In Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party is in a unique dilemma – there's no state leader in sight. The BJP which was routed in 2023 Assembly elections by the Congress has not yet selected a Leader of Opposition in the state. Why?
According to sources close to the BJP, the party is in disarray in Karnataka thanks to the thumping majority of 135 seats the Congress won in May 2023 as against the BJP's 66 seats. "No one wants to be the face of this defeat," a BJP leader told The Quint, even as he maintained that the party's state unit has got strict instructions from the national leaders to come up with a solution to the impasse soon.
Why Some BJP Leaders Don't Want to Take Responsibility for Defeat
Before the state went for polls, the BJP projected two state leaders – Basavaraj Bommai and BS Yediyurappa.
While Bommai, who took over the reins from Yediyurappa in 2021, was projected as the CM candidate, the saffron party did rely on former Chief Minister Yediyurappa's clout. Moreover, the BJP's national leadership – National General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santhosh in particular – was directly overseeing the campaigning. Here, it is to be noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself campaigned in the state close to the poll date.
In May 2023, after the party faced a debacle in Karnataka, none of the leaders who were active in campaign claimed moral responsibility. While Basavaraj Bommai conceded defeat, "respecting the people's choice," no leader has so far publicly explained what caused the rout.
Though it is anybody's guess that the party faced defeat because of widespread anti-incumbency which the Congress capitalised on, it's to be noted that three sections of BJP leaders have gone silent after the Congress came to power with Siddaramaiah becoming the chief minister.
Firstly, the older rung of leaders led by BS Yediyurappa, who were credited with building the BJP from scratch in Karnataka, have taken a backseat. Second, former CM Bommai and his former Cabinet colleagues – many of whom faced a rout – have remained more or less silent. Also, the hardliners – from KS Eshwarappa who was not given a ticket to Yashpal Survarna who was given a ticket at the expense of Raghupati Bhat – have toned down their rhetoric.
A BJP source said, "Yediyurappa cannot be faulted for being unwilling to take up the responsibility of the loss because he had not contested. Those like Eshwarappa and Suvarna is still waiting to see what the party's line before 2024 Lok Sabha elections will be." It is believed widely, among BJP circles, that Bommai should take the moral responsibility of the rout. However, it is believed, the Bommai camp thinks they were acting merely as per the central leadership's wishes.
In essence, no one in the BJP wants to become the Leader of Opposition (LOP) because the title comes with a price. However, what does the leadership crisis in the BJP in Karnataka say about its preparation for Lok Sabha elections?
Is the BJP Having a Complete Rethink Ahead of Lok Sabha 2024?
The word in political circles in Karnataka is that the BJP will come back stronger ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. But how does the party envision its resurgence?
Currently there are two streams of thought regarding elections guiding the saffron party, a source said. One, the BJP thinks its Hindutva hardline push in the state has backfired with the Congress pushing back with a secular agenda and winning the elections. Two, the party thinks the state unit was not able to project a strong leadership ahead of assembly polls and should bridge this gap before Lok Sabha polls.
Neither tasks, however, seem easy for the party at the moment. Reason, under Bommai, the BJP had taken a hardline push – banning hijab in educational institutions and implementing the anti-conversion bill – way ahead of the polls. This push, it is believed, was sanctioned by the central leadership.
To retract and look towards social engineering, at which BS Yediyurappa excelled, will be a task for the BJP.
This, especially since, Yediyurappa himself has passed the baton on to his son BY Vijayendra, who won from his seat. Without Yediyurappa, the party will not be able to get dominant castes including the Lingayats and oppressed castes including the Dalits to rally behind it.
Moreover, the party will find it difficult to get a state leader to take up the responsibility ahead of the polls because second rung leaders of the party have not yet established themselves. For instance, Arvind Bellad of the BJP, who was projected as an upcoming leader of the party, is still torn between caste allegiance to pander to Lingayat voters and loyalty to the party, the decisions of which, including the sidelining of Jagadish Shettar, he had questioned in the past. This would mean that the BJP will have to rely heavily on Yediyurappa and Bommai again in the state before polls even as neither of the leaders made a distinctive mark in the assembly polls.
Meaning, the BJP in Karnataka may have to rely entirely on PM Narendra Modi's appeal to woo voters.
However, the crisis in Karnataka BJP can be averted, at least temporarily, if the party pulls itself together and assigns the LOP role to the strongest leader who is willing to take the job.