Infighting in Karnataka BJP: Will it dent the party’s electoral prospects?

Karnataka will be a crucial battle for the BJP, especially after the drubbing it received in last year’s Assembly elections.
Infighting in Karnataka BJP: Will it dent the party’s electoral prospects?
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The BJP is dealing with a political rebellion in Karnataka, with several seasoned politicians threatening to either quit the party or contest as independents. Long-time observers of the state’s politics, however, say these threats are likely to do little to damage the saffron party’s electoral prospects. 

Even before the BJP released the first list of candidates for the Lok Sabha polls, the party’s Karnataka unit has been firefighting, trying to assuage the feelings of disgruntled party leaders and workers. 

One of the biggest rebellions the party had to deal with was in the Udupi-Chikkamagalur seat, where party workers took out bike rallies and protests against the incumbent MP Shobha Karandlaje. While the party did not renominate her from that constituency, she was given a ticket for the Bangalore North constituency. 

Karandlaje’s candidature got Bangalore North MP and former CM DV Sadananda Gowda initially hinting that Congress leaders had approached him. He has consulted the Vokkaligara Sangha, which has backed him, saying the BJP was sidelining Vokkaligas and that the Sangha would not tolerate the humiliation of its leaders. However, both Shobha and Sadananda are Vokkaligas.

On Thursday, however, Gowda backed off, telling the media that there was no question of joining the Congress or opposing Shobha Karandlaje. He said that the atmosphere in the state should be conducive to bringing Prime Minister Narendra Modi back to power. Still, he said those who had brought him to this state would “repent.”

Karadi Sanganna, a Lingayat leader from Koppal, was passed over for K Basavaraj. A seasoned politician from Koppal, Sanganna has won two Lok Sabha and several Assembly and local elections from Koppal. His supporters vandalised the district party office and raised slogans of “Go back Basavaraj,” echoing the “Go back Shobha” slogan raised by their counterparts in Udupi and Chikkamagalur districts. He is reportedly planning to contest as an independent candidate.

KS Eshwarappa lashed out at the party after his son KE Kanthesh was denied the Haveri seat, which instead went to former CM Basavaraj Bommai. He has since been fuming, accusing Yediyurappa of “cheating” him and is threatening to contest the Shivamogga seat as an independent against Yediyurappa’s son BY Raghavendra. The Congress has fielded Geetha Shivarajkumar here.

Ashok Chandargi, a long-time observer of Karnataka’s politics, is sceptical Eshwarappa will win, pointing out that independent candidates usually get around 50,000-60,000 votes but have rarely ever won. 

“BY Raghavendra won (the last election) with a margin of over two lakh votes. Rebel candidates can reduce the victory margin but not affect the actual outcome. What Eshwarappa is claiming is highly impossible,” says Chandargi. There are other factors as well. While Eshwarappa is a Kuruba, the caste matrix in Shivamogga is complex with OBCs, Lingayats, Banjaras and other communities, and it will be difficult to rally them all, Chandargi says.

Read: Karnataka: Eedina pre-poll survey predicts 17 seats for Congress 

These rebellions will not matter in due course of time, Chandargi says. “The party is wholly dependent on Modi, although locally, the caste factor does matter.”  

For instance, in the Belagavi seat, for which neither the Congress nor the BJP have announced candidates, caste will matter. Jagadish Shettar has his eye on that seat, while the Congress is reportedly considering fielding MLA Lakshmi Hebbalkar’s son, Mrunal. “If the candidates are from different castes, most of the Lingayat vote will go to the Lingayat candidate regardless of the party. If both candidates are Lingayats, then the vote will split. Then you can’t control the vote,” Chandargi said. 

Asked about other castes — OBCs, SCs and STs — outnumbering Lingayats or Vokkaligas in any constituency, Chandargi agreed that numerically they do. “But they are not a political bloc like the Lingayats are. All the Lingayat mutts will back the Lingayat candidates, and 90% of the Lingayat vote is with the BJP.”

According to the director of Nitte Education Trust and national coordinator of Lokniti Network, Sandeep Shastri, some discontent is to be expected given that the BJP has decided to go by the central leadership’s decision, although in consultation with the state leaders.

“The growth trajectory of the BJP in Karnataka has been different from elsewhere. Many of its leaders came into the BJP from other parties. So whenever the party tries to bring in change, there is some discontent. It happened during the previous Assembly election too.”

But whether this rebellion will affect the party’s chances will largely depend on the nature of the campaign, according to Shastri. “If the BJP and JD(S) choose the rhetoric that winning all 28 seats will help make Modi the prime minister. If they manage to side-step state issues, then it is unlikely to have much impact. But if the focus is on state issues, it might play spoiler for the BJP,” he said. 

But there is also the question of whether they will be able to appease the disgruntled leaders who, in the party’s view, have crossed their political prime and are therefore making noises, he said. “This is “definitely a matter of alarm for the party” because Karnataka is an important state for the BJP in the south,” he said.

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