Lingayat leader and former chief minister of Karnataka, Jagadish Shettar’s house in Hubballi still has framed photos of him with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. He quit the BJP in a huff last month as he was not given a ticket to fight in these assembly polls. “Yes, party workers have pointed it out to me. I’ve told them ‘what’s the haste?’ After all, I have been with them for about 30 years,” he says.
Shettar is that kind of politician, from the old school where political rivals are to be fought in elections and debated in Parliament, but maintain camaraderie at a personal level. But what led to such an unceremonious exit for a senior leader like him; why were the differences so irretrievable? “I don’t know. All I asked was for a ticket to fight, which I am sure I would have won,” says Shettar. Instead, he got a call early morning around 7 am on April 11, from a senior BJP leader and a union minister that he was not being given a ticket. “He told me they will be sending a letter saying you are retiring from electoral politics. I should sign the letter and send it back to him,” says Shettar. That was the last straw; he couldn’t take the indignity and quit the party. He says no senior BJP leader spoke to him about it. “If Nadda ji had called me and explained why they didn’t want to give me a ticket I might have reconsidered,” he says.
But after all these years in the BJP, how can he now start supporting leaders of the Congress ideology whom he had attacked all his political life? “Where is ideology? So many Congress MLAs left and joined the BJP during Operation Kamala (of 2019 when Congress MLAs deserted the party to join the BJP, bringing down the coalition government led by H D Kumaraswamy). So where is ideology?” he counters. He also says Lingayat voters will not back the BJP blindly this time as they feel their other tall leader B S Yediyurappa has also been slighted when he was asked to step down as chief minister, and Basavraj Bommai was installed.
Apart from his own candidature, Shettar says the BJP has erred in candidate selection. “There is mismanagement because of B L Santosh (BJP’s national general secretary). Many tickets have been given because the candidates are his favourites. No democratic decision is taking place in the BJP,” he alleges. The differences between Santosh and Shettar are not unknown. Party insiders and Santosh loyalists say Shettar was being unreasonable and stubborn about his demand for a ticket. “Santosh is a great organisational man. Shettar was not willing to listen to the party. He wanted to contest the elections, but the party was not keen. He should have listened to the party whatever the decision was. Accusing Santosh for Shettar’s ouster is not right,” says C N Ashwath Narayan, minister for information technology and other portfolios in the present state government.
What impact is Shettar likely to have in the assembly polls? “Shettar is a senior leader of the BJP, six-time MLA, former Speaker and chief minister. He has his own clout among the Lingayats and other communities,” says veteran Congress leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah. His colleague and rival for the CM’s post, D K Shivakumar agrees: “Throwing away Jagadish Shettar is a big blunder by the BJP,” he says. The BJP doesn’t think so. When we meet Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai at his Hubballi home, he dismisses Shettar and says he will not have any major impact among Lingayat voters. Bommai says Shettar importance is so low that he will lose his own seat in Hubballi.