Karnataka politics has not seen a dull moment in the past four years. Ever since the BJP formed its first government south of the Vindhyas, there have been those exhilaratingly ‘high‘ moments and the abysmally ‘low‘ tumbles for the party. The rapid twists and the silent turns, the amazing political somersaults and the smooth shifts in alliances within the party have all been part of that tantalizingly gripping political drama called the ‘BJP as a ruling party in Karnataka‘. Having changed its Chief Minister thrice in four years, the BJP is desperately trying to come to terms with the fact that it has to face the electorate in less than a year. What are the key issues that confront the party in the State today?
As a new Chief Minister, Jagadish Shettar was sworn in last month, many wondered at the strange course in politics. Less than a year ago, Shettar had lost out in the chief ministerial race to Sadananda Gowda who was then seen as a protégé of Yeddyurappa. This time around, Shettar secured the blessings of Yeddyurappa to bid for power. A friend turns a foe and a foe clearly merges as a friend. Such is the heady stuff of politics. The BJP in the State is clearly divided into several camps: you have the old guards and the new recruits; you have the insiders (who owe allegiance to the frontal organisations) and the outsiders; you have those who are identified with different State level leaders and of course you have those who managed to be in (became part of the Ministry) and those who remained out (could not secure a seat in the ministerial bus)! These alliances and camps can be amazingly fluid and partnerships could shift with every passing hour. Critical are the political calculations that allow one to be in close proximity to power. That seems to be the final political dividend that matters. Clearly here one’s ‘standing‘ depends on how close you ‘sit‘ to those in power.
With Shettar assuming the Chief Ministership, the State got, for the first time, two Deputy Chief Ministers. Someone untutored in politics would believe that this is good for governance as you have more senior people to serve the public interest! Those in the know of things would understand that the Chief Minister and two Deputy Chief Ministers constitute the primary LKG of politics—a Lingayat Chief Minister, a Kuruba Deputy Chief Minister and a Gowda (Vokkaliga) Deputy Chief Minister. The fervent hope of many is that the government would graduate from the primary stage of political action to a secondary and higher stage. Projecting Shettar as the Chief Minister was seen as ensuring the continued support of the powerful Lingayat community which had backed the party in 2008 and from which the former Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, hails. Also, many believe this was the strategy of the BJP central leadership to neutralise Yeddyurappa. An alternative Lingayat leader (that too from the nerve-centre of Lingayat politics) was being projected. However, to make Shettar the Chief Minister, the party was unseating a Vokkaliga (Sadananda Gowda) which is seen as the rival dominant caste to the Lingayats. To prevent a Vokkaliga backlash you anoint a Deputy Chief Minister from that community and ensure that the powerful backward caste that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Siddaramaiah) hails from—the Kuruba community—is represented by the other Deputy Chief Minister. While all these political permutations and combinations seem great on paper, the ground reality is very different. The citizen on the street is confused whether governance is about a grand LKG coalition or about visible work on the ground? Further, politics in the State in the last three decades has clearly shown that the attempt to woo the two dominant castes (Lingayats and Vokkaligas) does not necessarily contribute to electoral success.
THE new Chief Minister has less than a year in office, assuming that the elections will not be held earlier than when it is scheduled. Ideally, the party and government machinery needed to be fully in election mode and provide tangible proof of good governance. This could help in making a pitch for a renewed mandate. The ground reality is that the government faces political pinpricks on several issues. The party remains a divided, dissatisfied and dissent filled house, unwilling to shift to election gear. Party workers are unhappy with the apparent drift, legislators are displeased at not being made Ministers, and Ministers nurse a grouse at not getting a ministry of their choice…. The pessimism is all prevalent. This is never a good sign for a ruling party that needs to brace itself for a tough election. Added to the challenge are the multiple camps within the party and the many aspirants for a leadership role. The Big Three (the present Chief Minister and his two predecessors) appear not to see eye to eye on most issues. This is bound to escalate further and complicate matters even more as the election nears. While the party has installed a new head of government, there is lack of clarity on who leads the party in the next poll. The ‘collective leadership‘ euphemism is clearly a mask for a lack of clarity. When many collectively lead, no one takes the responsibility and there is a lack of clear direction. This dilemma does not merely plague the BJP. It is also the principal challenge facing the Congress in the State. This has left the race for 2013 wide open. The moves made by the major political players (both parties and individuals) in the coming months will clearly define and decide the nature of the contest in 2013. Which party can close ranks and galvanise its cadres and project a united front before the voter is the critical question. At this point of time, there seem to be no ready answers.
Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and keen observer of Karnataka politics, is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Jain University, Balgalore.