Why Jagadish Shettar's Exit Indicates a New Emerging Leadership in Karnataka BJP

Jagadish Shettar has accused BJP National General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santhosh of sabotaging his chances.

Hindi Female

On Tuesday, 18 April, former Chief Minister of Karnataka Jagadish Shettar accused a senior BJP functionary who has the blessings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of sabotaging his political career. Shettar was one of the tallest Lingayat leaders in the BJP and his target was BJP national general secretary BL Santhosh.

Denied ticket to contest from the Hubli-Dharward (Urban) constituency, Shettar resigned from the party the previous week. He joined the Congress which extended the ticket to him.

Despite a change in fortunes, Shettar, however, has not stopped accusing the BJP of unceremoniously showing him the door. He said, "BL Santhosh is the man behind my exit from the party." According to Shettar, the Santhosh camp has taken over the BJP in Karnataka.

Sources told The Quint that the BJP is undergoing a major overhaul in the state which had so far acted as the saffron party's gateway to South India.


Churn Within the BJP

It all started with BS Yediyurappa stepping down from his role as the chief minister of Karnataka in 2021. Yediyurappa's exit marked the end of the clout of a rung of politicians who believed electoral equations in Karnataka were different from that of North Indian states where the BJP was in power. According to this rung of leaders, Karnataka was unwilling to be polarised beyond a point, except in the coastal belt where the RSS had deep roots.

In line with this stream of thought, from Yediyurappa to Shettar, most of prominent leaders of the BJP, who went on the become chief ministers, had mostly toed a moderate line, freely wooing even the religious minorities in the state.

However, what political observers call the 'moderate face' of the BJP in Karnataka, receded to the background when Basavaraj Bommai replaced Yediyurappa as Chief Minister. First, Shettar was denied a ministerial role in the Bommai government. What followed was a series of campaigns that troubled the minorities in the state including the passing of the anti-conversion bill and imposing ban on hijab in educational institutions.

In the run-up to the election, the sectarian stand of the BJP continued with the right-wing groups demanding ban on halal meat and the BJP actively campaigning to rewrite the history of Tipu Sultan's death.

To an extent, Shettar's exit seems to fit well in Karnataka BJP's post-2021 plans. It seems, the BJP would rather see the growth of a different leadership in Karnataka even at the cost of losing the Assembly election this time around.

Moreover, if the saffron party manages to win, the victory would legitimise the advent of the new leadership which does not bank only on Lingayat leaders. In Karnataka, according to the new voice within the BJP, there could be a sea change in leadership if the election is won on the new terms.


Those in the New Leadership Race

Ironically, Shettar's first victory was against the current CM of Karnataka Basavaraj Bommai. In 1994, Shettar whose father Shivappa Shettar was part of the Jan Sangh, precursor to the BJP, won Hubli-Dharward (Rural) election against Bommai.

"While his family had deep RSS roots, Shettar believed in a moderate Hindutva line. It served him well," senior political journalist Naheed Ataulla told The Quint. Shettar was Karnataka CM from 2012 to 2013.

But now, BJP seems to be projecting leaders who are most definitely different from Shettar and his ilk.

In contrast with Shettar who had the support of at least a section of Muslims in his constituency (Hubli-Dharwad Central), the BJP's candidate for the seat is Mahesh Tenginkai. Speaking to reporters in Karnataka Tenginkai said, "The BJP is ushering in a new rung of leaders. Caste does not matter to the party." While Tengikai, like Shettar, is a Lingayat leader himself, he does not seem to be catering to the Muslim vote in the constituency. "In Hubli-Dharward the Muslim vote is pivotal and Shettar did have this advantage even when he was with the BJP," Ataulla said. Shettar's popularity among Muslims voters could be of help to him in the upcoming election.

However, news from the Karnataka BJP is that the party should not make no efforts to woo, or in their words 'appease,' Muslim voters.

"If Muslims have confidence in the BJP, they will vote for us. If not, they'll choose other parties," a leader nonchalantly told The Quint. Even in Udupi, this equation seems to have been the priority for BJP. In this coastal constituency, the BJP chose Yashpal Suvarna over Raghupathi Bhat. The latter, a sitting MLA, had taken a backseat when Suvarna allegedly orchestrated 'saffron shawl' protests to oppose hijab in educational institutions.

It is being said that this change in Karnataka BJP could help BL Santhosh indirectly. "If the BJP wins, Santhosh or someone he supports can be considered for the CM post. It cannot be ruled out," a party functionary said, welcoming the possibility. Santhosh has been kept at bay from the CM's chair for long because he is a Brahmin, political observers said.

Karnataka has had only two Brahmin chief ministers – R Gundu Rao and Ramakrishna Hegde. The other incumbents in the post were mostly Lingayats and Vokkaligas.

If the BJP moves beyond this dominant caste vote base, a new caste equation can emerge at the helm too. Predicting this, JD(S)' HD Kumaraswamy said recently that the BJP could make national leader and MP from Karnataka Pralhad Joshi, a Brahmin, the CM. Joshi is believed to be a supporter of Santhosh. While Kumaraswamy's comment could just be an intelligent guess, Santhosh may not be averse to being Karnataka chief minister himself, sources say.

"If the BJP wins this election, Santhosh's idea of politics would get legitimacy. This could propel him to the CM's chair," a political observer said.

Karnataka should fight elections without dwelling too much on the caste-equations Yediyurappa, Shettar and others have been carefully engineering in the state, the Santhosh camp currently thinks.

Santhosh's hopes would also be buoyed by the fact that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP has made some bold CM choices - they made Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, the CM in Maharashtra where Marathas and OBCs hold sway. They made a Punjabi-origin Manohar Lal Khattar the CM in Haryana, where Jats have been politically dominant. In Jharkhand, which had only seen Adivasi CMs, the national leadership of the BJP chose a non-Adivasi, Raghubar Das. Most recently, they gave Assam its first Brahmin CM in Himanta Biswa Sarma.

The Quint has reached out to BL Santhosh for comment. The article will be updated if he responds.

(With inputs from Aditya Menon)

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