'Bommai is everybody's man and nobody's man'
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai was uncharitably dubbed a 'night watchman' by his detractors within the Bharatiya Janata Party when he replaced B S Yediyurappa on July 28 last year.
"Bommai is everybody's man and nobody's man," said a BJP insider on condition of anonymity, claiming that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Karnataka BJP did not want him until he allegedly ingratiated himself with a senior Sangh functionary through a relative of the latter.
Indeed, Bommai's position was so shaky that Union Home Minister Amit Shah had to publicly endorse his appointment two months later in Davanagere and declare that under Bommai's leadership, the BJP would win the next elections in Karnataka.
Unlike Yediyurappa, who held his own against the BJP's central command through his tumultuous innings, Bommai is critically dependent on New Delhi to keep his job.
After three serial setbacks, on December 29 the Karnataka BJP's executive committee rallied behind Bommai following a two-day meeting at Hubbali and warned against 'needless' speculation over a leadership change.
The chief minister faced his first reverse after the BJP lost a by-poll in Hangal in north Karnataka, close to Shiggaon, his assembly constituency.
Bommai invested everything in this fight; he camped in Hangal for over a week and mobilised half his cabinet to do likewise.
The second upset was caused by the BJP's inability to secure a majority in the legislative council elections.
Finally, the Congress outstripped the BJP in December's urban local body polls, capping a string of misfortunes for Bommai.
While his traducers, who included the Yediyurappa faithful as well as ministers who were dropped when he recast the ministerial council, used the reverses as a 'referendum' on his 'governance', Pratap Simha, the BJP's Mysuru-Kodagu MP, stressed the 'defeats' must be seen in perspective.
"The BJP never had an upper hand in the legislative council. In the previous council, the Congress had 16 of the 28 berths and we had six. Now Congress dropped to 11 and we went up to 11," he said.
In the 75-member council, the BJP's strength is 37, one short of a majority, while the Congress's is 26, and that of the Janata Dal-Secular, or JD-S, is 11.
Simha added: "Similarly, we were never dominant in the taluka panchayats."
The Congress won 498 of the 1,184 wards in 58 urban bodies while the BJP won 437.
"That's a first for us," claimed Simha.
As for the Hangal by-poll loss, although the BJP wrested Sindgi from the JD-S, M P Renukacharya, Honnali MLA and political secretary to the chief minister, conceded: "The Congress's candidate was rewarded for the good work he did during the pandemic. But the defeat was marginal and not a reflection on our administration."
State BJP spokesperson P Rajeev ascribed the below-par showing in the civic body polls to 'local factors'.
"These are family-related and not party-based elections," he said.
However, the unwillingness of Bommai's supporters to see the larger picture in the electoral outcomes bothered some in the BJP.
"In the local elections, our vote base was eroded. The Congress was ahead of us by 5 per cent. We lost to the Congress in our Lingayat (one of Karnataka’s dominant castes that forms the backbone of the BJP's support) strongholds," a leader pointed out.
Karnataka minister and Bengaluru MLA C N Ashwath Narayan said: "We need to step up efforts to make ourselves relevant in areas where our presence is small. This is a big challenge before us ahead of the assembly polls."
On a broader canvas, the picture didn't look optimistic although nobody went on record to speak on the weaknesses of the Bommai government.
"The RSS knows he has no control over the MLAs. Our experience is that lateral entrants bend over backwards to please the bosses. Bommai is a socialist but has now to prove his anti-secular credentials," an insider said, citing the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 (popularly known as the anti-conversion Bill) he introduced as an example.
The Bill, which awaits passage in the legislative council, prohibits proselytisation by misrepresentation, force, fraud, allurement, or marriage.
Said Narayan: "We are not trying to harass anyone. It's a Bill designed to remove opacity in the conversion process."
However, some in the BJP also attributed the local body election losses to a consolidation of the minority votes, resulting from the 'threat' posed by the proposed law and the attacks on Muslims and Christians.
Despite Bommai's efforts to discard his socialist provenance, a BJP leader felt he was 'unacceptable to our cadre'.
"There's a leadership vacuum," he stated.
The assembly elections in Karnataka are to take place next year. Are there signs that Bommai may not last his tenure despite the central BJP's patronage?
In one of his low moments in December, he told the people of Shiggaon that nothing was permanent, including positions and power.
Bommai's statement set off speculation over his continuance, after which the state committee put its seal of approval on his leadership.
"He awaits the nod to expand his cabinet. Until that comes, a sword hangs over him," a source said.
Another leader said, "What’s the point of bringing another person? It might be worse. The root cause is that Yediyurappa was such a tall leader that, even with his drawbacks, nobody can fit into his shoes."
Simha disagreed. "Finally, we have a sensible chief minister after S M Krishna (who was then a Congressman). He's educated, and doesn't give rabble-rousing speeches or play on the emotions of the common person. That doesn't make him less of a mass leader."