Jagadish Shettar is all set to take oath as the 27th Chief Minister of Karnataka. The incumbent, Sadananda Gowda has already submitted his resignation to the BJP party president. That makes it three Chief Ministers in four years to rule Karnataka. That this is hardly a model of stability is clear on plain sight. However, “plain sight” is just that: it is superficial. Deeper analysis shows a completely different picture. This has much to do with the story of the BJP’s first-ever stab at power in South India and less with individual party leaders. This has much to do with a party that sat in the Opposition for 25 long years as the state became a football that was kicked between the Congress party and the Janata Dal, and later the Janata Dal (S).
And so when the BJP came to power on its own in May 2008, it had genuine reasons for feeling elated. However, there’s a huge difference between capturing office and actually running it successfully. This is perhaps the BJP’s singular failure in Karnataka. If you observe its rule since 2008, there hasn’t been a time when the party was perceived as stable. Every new day seemed to inaugurate a new controversy. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that it never really got a grip on the administrative machinery. It’s no secret that babus have their own axes to grind against politicians and that their political loyalties play a huge factor in how a government’s policies are actually implemented. The corollary to this is the fact that anybody who has observed Karnataka’s politics over a period of time will tell you that a key driver of Deve Gowda’s success is the way he cultivated the bureaucracy.
This lack of a firm grip over the administrative machinery manifested itself in the public perception that the BJP government in Karnataka was a failure. This was also why the BJP backtracked on several issues—including good policies—when it was pilloried by the media and Opposition on a daily basis.
Media Hype over Intra-party Dissensions
It’s true that the Karnataka BJP has been plagued by internal dissent from the start. When B.S Yeddyurappa (BSY) took oath as Chief Minister, Jagadish Shettar’s supporters created a huge rucks before Vidhana Soudha alleging mistreatment of their leader. This was followed by petty bickering, the Reddy brothers’ revolt, the CD episode, the Renukacharya episode, the “rebel” MLAS who were poached by JD(S) only to return like meek sheep, BSY’s eventual stepping down, and now Sadananda Gowda’s exit as CM.
The media, more than the Opposition, had a field day in hyping up every single event in gory and misleading detail. But what’s the reality behind all this hype that seems to be a BJP-only phenomenon? Let’s rewind to the past and check out the facts.
- The Janata Dal, which came to power in 1994 did so on the strength of two names: the foremost was Ramakrishna Hegde, a former Chief Minister who had served earlier three terms and enjoyed immense personal popularity, and the second was Deve Gowda. This time around, Hegde didn’t contend for the Chief Minister’s seat, and allowed Deve Gowda to occupy the chair. However, on swearing-in day, Deve Gowda’s supporters beat up Hegde with slippers and tore his clothes in the corridors of Vidhana Soudha. And then, in 1996, Deve Gowda had Ramakrishna Hegde expelled from the party using his clout as Prime Minister.
- When Gowda lost his seat and tried reclaim Chief Ministership, J.H. Patel who was then the CM, smiled benevolently and looked the other way. An enraged Gowda split the party to form what’s now known as Janata Dal (Secular), a family-run enterprise.
- The Congress party in Karnataka, throughout its long tenure is no stranger to internal squabbles. The credit for inaugurating intra-party factionalism goes to Devaraj Urs who cynically pitted his own MLAs against one another in order to ensure that there was no alternate power centre. His successor, Gundu Rao was no different, and it is Gundu Rao who scripted the defeat of the Congress in Karnataka.
- Not many remember how Rajiv Gandhi humiliatingly dumped the veteran Veerendra Patil, a sitting Chief Minister, in favour of S. Bangarappa in 1990. Bangarappa presided over perhaps the most corrupt regime in the state. The extent of corruption, nepotism, abuse of state machinery, and the use of violence-as-linguistic-engineering is unparalleled to date. A measure of this is the fact that he was forced to step down and make way for Veerappa Moily.
- Veerappa Moily’s regime saw another ugly, caste-hued feud that erupted between Congress leaders Rajashekhara Murthy and S.M. Krishna. Poster wars broke out all over the walls of Bangalore. Supporters of both leaders heckled one another in horrible public spats. The Chief Minister was reduced to a mute spectator and spent his time on literature.
- The Chief Ministership of S.M. Krishna, the darling of the English media, was no different. Not many recall how many cabinet colleagues tried to unseat him by paying secret visits to Sonia’s durbar on a regular basis. Not many recall how many MLAs tried to use the Rajkumar kidnap and the farmer suicide episodes as opportunities to dethrone him. He managed to complete his term only by constant manipulation of every sort—including using his “hitman” D.K. Shiva Kumar.
