Political battles and opportunism: The trajectory of Shobha Karandlaje

Shobha transformed into one of the leading anti-minority voices in the BJP when she was left out in the cold by Yediyurappa and his clique.
The trajectory of Shobha Karandlaje
The trajectory of Shobha Karandlaje
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“God won’t forgive me,” said a teary eyed BS Yediyurappa after he was forced to remove his protege  from his Cabinet. This was 2009 — just a year after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed its first government in south India in Karnataka. As Chief Minister, Yediyurappa was facing a strong rebellion from within the party — and while his dissenters led by the financially powerful Reddy brothers were gunning for him to step down, they were also particularly vehement against his protege: Shobha Karandlaje. They alleged she was interfering with the workings of different ministries — a claim Shobha strongly denied. What rubbed the men the wrong way, it seemed, was the fact that this was a woman enjoying a large amount of power in the government.

Then 44 years old, Shobha was the only woman minister in Yediyurappa’s Cabinet. By then, she had spent 14 years in the party, starting off in 1996 in the Udupi Mahila Morcha of the BJP. She had made a name for herself as a strong campaigner, a woman who recruited several others to the party, and as the person who had the BJP patriarch’s confidence. Shobha was getting into the prime of her political career in Karnataka — but her gender, and conflict with Yediyurappa’s family, meant she was slowly pushed out of state politics. 

Months after the Reddy brothers threatened to topple the Yediyurappa-led government, Shobha was forced to resign on November 9, 2009 as part of the compromise formula between Yediyurappa and the mighty Reddy brothers who had rebelled against him. "I would not say that I am not hurt in this entire episode,” Shobha had said, “However, what has hurt me the most is that those in the central and state leadership who so desperately wanted me out of the government have not told me the exact reason for shunting me out. I don't even know why they wanted me out in the first place.”

But Shobha ensured she made a space for herself in the power circle no matter where she went. Shrewd enough to toggle between the development rhetoric and rabid Hindutva according to the situation, she grew to the top as Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare. Today, she’s fighting her sixth election, this time for the MP seat from Bengaluru North constituency.

RSS beginnings

Coming from a family with no political background, Shobha cut her teeth in the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and built the BJP’s Mahila Morcha in coastal Karnataka. She became the general secretary of the Udupi district BJP Mahila Morcha in 1996 and worked hard to convince women in coastal Karnataka that politics was for them too, says Sheela K Shetty, who was then the Udupi Mahila Morcha president. Back then, the BJP had seven seats in the Legislative Assembly out of the 14 in undivided Dakshina Kannada district.

The 75-year-old Sheela refers to 57-year-old Shobha as ‘akka’ (elder sister). When asked why, Sheela says, "What Shobhakka has achieved is very rare for any woman. Politics is patriarchal, and for a woman to stay relevant and make a place for herself is a huge accomplishment, and I respect her for that. That's why I call her Shobhakka."

Many credit Shobha for building the BJP women’s wing in the coastal city; she was even asked to contest municipal elections in Manipal in 1996, which she declined. “She said it wasn’t the right time for her,” recalls Tingale Vikramarjuna Hegde, former general secretary of the Udupi BJP unit. “She had bigger ambitions at the time,” he adds.

Many don’t know about her days in the Rashtra Sevika Samiti. Those who knew Shobha back then say she was steeped in the Sangh’s ideology from the start but was careful to avoid the rabid Hindutva messaging in pursuit of a larger constituency. But she quickly transformed into one of the leading anti-minority voices in the BJP when she was left out in the cold by Yediyurappa and his clique. This rebranding as a Hindutva hardliner allowed her to shrug off the fact that Yediyurappa chose his sons over her.

“She’s a Sangh product. She worked in the Rashtra Sevika Samiti where she would counsel young women on the importance of Hindu culture and benefits of fasting, etc,” a former RSS leader from Dakshina Kannada tells TNM. 

Then came the 1998 general elections where Shobha campaigned aggressively for the Udupi BJP candidate, Jayaram Shetty, and helped wrest the seat by defeating five time Udupi MP and Congress leader Oscar Fernandes.

Two years after being with the Mahila Morcha, Shobha decided to plunge into active politics. She was still a nobody, but veteran BJP leader AJ Kodgi, who was the Udupi BJP district president at the time, spotted Shobha's potential and recommended her as a full-time worker for the party. The same year she met BS Yediyurappa — the man who would have the largest impact on her political career — at Sankalpa Yatra, a poll campaign ahead of the 1999 Assembly election. Yediyurappa admired hard-working people, says a senior party functionary. “He was impressed by her attitude of never saying no, which earned her respect and brought her closer to the party leadership,” he says.

