Not many people may remember the enthusiastic hand that reached out to greet Narendra Modi soon after he was named leader of the BJP’s 2014 election campaign at Goa. The Gujarat CM hugged his Madhya Pradesh counterpart, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, shook hands with another colleague. But the enthusiastic hand, Modi just touched lightly with his fingertips.
The perfunctory gesture was hard to miss. The extended hand belonged to Ananth Kumar, protege of party patriarch L.K. Advani, and among those involved in closed-door confabulations leading to party president Rajnath Singh formalising the BJP’s Modification.
Kumar may have been genuine in his support for Modi with whom he has had a good rapport in the past. But the body language at Goa sent a different message to at least some partymen in the Karnataka BJP. These are people who have felt the ground slipping away from under their feet in the only battleground they know—elections—and are looking at Modi as an opportunity. The recent state polls dwarfed the party by two-thirds (from 119 to 40). These are men who’d still stand up if former CM and state party boss and now rebel B.S. Yediyurappa walked into the room, men who’d still stage a walkout in the assembly with him as if programmed to do so.
They are the ones clamouring for the return of the prodigal, quoting statistics which, they believe, will change if BSY were to merge his fledgling Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) with the BJP. Election Commission figures show that the BJP lost 26.2 lakh votes in 2013 from the remarkable 88.52 lakh votes it secured in 2008. The bsr Congress of mining baron B. Sreeramulu secured 8.30 lakh votes and the KJP a huge 30 lakh votes.
“If we don’t bring him back, the party’s revival will never happen,” says a party MLA whom BSY had tried to defeat.
“This doesn’t mean we don’t respect Ananth Kumar,” says one enthusiastic BSY supporter in the BJP. “He maintains a strong organisation. But Modi is interested in a strong organisation as well as in somebody who can bring in votes.” He’s alluding to the support BSY still has in his majority caste group, the Lingayats. The assembly polls saw a clear three-way split among the community votes, disillusioned as it was by the BJP’s dismal performance and the corruption charges against BSY. Even the Congress got a substantial section of the Lingayat votes (36 per cent, if one post-poll survey is to be believed). “BSY’s return will certainly be a plus factor with the Lingayat community,” says a senior party leader from the community who, like the others, did not want to be named. The only leader who has gone on record to openly canvass support for BSY is the man who lost his chief ministership because of him, Sadananda Gowda. “If we join together, party workers will be enthused and there will be some movement among the voters as well. I’m prepared to be quoted on this,” he says. This does not mean the pattern of voting in the Lok Sabha elections will be the same as in the assembly poll. (In the last LS elections, the BJP won 18, Congress 7 and JD(S) 3 seats). As any observer of Karnataka politics will tell you, votes won in assembly elections will not be reflected in the LS polls.
But BJP leaders seem convinced that the party’s fortunes can only improve compared to the May 2013 verdict. “At least, we will be able to prevent voters from moving away. The split within the Lingayats cut across all sects. And, if we do not act now and bring him back, the revival of the party just cannot happen...especially with (chief minister) Siddaramaiah consolidating the backward classes and Dalits. Social engineering is just not possible under the present leadership,” says one party MLA whom BSY had actually tried to get defeated. So, if everyone agrees that BSY should be back, what’s stopping it?
“The ‘A’ factor,” says a legislator, signifying both Advani and Ananth Kumar. Many in the party believe it was Ananth Kumar’s differences with BSY that led to his removal as CM more than the Lokayukta exposing his role in the illegal mining scam. Some hope Ananth Kumar will be able to convince Advani since he has his ear. Others do not expect the patriarch, who blogged his lack of surprise at the party’s defeat in the assembly polls, to change his mind about BSY. That’s where the focus shifts to Modi.
But will Modi make his choice to both the As clear? Or will it lead to another confrontation with Advani? Or will the patriarch just keep aloof, let Modi do whatever he wants in Karnataka? Will Modi visit the state—as part of his 100-rallies programme—only after BSY’s future is decided? Difficult to answer, as of now. If the prodigal doesn’t return, Modi may not get his numbers from the state. Neither will KJP get too many votes in the LS poll, which will impact its longevity. The need for survival at both ends may lead the issue to be settled in less than a week or drag on forever.
By Imran Qureshi in Bangalore