Contrast this with the facts on the BJP’s internal bickering. Without going into too many details—because the events are fairly recent—one thing that stands out is the fact that the party stood together as a united front against cynical attempts to dislodge it. The same Reddy brothers who had revolted earlier came to BSY’s aid in the rebel MLA incident. The entire party was united in facing four no-confidence motions against BSY. A motivated media won’t highlight these things for obvious reasons.
The Incredible Vote-Getter
It’s a truism that the media needs no reason at all to attack the BJP. However, its attacks on the BJP government in Karnataka has one unmistakable distinction: relentlessness. Let’s put that in the past tense. The English media’s attacks on the BJP government in Karnataka had one unmistakable distinction: relentlessness. The past tense because while on the surface, these attacks were directed at the government, the real target was exactly one man: B.S. Yeddyurappa.
Cut back to history again: the moment Sadananda Gowda took over, these attacks stopped almost overnight. Therefore the question is: why does the media hate Yeddyurappa so fiercely? The answer to this question is a key question: had the Reddy brothers been with the Congress, would the media blow up the illegal mining affair the way it has done? I leave it to the reader’s intelligence to ponder over all the implications of this question.
This question apart, let’s look at BSY’s record. In a line, he stands as the incredible vote-getter for the BJP in Karnataka. Look at all the elections that have happened in the state after he became Chief Minister. The BJP has romped to victory like never before in every single election.
Equally, BSY also takes the complete credit for decimating the Opposition in the state. The Congress party is perhaps in its worst-ever condition since Independence. There’s not a single leader who can unite even one faction within the party. The KPCC chief, Parameshwar is powerless against even puny MLAs. A small fry like Varthur Prakash (now with the BJP) openly abuses his erstwhile Guru, the Congress heavyweight Siddaramaiah as an opportunist, and Siddaramaiah has no retort. The JD (S) is a family enterprise, which commands a few seats in selected pockets but can play no decisive role in the polls because it has completely alienated the Lingayat and Kuruba communities. It is a testimony to BSY’s acumen that he successfully repelled repeated strong-arm tactics of Kumaraswamy—including the poaching of 11 BJP MLAs. The Congress party’s padayatra to Bellary, which attracted a huge crowd, failed to make a dent on BSY’s image. BSY also managed to rein in the danger lurking right around the corner in Raj Bhavan in the form of H R Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj’s several molestations of the Governor’s office to unseat BSY were fruitless. Perhaps, BSY’s greatest success is the fact that he triumphed four no-confidence motions, two of which were back-to-back.
This kind of record naturally invites the impotent ire of the English media. A parallel is available in the media’s fulminations against Narendra Modi. No matter their attempts, Modi refuses to be dethroned. Which is why the media went orgasmic when Sadananda Gowda took over. He was pliable, and was generally perceived as docile, even. Is it any wonder that the Opposition, which bayed for BSY’s blood on a daily basis, suddenly adopted a saintly stance? Is it any wonder that the media now praises Sadananda Gowda for providing a “clean,” “efficient,” and “transparent” administration? All this maybe true but that’s not how party politics works.
It’s all about Winning Elections
Kiran has a fantastic analysis of Sadananda Gowda’s exit, perhaps the best I’ve read on the issue so far. Sadananda Gowda throughout his career, was more of a nice guy than a mass leader. He hasn’t faced any serious crisis so far and his vote base doesn’t stretch beyond his home constituency. In fact, after the battering he received in the Udupi-Chickmagalur by-election, even this is suspect. Whatever his Mr. Clean image, the party system in any democracy works exactly in one fashion: the top job goes to the person who commands the maximum number of people, and enjoys the loyalty of his own MLAs. BSY’s influence spans almost the entire Lingayat community in the state. Forget BSY, Sadananda Gowda doesn’t have the reach of other BJP leaders like R. Ashok, Jagadish Shettar, Suresh Kumar, Somanna, or even an upstart like C P Yogeshwar who manages to win from any party that gives him a ticket.
However, the tug of the Chief Minister’s chair is too strong to resist and Sadananda Gowda, after handing over his resignation to Nitin Gadkari, is trying his desperate best to retain it.
The Gowda camp insisted on the party president’s post for him, deputy Chief Ministership for K.S. Eshwarappa and half the ministerial berths for itself, and acceptance of their demands before the meeting, as indications emerged that the change of guard would be not be a smooth affair.
Whether the BJP central leadership accepts these demands is a different question. But projecting Jagadish Shettar as the next Chief Minister is a sensible move. He commands a huge following in the Hubli-Dharward-Gadag-Belgaum belt and is generally perceived to be clean. He established his credentials with the implementation of the much-needed Kalasa-Banduri irrigation project, giving the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha to Belgaum, and installing the South Western Railway HQ in Hubli. As Kiran says, Jagadish Shettar will do well to remember the lessons from Sadananda Gowda’s self-scripted exit.
More importantly, Shettar has already proved that he’s a strong vote-getter and holds the Lingayat community together. That ultimately is what matters in electoral politics.