, a brahmin. There was no strong Lingayat support to the BJP until very recently, which was refl ected in its electoral performances.

In the 1983 elections, the BJP won 18 out of the 110 seats it contested. In the 1985 and 1989 polls, the party contested 116 and 118 seats, respectively, but managed to win just two and four seats in the two elections. Later the Janata Dal split and Deve Gowda became its chief. Hegde, whom the Lingayats considered their leader, was expelled from Gowda’s party. The JD(S) in Karnataka, in spite of having charismatic Lingayat leaders like J H Patel and M P Prakash, was identifi ed with Deve Gowda and the Vokkaligas. And the Lingayats who were hitherto with Hegde’s Dal shifted their loyalty to the BJP. The outcome was dramatic. In 1999, the party contested 144 seats and won 44 seats. Yeddyurappa was elected state president of the BJP during this period for the second time, the fi rst was a short term during 1988. During the 2004 elections the BJP contested in all the 224 constituencies and won a record 79 seats. Though its vote share was less than that of the Congress, it emerged as the single biggest party in the house. Most of the new members among the 79 BJP MLAs were from the north Karnataka belt and were Lingayats.

Thus, Yeddyurappa had already carved his own constituency within the party by 2004 by nurturing and consolidating the Lingayat vote bank. After coming to power in 2008, he started mobilising the “blessings” of pontiffs of Lingayat maths. To this end, he even pumped more than Rs 300 crore directly from the state exchequer into the institutions run by the maths, under the budget head of “Social and Cultural Expenses”. The Lingayat maths in Karnataka wield strong social, cultural and economic power in the community, in particular, and in society at large. They run hospitals, education institutes, provide employment and control day-to-day social life of the community in a signifi cant way. Thus, enlisting this social base to wield political power was another strategy employed by Yeddyurappa to

april 28, 2012

ensure the community’s support. When he was ousted from the chief ministerial post and jailed on corruption charges, many senior pontiffs queued up to meet and “bless” him.

Thus, the success of BJP in Karnataka owes largely to the Lingayat voters in the state. One speculation is that the BJP could garner 80 to 85% of the Lingayat votes, and, naturally, Yeddyurappa claims credit for this. It is because of this social support base behind him that the exchief minister is forcing the high command to overlook corruption cases and put him back in the chief minister’s gaddi. Even when he was in prison on corruption charges, in an open mark of rebellion he dissuaded his loyalists from attending the anti-corruption jatha of L K Advani in Bangalore.

Hindutva or Basava Dharma?

In Karnataka the Hindutva party has been essentially thriving on the consolidated support of upper caste Lingayats and not on the basis of a broader Hindutva ideology. But the irony is that the tenets of Lingayat ideology are inspired by the liberal humanism espoused by the 12th century poet-philosopherreformer Basavanna and his followers. This philosophical position is in direct antagonism with the Hindutva ideology. But the “Basava Dharma” that is practised and preached by most of the L ingayat maths in Karnataka today is in tune with Hindutva. Nevertheless, given the choice between the BJP and Yeddyurappa, most of the maths have given the hint that they would choose Yeddyurappa.

When Sadananda Gowda, blessed by the high command, refused to play the mythical Bharata and return the throne to Yeddyurappa when he came back from his forced political vanavasa, the Lingayat leaders and MLAs in the party openly defied the party and assembled in a resort to declare their allegiance to Yeddyurappa rather than the party. There were about 65 MLAs in the resort with him, most of whom were either Lingayats or the “migrant” leaders brought into the BJP through the infamous “Operation Kamala” that had been devised by him. On the other hand,

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Vokkaliga leaders like R Ashok (home minister) and D B Changre Gowda (an erstwhile Congress leader who is now a Yeddyurappa loyalist), disassociated themselves from this group. Other Vokkaliga leaders in the party sided with Sadananda Gowda in a clear exhibition of a divide on caste lines. While Linagayat religious leaders openly condemned the BJP high command and threatened grave consequences in the next elections if the party did not return the chief ministerial post to Yeddyurappa, Vokkaliga religious leaders and organisations, on their part, spoke of dire consequences if Vokkaliga Sadananda Gowda was sacrificed for Yeddyurappa!

These fissures on caste lines in the party are going to cost the BJP dear even if the present crisis is tided over. These developments have raised fundamental questions about the feasibility or sustainability of BJP in Karnataka as a Hindutva-based national party which claims to rise above caste considerations.

Operation Kamala

The Operation Kamala strategy of Yeddyurappa, which then had the full blessings of the RSS and the high command, is also taking its toll. Yeddyurappa’s government in 2008 which could win only 110 seats (three short of a simple majority) resorted not only to buying the support of independents but also made several elected MLAS from the JD(S) and Congress resign and join the BJP. This was a unique strategy followed by the BJP in Karnataka after the anti-defection bill became law. In the bye-elections that followed, BJP spent crores to get the defectors re-elected which again had the sanction of the high command and the RSS. For this reason too, the claims of both the RSS and the BJP to the moral high ground sound hollow.

Lastly, apart from sympathy and the Lingayat card that helped BJP’s winning performance in 2008, the black money of the “Reddy brothers”, earned from the plunder iron ore resources of the state, was also used lavishly for not only the elections of 2008 but also for the 11 bye-polls after Operation Kamala, reelections and local body elections in which the BJP was victorious. According

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to the Election Commission’s own admission, it was Karnataka’s poll which was most corrupt during the 2008 elections in the country. In Bellary constituency alone, from where the Reddy brothers hail, Rs 47 crore (during the 2008 assembly elections) and Rs 27 crore (during the 2009 parliamentary elections) were confiscated. The business partner of Gali Janardhan Reddy (the former tourism minister), Sriramulu belongs to the Valmiki caste which has a signifi cant numerical strength in central districts of the state. During the 2008 elections, this additional vote base also helped the BJP to win not less than 30 to 40 seats. The caste alliance of Lingayat-Valmiki-Madigaas (the last being a prominent dalit caste wooed by the BJP with the assurance of internal reservations) has also worked for the BJP till now. But now that the Reddy brothers along with Sriramulu have drifted away from the BJP and formed their own party, the BJP is facing serious problems.

Thus, a host of factors which the BJP used in the name of seizing power – like the sympathy, caste and money factors and the politics of caste alliance – have become detrimental to the unity of the BJP and its very existence as a powerful party in Karnataka.

This has already begun to have an impact. In the recent Udupi-Chikkamagalur bye-election, the Congress wrested the seat from the BJP. This defeat is significant because unlike in north Karnataka, this constituency in coastal Karnataka has always been an ideological vote base for the BJP. The Congress won with a convincing and hefty margin of 48,000 votes.

In Karnataka, scam-tainted Yeddyurappa’s hunger for power has provided fodder for a series of SMS jokes and spoofs. But the caste polarisation that this kind of politics has brought in has made it impossible for the BJP high command to take any decisive action. This will continue to haunt the party for a long time to come, even if he is reinstated as chief minister in the event of the Supreme Court ruling against a CBI inquiry.

The tragedy of Karnataka is that there is no viable opposition of comparatively better value which would take the benefit of the opportunity, and convincingly and politically defeat the BJP.


January 28, 2012

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For copies write to: Circulation Manager,

Economic and Political Weekly,

320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

vol xlviI no 17

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