BJP mulls replacing Nalin Kumar Kateel as Karnataka unit chief, Sunil Kumar emerges frontrunner

Kateel's 3-year tenure as BJP Karnataka president ends on 28 August. If he is replaced, it opens up space for a Cabinet reshuffle as well.

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Aug 23, 2022 | 10:30 AMUpdatedAug 23, 2022 | 1:23 PM

Karnataka BJP President Nalin Kumar Kateel felicitating BS Yediyurappa at party office in Bengaluru. (Twitter: NalinKateel)

The BJP in Karnataka is considering a change of guard at the party level.

Singed by the anger of cadres and rocked by infighting among leaders, the party is looking to replace state BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel.

The internal surveys on elections and grassroots-level feedback too has mounted considerable pressure on the BJP’s central leadership to put its house in order. The party is hoping to find a more authoritative, commanding and assertive party president in the state.

With Kateel’s tenure ending in August, the party has been provided with the perfect opportunity to pass off the proposed change as routine activity. The change of guard is expected to take place in the first week of September, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Karnataka ahead of a ‘Janaothsava’ to highlight the state government’s achievements and to kick off the poll campaign.

No change of CM, presidentship open to change

Assembly elections are only months away in Karnataka. And it is common for political parties to extend the tenure of incumbent office bearers in an election year. Sources in the BJP, however, told South First that recent incidents exposing the cadres’ anger against the current leadership has pushed the party to consider impactful changes.

While it is too late in the day to replace Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, the party is mulling a sharp organisational restructuring to woo cadres and boost confidence, the sources said.

Disappointing poll survey results, increasing ground support for the Congress party’s events, disgruntlement among its own cadres and dissent within the government due to a leadership crisis, sources said, have compelled the party to change its approach in Karnataka.

“Hoping to win the upcoming election under a chief minister who is not originally from the BJP and doesn’t have cadres’ support, as well as a state president (Kateel) who doesn’t know the organisation beyond coastal Karnataka, is futile. The cadres, already disappointed with the state leadership, need someone who can boost our confidence and put dissent to rest once for all,” a former office bearer of the BJP’s Karnataka unit told South First.

Minister Sunil Kumar emerges frontrunner

Incumbent Minister for Energy, Kannada and Culture V Sunil Kumar is said to be emerging as the top choice to replace Nalin Kumar Kateel.

V Sunil Kumar with Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai on 76th Independence Day celebrations at Vidhana Soudha (Supplied)

V Sunil Kumar with Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai at the 76th Independence Day celebrations at Vidhana Soudha. (Supplied)

Rooted in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sunil is a staunch Hindutva firebrand. He commands control over cadres dating back to his early days of student activism in the Akhila Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student arm of the RSS.

Formerly the chief whip of BJP in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, Sunil Kumar was made in-charge secretary by the party in 2020 for the Kerala Assembly election.

In July, Sunil Kumar faced BJP cadres’ ire when he and Kateel were heckled in Dakshin Kannada. Hundreds of workers attempted to flip Kateel’s car over, enraged by BJP worker Praveen Nettaru’s murder. While the incident shook many leaders of the party, who either pleaded with the cadres to remain calm or promised extrajudicial action, Sunil Kumar’s response was different.

“The government isn’t a sitting duck over this incident. We will respond in whatever way within the bounds of law. I am capable of understanding your anger,” Sunil Kumar told cadres in a tweet barely hours after he the car he was in was attacked.

Key to OBC support

The massive gathering at Siddaramaiah’s 75th birthday celebrations earlier in August, comprising largely of people from backward classes and minorities, had the BJP worried about a possible strong consolidation in favour of the Congress. With Sunil Kumar’s elevation, sources suggest, the party hopes to send a signal to the backward classes. Sunil Kumar hails from the OBC community.

With Lingayat strongman from Shivamogga BS Yediyurappa’s elevation to the Central Parliamentary Board, another Lingayat leader from North Karnataka, Basavaraj Bommai, as chief minister, and an OBC president from Coastal Karnataka, the party hopes to keep both its community and regional balancing intact.

If Sunil Kumar were to replace Kateel, his exit from the Bommai Cabinet will likely make way for a reshuffle — allowing the BJP wriggle space to appease loyalists amid anger over “outsiders” being given prominence in the party.

“The BJP wins because of Lingayat and OBC votes. The Kuruba community among the OBCs may vote for the Congress, but other smaller OBC communities, especially those in Coastal Karnataka, vote for the BJP,” a prominent OBC community minister in the Bommai Cabinet told South First.

CT Ravi, Arvind Limbavali, Shobha Karandlaje

The other names being considered by the party to replace Kateel are National General Secretary CT Ravi, Union Minister of State for Agriculture Shobha Karandlaje — both Vokkaligas — and former state organising secretary and former minister Arvind Limbavali, who hails from the Scheduled Caste community.

With Ravi as probable candidate, the party hopes to cut into Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President DK Shivakumar’s rising popularity in the Vokkaliga community. Another staunch Hindutva firebrand, Ravi is currently in-charge general secretary for Tamil Nadu, Goa and Maharashtra. Elevating him to the party president’s post means reassigning his current responsibilities to others.

“CT Ravi has electioneering skills. He knows how to strategise and execute plans for elections and will prove to be useful to the party in an election year,” an election strategist who has previously worked with the BJP leader told South First.

BS Yediyurappa being congratulated by BJP leaders after his elevation to party's central parliamentary board. (Supplied)

BS Yediyurappa being congratulated by BJP leaders including CT Ravi after his elevation to the party’s Central Parliamentary Board. (Supplied)

Shobha Karandlaje’s tenure in the Narendra Modi government too may have to be cut short if the party decides to choose her as not just a Vokkaliga candidate but also a woman president in the state. Karandlaje had led the BJP’s ‘Jana Suraksha Yatre’ ahead of the 2018 assembly elections demanding justice over the alleged killings of Hindutva workers.

In Arvind Limbavali, the BJP has a natural manager. “As a former organising secretary, he has close ties with cadres and is able to mobilise resources quickly,” an office bearer of the BJP told South First, pointing out to how crucial such skills are in an election year.

‘Haven’t reached point of no return’

While murmurs of Kateel being replaced have been doing the rounds for a couple of months, the possibility of change became clear thanks to Yediyurappa.

“The chief minister is not going to be replaced. Maybe the state president will change because his tenure has ended,” the former chief minister told reporters last week.

The change of guard in the party is also being welcomed by legislators who worry that the anger among cadres might impact the electoral outcome if remedial measures are not taken.

“We haven’t reached a point of no return. There are issues, but they will be addressed and sorted out well in time,” said a BJP MLA from Coastal Karnataka — the region where BJP enjoys support from voters, but also where the ire over Nettaru’s murder was strongest among the cadres.