Tough choices for new Karnataka CM Bommai

Basavaraj Bommai assumed charge as the 30th Chief Minister of Karnataka on July 28. It was by all means a surprise choice as claims of many of the old aspirants were ignored. Though he is a new and younger face at the helms, the Bharatiya Janata Party could not move away from the caste stranglehold. Only a Lingayath has moved into the shoes of another Lingayath, B. S. Yeddiyurappa. Fear of antagonizing the most dominant community in the State persuaded ‘the party with a difference’ to tow the lines of the community seers who had warned of a backlash if the community stalwart was removed from the seat. For the present, their concerns have been addressed. The party High Command has thus shown preference for continuity and change.

The larger question that Bommai would need to address is if he would be able to move away from the shadow of Yeddiyurappa who dominated the State political scene since 2006, assuming charge of the top office four times and leaving the tenures incomplete. Will Bommai be in real command of the party legislators? Or Yeddiyurappa will be doing the backseat driving? Such questions would linger in the public minds.

However, in a major departure from the convention, the BJP has gone for a greenhorn and an ideologically moderate person who had joined the party in 2008. Son of a socialist leader and former CM, S. R. Bommai, Basavaraj has though shown toughness as Home Minister but has refrained from any vitriolic posturing that would endear him to the radical elements. It is a moot point if he would be doing so in future in order to keep them in good humour.

The larger message that goes out for the people in a State that would be going to polls in less than two years is that the BJP is increasingly becoming a prisoner of the Lingayath caste lobby and other communities must play a second fiddle within the State politics. Their support is welcome, but the crown would remain with the community that has become the main votebank. Yeddiyurappa’s emotional outburst against the High Command in his speech before the party legislators seems to have pushed the party to the back foot. He had told the party that they (the High Command) did not allow him to form a cabinet for the first 40 days after becoming the chief minister back in 2019 and he roamed the State as a madman directing the flood relief. The High Command took due notice of the ruining impact of his tears which may cost the party dearly.

The BJP High Command initially wanted to go for Union Minister Pralhad Joshi, a Brahmin and favourite of the RSS, for the top post. But Joshi is understood to have withdrawn himself from the race following warnings from the Lingayat seers who wanted nothing but a Lingayat as the CM. The High Command held the choice close to the heart and disclosed it to BJP Legislature Party only at the eleventh hour.

Cabinet formation is all likely to pose tough challenge to Mr. Bommai who would be required to placate old loyalists who were kept away from ministerial offices to accommodate defectors from the Congress thereby propping up the Yeddiyurappa Government for two years. Already Deputy Speaker Anand Mamani has openly threatened of resigning from his post if he is not inducted into the cabinet as a minister and kept away ‘from serving the people’. There are at least half a dozen MLAs who have been elected for five or four terms but were never taken into the cabinet by the BJP. They have already either publicly expressed their displeasure or hinted of their wish to be taken in the cabinet. Outgoing Industries Minister (who was also Chief Minister for one year in the earlier tenure of the party government) has opted out of the ministry telling ‘it would not be nice for him to be a minister in the Bommai cabinet after being a CM of the state previously.

Community balance too would have to be looked at in order to garner support for the next elections in the southern parts of the State where another dominant community, Vokkaligas have not had a CM from their ranks for over a decade.

Those who have defected from the Congress and joined the BJP and were made ministers are skeptical about their ministerial prospects in the new ministry. In all, 16 Congress MLAs resigned from the Congress in July 2019, 11 of them got reelected on the BJP ticket in byelections held in December that year, two of them lost and two were disqualified. One among the two who lost was nominated as MLC and taken into the cabinet. Among themselves defectors took away a third of cabinet berths.

Yeddiyurappa lost the post mainly due to his age (79th year running) and allegations of nepotism. His son B. Y. Vijeyendra was accused of taking major decisions and appointing key personnel. Party circles were agog with charges of corruption and nepotism. Currently, five cases pertaining to denotification of land are pending before courts. It would remain to be seen if he would be inducted into the cabinet. His another son B. Y. Raghavendra is Lok Sabha MP from Shivamogga. How would the Bommai dispensation treat firebrand BJP MLA from Belgavi Mr. Basanagouda Patil Yatnal would also serve as an indicator if Bommai would like to move out from Yeddiyurappa’s shadow. Yatnal gifted with an acerbic tongue was the chief tormentor of the former CM. He had predicted the fall of Yeddiyurappa several times.

M A Siraj is a veteran writer and journalist based in Bengaluru