A Yediyurappa loyalist

“Shobha’s association with Yediyurappa got her the seat to the Legislative Council in 2004, despite strong opposition from within the ranks,” says a party insider. From there on, Shobha never looked back. She grew from strength to strength and became a close confidante of Yediyura­ppa. In the May 2008 Assembly elections, she was nominated from North Bengaluru's Yeshwantpur seat. However, some BJP workers refused to campaign for her since she was an "outsider" from the Dakshina Kannada region.

Despite the resistance from within the party, Shobha won the election and became the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (RDPR) Minister. It was also the BJP's first victory in an Assembly election in south India, which further raised Yediyurappa's profile within the party and, by extension, Shobha’s.

According to party insiders, till 2009, senior leaders met Shobha first to ascertain Yediyurappa's mood. Yediyurappa made Shobha a part of his foreign travel entourage, and also made her in-charge of a key district like Mysuru. And as her closeness to the Chief Minister grew, so did the envy of her party colleagues.

Several senior ministers complained that the CM would ask officials to ‘run it past her’ before he signed a file. Shobha often held media briefings after Cabinet meetings, and there were allegations that no file would get cleared without her approval.

At this point, mining barons Janardhan Reddy and Karunakar Reddy, who had bought their way into political power, were claiming the support of two-thirds of all BJP legislators. The main accusation from the Reddy brothers was that Shobha was interfering in other ministries — an allegation she has denied.

The Reddy faction, along with the then-Speaker Jagadish Shettar – whom they were trying to promote as a replacement for Yediyurappa – went to New Delhi with their demand to replace the Karnataka Chief Minister. Yediyurappa only had the support of 17 MLAs out of the 117 that the BJP had in Karnataka, and Shobha was one of them. The first thing the rebels sought from the BJP's central leadership was Shobha's ouster from the government.

“They could not stand taking instructions from a woman,” a senior BJP leader tells TNM, “The power Shobha held within the government and in the BJP had hurt many male egos. And what better way to hurt Yediyurappa than to force him to remove his protege from the Cabinet?"

This ouster led to Yediyurappa to have a public meltdown. “God won't forgive me,” he declared as he let go of Shobha. And that moment in 2009 started the process of edging Shobha out of Karnataka politics, although a full move to Delhi came much later.

In 2010, Shobha was reinstated and given the Energy Ministry in the Karnataka government, becoming the first woman to handle the Energy portfolio in Karnataka. She also had additional charge of the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies. Her comeback was a boss move, but it didn't last long.

In 2011, Yediyurappa left the BJP after being forced to resign as Chief Minister over corruption charges. He formed his own party, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), ahead of the 2012 Assembly election in which the Congress came back to power. Shobha eventually joined him after resigning from her ministerial position and was made the working president of KJP.

Later, Shobha lost as a KJP candidate in the 2013 Assembly polls from RR Nagar in Bengaluru to S Suresh Kumar of the BJP. Yediyurappa called off his rebellion and returned to the BJP; Shobha followed him. 

Conflict with BSY’s family

In October 2016, a founding member of the KJP, Padmanabha Prasanna, claimed that he had a CD containing a video of Yediyurappa getting married to Shobha. While no video was released and the episode did not have a lasting impact on Yediyurappa’s popularity, it affected Shobha’s.

As he had done in the past when rumours surrounding him and Shobha surfaced, Yediyurappa maintained a studied silence while Shobha was harassed by the media and rival political parties as though her private life was a public interest issue. At one point, she said, “These people have resorted to character assassination. Congress people are mad. I have faced such allegations before and I’ll face them going forward too.” 

Such allegations made Yediyurappa’s family — particularly his sons Vijayendra and Raghavendra — unhappy. The Lingayat strongman’s sons were late entrants to state politics, and when they wanted to move up, they reportedly made Yediyurappa choose between them and Shobha. They believed they should be the ones to inherit Yediyurappa's legacy even though they were yet to prove their political acumen. The brothers saw Shobha’s proximity to their father as a threat to their ambitions.

According to a senior journalist, Yediyurappa's political existence in Karnataka is dependent on him being able to deliver Lingayat votes. “If he chose Shobha, he wouldn’t garner the support of Lingayats, so he chose to fulfil his political interests while accommodating Shobha with his backing,” he says.

The RSS intervened to find a solution, according to party insiders. In 2019, the RSS asked Shobha to stay away from Yediyurappa and his family.

