The BJP central leadership might have scotched the buzz about a change in guard in Karnataka for now, but Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s tenure continues to remain under a cloud of uncertainty.
In a tearful, emotional outburst at a recent public event in Haveri, his home turf, Bommai had lamented, ”Nothing is permanent, this life is not permanent, we do not know how long we will live. In such a situation all the posts of power are also not permanent. We have to be aware of this constantly.’’
His remarks reflected Bommai’s shaky position with speculation being rife in state BJP circles that the 61-year-old leader could be replaced by someone considered to be more suitable for boosting the party’s electoral prospects.
Five months after replacing the Lingayat stalwart B S Yediyurappa as the BJP CM, Bommai’s future still hangs in the balance in the wake of the losses suffered by the BJP in three polls on his watch — an Assembly by-election in the CM’s home district of Haveri in October 2021, polls for 25 seats in the Karnataka Legislative Council, and the state urban local body elections held last month.
“Bommai has been able to function as an effective administrator but there are still doubts about his ability to be a political leader of his own standing. He remains a Chief Minister appointed by the party,” said a senior official who advises the Karnataka government on administrative and political matters.
There have also been allegations of corruption in police investigations of the activities of an international hacker of Bitcoins — from the time Bommai was the Home Minister — which has found political traction in the state despite the apparent lack of evidence of any wrongdoing in the investigations of the cases.
“The Bitcoin case will cost the Chief Minister his chair. The previous tenure of the BJP government saw three Chief Ministers. This time also you will see three Chief Ministers,” Congress leader Priyank Kharge had claimed some time ago, while alleging links between political leaders and the scam in the state.
This week, Karnataka Congress president D K Shivakumar said the BJP leaders were themselves trying to oust Bommai after jettisoning Yediyurappa last year. “Now they are after Basavaraj Bommai. BJP leaders provided materials on the Bitcoin scam and many other scams,” he charged.
A limp that Bommai has now developed has also led to speculation that the BJP leadership may cite his health condition as a reason to effect a change of guard in the state in the coming days.
Bommai has sought to brush aside his knee problem reportedly causing his limp, saying — while responding to remarks made by BJP MLA M P Kumaraswamy that he should take rest — that “I have the energy and inspiration to work tirelessly without rest all 365 days of the year. I have resolved to work at least 15 hours a day. Bringing BJP back to power in the 2023 election is my aim.”
Following a string of electoral setbacks, Bommai, a former Janata Dal (United) leader, has tried to prove his saffron credentials by endorsing moral policing by vigilantes to “protect Hindu culture” and by pushing through the state Assembly a legislation meant to prevent religious conversions and inter-religious marriages.
In another bid to appease the BJP’s support base, the CM told the party’s State Executive meeting on 29 December that he will introduce a law to free temples from state control as envisaged in the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 1997.
Ahead of this meeting, the BJP central leadership had issued a directive, barring party leaders from making statements about a possible change in leadership in Karnataka. While this move has curbed their public remarks the matter itself is not off the table in the BJP yet, sources in the state government familiar with political developments said.
“The leadership change is still a matter of internal speculation, it has not died out,” said a BJP leader.
“The BJP does not have many choices and given the fact that polls are to be held in UP soon, any plans for a change of guard in Karnataka could be pushed to the back-burner,” government sources said.
A few weeks ago, a senior BJP leader and minister K S Eshwarappa had said that state industries minister Murugesh Nirani had the credentials to be a future CM of Karnataka. At another meeting attended by Bommai, Nirani, on his part, said that Bommai would become a Union Minister.
The names of Nirani and a Union Minister had been making the rounds in state bureaucratic circles among candidates tipped to be the next CM.
Former Union Minister and BJP leader Basanagouda Patil Yatnal had said in November last year that the BJP was considering a leadership rejig in Karnataka on the lines of the Gujarat overhaul — which was undertaken by the BJP leadership in September 2021 in which then CM Vijay Rupani and his Cabinet were replaced comprehensively by an entire set of new Ministers.
In a breather for Bommai, the BJP leadership has indicated in recent days that he would continue to be the CM, with Union Minister Pralhad Joshi saying, “Chief Minister will not change. Basavaraj Bommai will remain in the post, and no one should talk about the change of leadership”.
While visiting the state to attend the State Executive meeting, BJP national general secretary in charge of Karnataka, Arun Singh also ruled out any change in leadership, claiming that the 2023 Assembly elections would be fought under Bommai’s leadership.
There is also a word in the saffron camp that the leadership may direct some changes in the Karnataka Cabinet while leaving the CM’s position intact. With Bommai’s position however remaining wobbly, a question mark would continue to hang over his continuance as the CM in the coming days.