Where does Basavaraj Bommai stand three months after he assumed the reins of power in Karnataka?
Radhika Ramaseshan finds out.
Changing a chief minister mid-stream is a double-edged sword for a ruling party. The move yielded electoral dividends for some, but handed a lemon to others.
Basavaraj Bommai is the fourth leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party to replace an incumbent -- in this case B S Yediyurappa in Karnataka.
Bommai's instatement was long and painful but when the leadership and Yediyurappa bowed to fate, the change entailed a compromise.
Doubtless, at 61 Bommai marked a generational shift from his predecessor, who is 78 but he belongs to the same Lingayat caste. It was necessary to bring in a Lingayat, because the pontiffs, who rule over the powerful community 'maths' threatened to revolt if Yediyurappa was dethroned. The BJP hoped Bommai would soften their anger and opposition.
Karnataka votes in May 2023, so Bommai has enough time to 'prove' himself. But where does he stand three months after he assumed the reins of power?
While the consensus was it was 'unfair' to judge him in a short span, the early days have thrown up the safest answer there is in such a scenario.
"Bommai and the BJP could go either way (in the next election). It depends on how combative and effective the Congress is," a state BJP source said. "The damage control is on. The seers, who were up in arms when Yediyurappa was replaced, have been neutralised," the source said.
Although the word in Bengaluru's power circuit was Bommai had been 'picked' by Yediyurappa, it emerges now that this was not the case.
"The BJP deliberately fuelled this speculation because at that point, Yediyurappa had to be contained. It now looks like Yediyurappa was manipulated by Bommai to his own advantage. The CM is consolidating his position. He represents the high command in Karnataka which Yediyurappa did not and that's enough," said a political observer in Bengaluru.
"Bommai has taken off well; he has the legacy bequeathed by his father (the late S R Bommai, the Janata Dal stalwart). He doesn't carry the baggage of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and is seen as a consensus builder," said a Congress source.
He counts Siddharamaiah, the Congress's Opposition leader in the Karnataka legislature, and H D Deve Gowda and H D Kumaraswamy, Janata Dal-Secular leaders, among his 'friends and well-wishers.'
Indeed, Congress sources admit to being a 'bit worried' that victory in the next election for the party might not be the breeze they were hoping for had Yediyurappa continued as CM.
For Bommai, the cherry on the cake was an unequivocal endorsement from Union Home Minister Amit Shah, that he would lead the BJP in the next election, although those who know the BJP and its present stewards say no word is final.
Political sources said it is hard to conclude yet which constituencies Bommai is addressing: Lingayats, the middle class, industry, or the less well-off.
His statement on wanting to resolve the outstanding river water disputes with Karnataka's neighbours, his demand for an extension of the Goods and Services Tax compensation period to states by three more years beyond 2022 because of the fall in state revenue and GST collections, and seeking a state-specific grant of Rs 6,000 crore (Rs 60 billion) for the holistic improvement of Bengaluru's water bodies and the peripheral ring road, were perceived as signifiers of his 'commitment' to governance in the state's interests.
The BJP's Haveri MP Shivkumar Udasi said, "The CM is devising new schemes. In an interview, he said frankly, 'I am not a mass leader but I will turn into a mass leader by giving good governance'."
Karnataka's rights and interests apart, observers believe, Bommai is focussed on the urban middle-class sceptical of Yediyurappa for his supposed obsession with the peasantry. "He is trying to establish himself as a serious, smooth-talking leader which Yediyurappa was not," a political observer remarked.
Among the gestures towards the state's aspiring classes was the declaration to implement the national education policy, a first in the country. Using the catchwords and phrases, at the launch of the NEP-2020 admission model, Bommai claimed the new digitisation and R&D policy was rolled out to 'transform and empower Karnataka's knowledge landscape.'
Another first was Bommai's decision to earmark a green budget to protect Karnataka's ecology and increase its forest cover. In recent times, ecology was flagged as an election plank in cities and towns by civil society although no party paid attention.
Bommai began his innings with an official order to ban the offering of flowers, garlands, and shawls at state events. Only books, said the directive.
However, the BJP's sceptics, who were not necessarily Bommai's traducers, thought these signals were "cosmetic".
"The CM took off precious time recently to attend every one of the four functions held to celebrate a senior (Karnataka) central leader's daughter's marriage only because he assumed this leader is close to the high command and had a role to play in his selection as the CM," a source said.
A flutter was caused when less than two weeks after becoming the CM, a photograph of his son, Bharath, was splashed in the media with industry leaders who called on Bommai to discuss Bengaluru's industrial development and infrastructure. The Karnataka Congress asked if Bommai continued following Yediyurappa's lead in promoting his son, B Y Vijayendra.
"That was a goof-up. He has since asked his family to stay away from politics," a BJP source maintained.
Has the launch been good or indifferent for Bommai? The jury is out although the overall view was it has not been bad.
"There's no hint of a scam, unlike in the past and that's a relief," claimed a BJP source.