Within minutes of Bharatiya Janata Party's Legislative Party meeting, that started at 7 pm on Tuesday, the name Basavaraj Bommai began doing the rounds in political circles in the Karnataka. Bommai, the current Home minister of Karnataka, was soon chosen to be the Chief Minister of the state.
An announcement to this effect was made at 8 pm on Tuesday, 27 July. Bommai is 60 years old. He is expected to swear in as Chief Minister on 28 July.
By selecting Bommai, the BJP has doused the Lingayat fire that was raging in the state, after the resignation of Lingayat strongman and former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa. Yediyurappa resigned on 26 July. However, what is peculiar is that Bommai is neither an RSS-bred man nor is he brought up in the BJP. Bommai was born into the Janata Parivar. He is the son of former Chief Minister of Karnataka SR Bommai.
Under Father's Shadow
SR Bommai was the chief minister of Karnataka between 1988 and 1989. His Janata Dal government was dismissed on 21 April 1989 and Presidential rule was imposed in Karnataka. Bommai was not given a chance to table a vote of confidence motion to prove his stake.
Bommai went on to challenge the Presidential rule in the Supreme Court. Five years later in 1994, the SC ruled that power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute.
The SR Bommai case is still referred back by state governments which challenge Union government sponsored Presidential rules.
Basavaraj S Bommai was always under the towering shadow of his father who was known to be a secular, mass leader.
By the time Basavaraj Bommai completed his Bachelors in Engineering in Huballi, he was inducted into Tata motors. He never was politically oriented till 33 years of age. In 1993 he made his political debut by organising rallies of youth Janata Dal. He, however, remained a local leader with political ambition, up until he was selected as the political secretary of former Chief Minister JH Patel.
In 1997 and 2003 he was elected to Legislative Council of Karnataka. In the Janata Parivar he was known as a farmers' leader.
However, when infighting in Janata Parivar started stifling his political future Bommai joined the BJP in 2008. In the BJP government (2008 to 2013) he served as water resources minister.
Fringe Element in the BJP
Unlike his father, Bommai was never known to be a mass leader. "His influence was always limited to northern Karnataka," a BJP leader said. Bommai's constituency is Shiggaon (Haveri). However, his entry to BJP was through the support of former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa.
"From his father's shadow to Yediyurappa's shadow, the journey was not very long for Bommai," the BJP leader said.
Bommai has been a close confidant of Yediyurappa ever since he got elected from Shiggaon in 2008 on a BJP ticket. He contested again in 2018 and secured a win.
Through this journey, apart from Yediyurappa's support, it was his Lingayat background that has been helping him, political observers say. But, even within the Lingayat fold, Bommai was an outsider to the most dominant sub-castes. He belongs to the Sadar sub-caste, a miniscule population when compared to Panchamasalis and Banajigas. Two close contenders for the now-concluded CM's race – Arvind Bellad and Murugesh Nirani – were Panchamasalis.
"By selecting a leader like him, the BJP has ensured that the Lingayats are happy. The party would have faced serious repercussions had it selected a CM of any other caste," a source close to the BJP said. Seers of several Lingayat mutts had warned the BJP of dire consequences in 2023 elections if the party was to elect a non-Lingayat CM.
With the selection of Bommai, the BJP, however, stalled a tug of war between Panchamasalis and Banajigas among Lingayats.
The Panchamasali community which has been demanding 2A category reservation in the state has been against Yediyurappa, a Banajiga, throughout his term as CM. "Now a Sadar Lingayat is in power and everyone can go to him with their problems. The animosity between Banajigas and Panchamasalis may abate because of the same," the leader said.
However, his equation with the RSS is what would be pivotal to his survival as the chief minister of the state.
Distant From the RSS
Bommai is a product of Yediyurappa's Karnataka model of BJP. In Karnataka, the BJP which thrives on Hindu nationalism, had taken a sectarian route based on caste engineering to make a mark.
Instead of dwelling on Hindu unity, Karnataka BJP banked on one caste, the Lingayats, and shared power equally between other dominant communities including Vokkaligas and OBCs. Unlike in the northern states, where Brahmins occupy the helm of the party, in Karnataka the party leaders were always other dominant caste henchmen. The party's supreme leader in the state, Yediyurappa, was always more sectarian, based on caste grounds, than communal.
In selecting Bommai, the delicate caste equation within the party is expected to remain. This, however, may not go down well with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has been at loggerheads with Yediyurappa in the past.
The RSS, which has Brahmins at its helm including Kannadiga General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, is expected to want more influence in the government than what it had had when Yediyurappa was in power. The former CM had always kept the RSS at an arm's distance.
"If Bommai can keep the RSS happy without toppling caste equations within Karnataka BJP, he will succeed. An enmity with the RSS does not bode well for any BJP chief minister," a BJP insider said.
Will Bommai shirk his father's legacy and his mentor Yediyurappa's tag and build a new equation with the RSS? Whatever path he takes, he is sure to have the support of Yediyurappa.
Yediyurappa Loyalists at Ease for the Moment
Bommai has Yediyurappa on his side because his selection has also come as a breather for the veteran leader who has been facing resistance within the party. While Bellad and Nirani were among the dissidents who eyed the CM's chair, the BJP stuck to the older, loyal rung of Yediyurappa's liking.
As there is no conflict between Bommai and Yediyurappa, there could be continuance in governance. "Yediyurappa supporters, too, are at ease now because Yediyurappa was not completely stifled by the party. The decision to make Bommai could as well be that of Yediyurappa," the BJP insider said. Yediyurappa's influence in the party is, hence, far from over, it seems.
Bommai's challenge, however, will be to find a governance style that does not anger those who oppose Yediyurappa. He will also have to keep the RSS happy. Will he succeed?