The make-shift stage set up on the road outside the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office in Bengaluru was decked in saffron. A few hundred people seated in chairs and peeping out of the balconies of nearby buildings watched with interest as the slender frame of Dakshina Kannada MP Nalin Kumar Kateel, the new BJP President for Karnataka took to the stage.
"I am not a scholar or a pandit. I am an ordinary party worker. The workers of the Sangh (RSS) have raised me and today I have a responsible position to fill today," he said in a short speech.
Nalin replaced current Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa as the BJP's chief in Karnataka in an event marked by the conspicuous absence of senior party leaders including R Ashoka and Sriramulu.
Nalin refused to be drawn into questions about the missing leaders but instead chose to focus on the responsibility entrusted to him. "I have the blessings of BS Yediyurappa and the party has grown in the state due to him, Eshwarappa, Ananth Kumar and others," added Nalin.
The appointment caps the rise of Nalin, who started as an RSS worker in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, to the highest position within the party's organisation in the state. The elevation comes three months after he defeated Congress leader Mithun Rai by a margin of 2,74,621 votes in the Lok Sabha elections.
Nalin, who represents the Bunt community, has been with the RSS since the age of 18. Initially, he was the protégé of RSS ideologue Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat but after differences cropped up between Prabhakar and another senior RSS leader BL Santhosh, he chose to follow the latter. Santhosh is currently the BJP's National General Secretary (Organisation).
Nalin was appointed the BJP's District Organising Secretary for Dakshina Kannada in 2004 and soon contested his first Lok Sabha elections in 2009. Since then, he has won from the constituency decisively in three consecutive elections.
But his year has been marred by multiple controversies involving Nalin.
In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, he was criticised by the Congress for the slow pace of developmental works in Dakshina Kannada and for his perceived failure to stop the merger of Vijaya Bank with Bank of Baroda.
Just before the results of the Lok Sabha election, he was reprimanded by the BJP's central leadership for comments supporting Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse. "Godse killed one, Kasab killed 72, Rajiv Gandhi killed 17,000. You judge who is more cruel in this?", Nalin had tweeted in May. The tweet has since been deleted and he later tendered an apology on the social media platform.
That did not stop BJP National President Amit Shah from writing to him and two other leaders - Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and Anantkumar Hegde - asking them to explain their comments. But three months after the election, this seems to be a foregone issue for the BJP evidenced by Nalin's appointment as the party's state president.
Earlier this month, a non-bailable warrant was issued against Nalin in relation to a case registered for an alleged provocative speech made in January 2017. Speaking in Konaje in Mangaluru, Nalin reportedly said, "We are telling you today. If you can't protect the people and nab the culprits in the next ten days, it is possible for us to set fire to Dakshina Kannada district."
The speech came two months after the death of Karthik Raj, a BJP worker's son who was found dead. Senior BJP leaders in the state including Nalin, Yediyurappa and CT Ravi accused the Popular Front of India (PFI) and 'Jihadist elements' for murdering Karthik however, the investigation into the incident revealed that sibling rivalry led to the murder.
A tough challenge ahead
Many in the BJP believe that Nalin's appointment has been influenced by BL Santhosh. "He wanted a leader loyal to the RSS is in charge in Karnataka," a source in the BJP told TNM.
However, there are concerns that Nalin, unlike his predecessor Yediyurappa, does not have a pan-Karnataka appeal and that his appointment will have little effect in the BJP's organisation in northern and central Karnataka. "He is someone who is comfortable in coastal Karnataka where the BJP has a strong presence. But there are concerns about how he will be able to get his ideas across to party workers in Mysuru, Mandya or Bidar, where the BJP has a lesser presence. He is not known to be assertive in his leadership and will stick to the task assigned to him", added the source.
Nalin is set to form an unlikely partnership with the Chief Minister to lead the BJP in Karnataka. While the first administrative task will be to quell any disgruntlement among BJP leaders over the allocation of cabinet portfolios, the duo will also need to consolidate the grassroots network of the party in the state.