In the first week of May, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai seemed guarded when the state’s political circles became abuzz with rumours of a leadership change. “This is all speculation,” Bommai said while responding to media queries about the possibility of him being removed from the CM's role.
Just days ago, BJP’s National General Secretary and Karnataka leader BL Santhosh had said that “change is necessary to infuse fresh leadership.”
While BJP National General Secretary and Karnataka in-charge Arun Singh soon dispelled the rumours, what got overshadowed by the veiled threat to the CM’s chair was speculation about the removal of Araga Jnanendra from Karnataka home minister’s post.
Were the two connected?
The Quint has learnt from senior leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Karnataka that they did not look kindly at the Bommai government’s decision to reconsider Araga Jnanendra’s position in the state cabinet. What this means is that the fates of Jnanendra, an RSS-bred BJP leader and Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who is of Janata Parivar origin, are invariably linked.
In short, the imminent Cabinet reshuffle in Karnataka will be a high-stakes game.
Here's the inside story of Jnanendra’s role in the silent stand-off between Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and the RSS.
Why Yediyurappa’s Removal Made Way for Leaders Like Jnanendra
It was only in July 2021 that Karnataka’s three-time CM, BS Yediyurappa, resigned from his chief ministerial post. At the time it was believed that the BJP’s national leadership forced him to step down because the party wanted new leadership to take over the 2023 Legislative Assembly election campaign.
However, Yediyurappa’s removal served as a harbinger to what was yet to come – Karnataka BJP taking a direction that is more aligned to the RSS ideology of Hindutva.
Till then, Yediyurappa, who is a Lingayat leader, had mostly built the party in the southern state by pandering to different caste groups.
He held the dominant caste Lingayats, who form about 17 percent of the state population, close to him and tactfully accommodated leaders from other castes, including the numerically powerful Vokkaligas, to swing their votes to the BJP.
From 1980s onwards, Yediyurappa built up BJP with the understanding that caste affiliations matter more in Karnataka than communal politics.
Though it was Yediyurappa’s caste calculations that helped the BJP grow in the southern state, the RSS was not always in favour of the former CM as he had refused to assume the role of a Hindutva hardliner. RSS leaders like Jnanendra never made the cut in Yediyurappa’s powerplays.
Come Basavaraj Bommai, home minister in Yediyurappa’s 2019 cabinet, who was selected as CM of Karnataka in 2021. Bommai made the Vokkaliga leader and RSS man Araga Jnanendra his home minister.
Why Bommai Will Matter Only if Jnanendra Is Given Freehand
Bommai, who cut his teeth in Janata Dal, is the son of former Chief Minister of Karnataka and Janata Dal leader SR Bommai. However, when the BJP’s national leadership chose him to be the chief minister, Bommai did not try to prove himself as a Lingayat leader. Instead, he went on to prove himself to be worthy of RSS’ favour.
From tabling the anti-conversion bill to giving a free hand to Hindu groups assaulting interfaith couples, Bommai has been clear that he will not be a soft proponent of Hindutva. Momentarily, the RSS was happy with him.
“Even though he was not part of the Sangh Parivar since the beginning, we cannot say that Bommai is not a good BJP leader. Like any other ideology, it is possible to imbibe Hindutva and excel in it,” a senior leader of the RSS in Karnataka told The Quint.
The saffron protests against Muslim women students wearing hijab and the clamour for a ban on halal meat too helped Bommai position himself as a tough BJP leader, even though he had joined the BJP only in 2008.
In all these communal protests that stared in October 2021 and went on till April 2022, the centrepiece was Home Minister Jnanendra’s near nothing effort to reign in the Hindu outfits, including the RSS’ own Hindu Jagaran Vedike, Hindu Janajagruthi Samithi, Vishva Hindu Parishad, and Bajrang Dal.
“Jnanendra even moved to get Popular Front of India banned. He squarely blamed Muslim outfits for provoking Hindus,” a senior leader in the BJP said.