In 2014, Shobha won her first Lok Sabha contest from Udupi – Chikkamagaluru by a margin of 1.81 lakh votes. In 2019, she won with a majority of over 2.4 lakh votes.

When Yediyurappa became the CM for the fourth time in 2019, Shobha maintained her distance from state politics. Unlike before, she was not visible among the inner circles of Yediyurappa amid the Chief Minister's younger son BY Vijayendra's growing influence.

BY Vijayendra participating in Shobha's campaign
BY Vijayendra participating in Shobha's campaign

The opportunist 

Shobha was made the Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare in the second Narendra Modi government in 2021. This also marked her shift in having her own equations with the national leadership in New Delhi. Party insiders suggest that Shobha's appointment was made to keep her from challenging Yediyurappa's family's control over the state BJP. However, in the last few years, Shobha has transformed into one of BJP’s most rabidly communal leaders.

Shobha with Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Shobha with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Fast forward to 2024, Shobha is contesting the from Bengaluru North constituency.

Shobha faced a wave of opposition in her current constituency, Udupi-Chikkamagaluru, with the local BJP unit spearheading a campaign called 'Go back, Shobha.' They demanded that the party high command not field her from the constituency. Party workers had written letters to the BJP National President JP Nadda urging him to replace Shobha, citing that she was inaccessible and had failed to address the concerns of the people. A group of BJP workers who supported former BJP minister CT Ravi had also written separate letters urging the high command to field him from the constituency instead of Shobha.

To put an end to these protests, Yediyurappa visited Chikkamagaluru and showed his support for Shobha. He said that she would win by a high margin. However, Shobha has now been moved to the Bengaluru North constituency, and just days after her candidacy was announced, she did what she's done throughout her political career — use every opportunity to her advantage. 

In the aftermath of a bomb blast at Bengaluru’s Rameshwaram Cafe, Shobha made a hateful comment. “One person comes from Tamil Nadu and plants a bomb in a cafe. Another person comes from Delhi and raises pro-Pak slogans in Vidhana Soudha. Another man comes from Kerala and throws acid at college students,” the BJP MP had said. 

While this may be seen as a reckless attempt at pitting communities against each other, Shobha was clearly pandering to her constituency in Bengaluru North — which apart from being a Vokkaliga stronghold also has small Tamil pockets. She was trying to harness sentiments against non Kannadigas in the city, which in the last year has seen various protests over Cauvery water sharing with Tamil Nadu and demands for Kannada signages in shops by pro-Kannada activists. 

This isn't the first time Shobha has used an ongoing issue to garner attention. According to Vidya Dinker, a social and environmental activist from Mangaluru, Shobha, during her initial years conducting election campaigns, claimed that she was part of citizens’ struggles in the region, including the protests against the Mangalore Special Economic Zone. However, the truth was that she never participated in the protests nor visited the area to speak with the people, Vidya says. “I believe Shobha had a feeling that she needed to associate herself with a popular local struggle at that time,” Vidya says, adding that all BJP, RSS leaders in the region were activists at one point. “They had to protest to mobilise people and make themselves visible. Shobha had to present herself as an activist because they were not in power,” she says.

In 2020, Shobha tried pitting natives in coastal Karnataka against Malayalis. She called for scrutiny at the Kerala and Karnataka borders in February 2020, demanding that Malayalis travelling to Karnataka should furnish reasons for their travels. She alleged that people from Kerala were violently protesting in Mangaluru against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — and was later booked by the Kerala police for evoking religious animosity. 

In 2018, she alleged that 23 Hindu activists were killed by 'jihadis' in Karnataka. However, a ground report by Scroll exposed how some of the men named in the list were in fact alive, while a few others were killed in unrelated incidents.

Shobha was among the many BJP leaders who repeatedly claimed that 18-year-old Paresh Mesta was tortured and killed by a communal mob. The BJP had claimed that before he was drowned, he had then been burnt with hot oil. Paresh’s death and Shobha’s statement had led to communal tension in Karnataka. However, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), in 2022, concluded that Paresh’s death was only due to drowning and that there was no evidence to prove murder.

In 2017, Shobha targeted Congress MLA Dinesh Gundu Rao, taking aim at his interfaith marriage. Her claim in the same year that Kerala had become a safe haven for extremist elements also invited criticism from many.

Now in 2024, Shobha finds herself fighting for her survival with a fraction of the support she previously received from her political mentor. If she wins the Bengaluru North Lok Sabha seat, she may well go on to become a bigger player in the state’s politics in the next decade. Even if she loses, she may still be the only woman in Karnataka who has fought for and ensured her survival in mainstream politics for so long, much of it without godfathers or allies.

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