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Karnataka BJP a divided house: Its Mission 150 may become Mission Impossible

Ramakrishna Upadhya | Updated on: 2 May 2017, 8:43 IST

With internal strife in the Karnataka BJP worsening by the day, party cadres are worried that the 'Mission 150' the leaders had set for the next year’s Assembly elections, may turn out to be 'Mission Impossible'.

Ever since BS Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s tallest leader in Karnataka, returned as state president last April, declaring that his job was to win 150 out of the Legislative Assembly's 225 seats and bring the party back to power in the state, he has faced constant pinpricks from a section of leaders. They have refused to pipe down despite several warnings.

Worried that the war of words between Yeddyurappa and former president KS Eshwarappa and their respective supporters is severely damaging the image of the party, the central leadership dispatched P Muralidhar Rao, its national general secretary in charge of Karnataka, to Bengaluru over the week-end, to douse the fire.

After holding parleys with several state leaders, Rao talked tough, saying that differences had to be resolved within party forums and henceforth the central BJP “will not tolerate the activities of a parallel forum by any name, any brigade or otherwise.” His message was clearly aimed at Eshwarappa who has been organising anti-Yeddyurappa leaders’ meetings in the name of Sangolli Rayanna Brigade.

Rao also announced the sacking of two vice-presidents, MLC MB Bhanuprakash and former MLA Nirmal Kumar Surana (Eshwarappa camp) and Raitha Sangha Morcha vice-president MP Renukacharya and party spokesperson G Madhusudhan (Yeddyurappa’s supporters).

Though Rao maintained parity in numbers, observers were quick to point out that Yeddyurappa had suffered least damage as those removed from his side were relative lightweights.

A defiant Eshwarappa skipped a scheduled meeting with Rao and proceeded to his home town, Shivamogga, where he declared that the Rayanna Brigade’s activities were meant to strengthen the party and they would continue as he had the “blessings” of BJP chief Amit Shah.

Last month, in the midst of his hectic campaigning in five states which went to polls, Amit Shah had called both Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa to Delhi for a patch up. He had also included them in a committee which consisted of two others, BL Santosh, an old RSS hand, and Muralidhar Rao to resolve their differences.

The by-elections to two Assembly seats in Karnataka, Nanjangud and Gundlupet, put a break to the factional feud as the state BJP mobilised all its resources to snatch them from the ruling Congress.

The ‘Govindraj diary gate’ which exposed alleged payment of at least Rs 600 crore to the Congress high command and Dalit leader and former minister V Srinivasprasad’s defection to the BJP to contest from Nanjangud, had demoralised the Siddaramaiah government, ostensibly giving an edge to the BJP.

Both Nanjangud and Gundlupet are dominated by the Lingayats and though the BJP has never won from either constituency, the party expected Yeddyurappa’s hold over the community to work to its advantage. But the BJP's efforts were in vain as the Congress won both the seats.

The electoral matrix in the two places also played their part. While Gundlupet voted on ‘sympathy factor’ for Geetha Mahadeva Prasad contesting from her late husband’s constituency, Srinivasprasad’s ‘anti-Lingayat’s image worked against him.

These issues apart, a tacit understanding between the Congress and the JD(S) played a clinching role in the Congress candidates retaining both the seats, giving the Yeddyurappa baiters in the BJP one more opportunity to revive their tirade against him.

In fact, Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa, who both hail from Shivamogga, were like ‘twins’ who built the party in Karnataka from scratch. People in Shivamogga still remember the duo travelling by scooter and gathering support for the party.

Yeddyurappa was the party mascot who brought BJP to power for the first time in Karnataka in 2008 and also became the chief minister. He had to vacate his seat just three years later on corruption charges and even quit the party before 2013 Assembly elections to float his own outfit, the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP).

Their parting of ways and splitting of votes helped the Congress to come to power – a mistake they quickly corrected before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the BJP was able to win 17 of the 28 seats. Yeddyurappa became the natural choice to become the state president again.

After Yeddyurappa’s departure, Eshwarappa and some other leaders in the BJP had thought they would gain prominence, but his sudden return upset their calculations. They had always resented Yeddyurappa’s “dictatorial style of functioning,” and were prepared to ‘teach him a lesson’ this time around.

Yeddyurappa’s unilateral announcement of district-level office-bearers – giving importance to those who had followed him to KJP and returned – turned out to be the flash point. Eshwarappa, who had been state president thrice, was angered that Rudre Gowda, who had pushed Eshwarappa to third place in the 2013 election was made Shivamogga district president. This was also a hint that he may not even be given the party ticket in 2018.

When Eshwarappa began to openly rebel against Yeddyurappa and floated the Rayanna Brigade, he had the silent backing of many other seniors in the party like Union ministers Ananth Kumar and DV Sadananda Gowda and former chief minister, Jagadish Shettar. There was also RSS’ BL Santosh, a long-time backroom operator, who nursed his own ambition of becoming the chief minister should BJP return with majority.

After the latest round of fracas, Yeddyurappa, for the first time, named Santosh as the man behind all the trouble. Though Santosh feigned ignorance, the fact that the two vice presidents punished were his staunch followers, clearly carried a message for him.

The central leadership of the BJP realises that Yeddyurappa is the key to their success in 2018 polls, and in the next few weeks, they will possibly go all out to extend their full support to him.

First published: 1 May 2017, 20:09 IST
Ramakrishna Upadhya @rkupadhya9

Ramakrishna Upadhya is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, currently working with TV9. Earlier, he was with Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and The Indian Express.