His calculative silence made Jnanendra gain popularity as the RSS remained by his side. But till recently, the RSS had other stalwarts too, to take care of. KS Eshwarappa, who amid anti-hijab protests said that “saffron flag can replace the national flag,” used to be one such RSS-favoured BJP man.
Araga Jnanendra, Home Portfolio, and RSS
A Vokkaliga leader from Shivamogga’s Thirthahalli, Jnanendra started his political career in the RSS as a karyakarta. The RSS fielded him in a taluk board election as early as in 1983.
Though Jnanendra lost this election, his link with the Sangh remained intact.
“Araga Jnanendra has always been with the RSS. He is also a leader who proved his mettle in the BJP while continuing to be an RSS person,” another senior leader of the RSS in Karnataka told The Quint.
Despite his continuous victories in Legislative Assembly elections, Jnanendra did not make it to Cabinets under Yediyurappa’s leadership. It was only in 2021 that he got the plum home minister post, that too because the RSS lobbied for him.
According to The Quint’s sources, Jnanendra was one among the 12 leaders the RSS catapulted to cabinet positions. “RSS did feel that the BJP needs to give people who have been loyal to the party for long. Araga Jnanendra had not just worked for the RSS but also the BJP for years together. He deserved a good posting,” the RSS source said.
However, Jnanendra soon became a target for the Opposition, which rallied against him for letting communal elements defy the law and order mechanism in the state.
Jnanendra failed to rein in Hindu outfits, including Bajrang Dal, from attacking Christian prayer halls in the state. He refused to prevent saffron protests against hijab that the Hindu Jagarana Vedike had allegedly spearheaded. He did not stop Hindu Janajagruti Samiti from starting a campaign against halal meat and let them encourage temples to ban Muslim vendors at their festivals.
While the Opposition made these their rallying points, even the Police Sub Inspector (PSI) scam in which a BJP leader Divya Hagaragi got arrested, affect Jnanendra’s prospects as the home minister.
“There are frequent disturbances to peace in the state and there was talk about replacing Jnanendra with someone who can control law and order during the run-up to Assembly elections. However, Eshwarappa’s resignation made the RSS back Jnanendra even more,” a source in the BJP said.
Eshwarappa’s Resignation and Why RSS Wants Jnanendra
As the odds got stacked against Jnanendra, veteran BJP leader with RSS support, KS Eshwarappa, had to resign from his ministerial position because he was accused of having abetted the suicide of Santosh Patil, a contractor and BJP worker.
With Eshwarappa’s resignation in April this year, the BJP was short of one of its RSS-favoured leaders. The RSS did not want another loss and started pushing for BL Santhosh’s idea of what the party should be in Karnataka.
“BL Santhosh is an RSS leader who was assigned to the BJP to help the affiliated party grow. He believes in giving chance to people like Jnanendra, who have served both the RSS and the BJP for long,” a senior leader of the RSS said.
Getting hardliners who do not budge from Hindutva has been a priority for BL Santhosh. “This idea that the BJP should function differently in South India by catering to caste equations alone is a myth. It is possible to make BJP win with a hardcore Hindutva approach,” a senior leader of the BJP, who aligns with BL Santhosh’s vision for the party, said.
As Basavaraj Bommai considered the removal of Jnanendra in April, the RSS sent a warning. A rumour about Bommai’s removal surfaced.
The CM was caught unawares. He soon postponed the Cabinet reshuffle plan and left the decision to BJP’s national leadership.
An RSS functionary laughed when The Quint asked him about the CM’s sudden pivot, “Any parent outfit of any political party would want its affiliates to come to an agreement. We discuss and agree upon things.”
If CM Bommai has to continue in his office without glitches, he may have to retain the RSS-leaning men and women in his cabinet in their positions. Jnanendra will most definitely have to stay. “We only advise the BJP. The final decision is left to the party,” the RSS leader beamed.