With polling day for the Karnataka Assembly election 2023 barely two weeks away, the BJP headquarters in Bengaluru is bustling with activity.
Dozens of workers are busy handling permissions, passes, schedules for leaders’ visits and campaigning, prepping for press conferences, media statements and party engagements, detailing ground outreach programmes, voter approach models, and coordinating with booth level workers.
And then there is the beeline of candidates seeking canvassing by national and state senior leaders in their constituencies. Central to this whole exercise is Union Minister of State (MoS) for Agriculture and Convenor of Election Management Committee Shobha Karandlaje.
South First caught up with her in-between engagements on Wednesday, 26 April, where she spoke about BJP’s focus in Karnataka, the rebellion over “new blood”, the mass appeal of former chief minister BS Yediyurappa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Karnataka, communal pitches around elections, and the BJP’s strong stance against OBC quota for Muslims.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. What is BJP’s primary focus this election? Are you doing anything differently from previous polls?
A. We are giving impetus to our booth-level activities. This time around, beneficiaries of various governmennt schemes are our focus. A lot of our campaigns are centred around wooing beneficiaries of Central and state government schemes. We see that 99 percent of the people in villages are beneficiaries of some or the other schemes — whether it is Ayushman Bharat or Ujjwala, or our interest-free loans, PM-KISAN (financial assistance to farmers), government-constructed toilets or “Modi homes” (PM Housing Scheme). Even the well-to-do have received free Covid-19 vaccines.
We didn’t have this opportunity 10 years ago when our party wasn’t in power. Now, under Prime Minister Modi and BS Yediyurappa governments, we have had the opportunity to take up developmental work. Under Yediyurappa, Karnataka also saw schemes like Bhagya Lakshmi, Madilu programme, old-age pension hike, and milk subsidies, which are appreciated. We are targeting beneficiaries of these schemes through our booths. Booth is our strength. We can work only if our booth is strong.
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Q. The BJP has never won a majority on its own in Karnataka. Are you confident of changing that this time?
A. We will definitely get a full majority this time. Right from Narendra Modi to our booth workers, we are asking voters to choose “double-engine government”. If the same party is in power at the state and Centre, there will be more development and faster growth, unlike when two different parties are in power at the state and Centre.
Congress had the opportunity to do a lot of work, but they didn’t have the will. Nobody can recall any achievements of the UPA government in 10 years. But, the moment you say Modi, you can recall a host of schemes and works — whether it is highways, railways, airports, and rural development schemes.
People want a government that will walk in tandem with the Modi government.
The new generation doesn’t want rifts. They want to go with people who do developmental works. There is a huge fan following for Yediyurappa and Prime Minister Modi in Karnataka. Yediyurappa, too, is continuously campaigning and working very hard every day. Modi is also working hard to give us schemes. We will move forward with focus on development for this generation and this will give us a majority.
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Q. BJP has always projected a chief ministerial face in Karnataka, except in 2013. Why are you not projecting a CM face now when you have a CM already?
A. We have never declared any individual prominently as chief minister candidate in any election. We have always sought votes on the party’s name and symbol. This time, too, we aren’t naming anyone. We first win polls and until the last moment, we won’t know who the chief minister will be. The Legislative party will decide the chief minister and senior leaders of the party will approve it. This is our procedure. We have not, at any point, prominently declared anyone as chief minister candidate. During BS Yediyurappa’s time, we always said we are heading into election under his leadership, so everyone would feel that he is the CM candidate. It also suited his stature. The BJP symbol is our chief minister.
Q. Your government in Karnataka faces severe anti-incumbency and several corruption charges. Is that a concern for you this election?
A. The Congress is making these allegations. The Congress gave birth to corruption in this country. Congress has always committed sins and blamed others for it. It is doing so now too. Who instigated government contractors to level allegations a year before elections? Congress leaders. Congress has nothing else to point to. The Congress has done no developmental works to show people and seek votes.
During Siddaramaiah’s regime from 2013 to 2018, he only created confusion — gave Shadi Bhagya (scheme) just for Muslims, withdrew cases against PFI [Popular Front of India] workers, Hindu youth were killed, Tipu Jayanti was started unnecessarily. He broke up society into castes everywhere, and even tried to split the Veerashaiva Lingayat community. His own party’s leaders had to apologise later for it. They have no agenda. During UPA regime under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership and Manmohan Singh’s administration, no development work took place. So, they blame others and hope to win elections through that, come back to power and loot people more. That is their situation.
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Q. You led one leg of the Jana Suraksha yatra ahead of the 2018 polls. Several communal issues have been raised in Karnataka over the last two years, but suddenly your poll pitch is all about development. Have you consciously made this shift in agenda?
A. Communal issues are being raked up and instigated by the Congress. They can consolidate minority votes and cut into JD(S) votes only if they rake up communal issues. It is their ill-intention to pitch minorities against the BJP. That is why they always rake it up.
Why did they not give ticket to Akhanda Srinivasmurthy? When his house was set ablaze during the DJ Halli riots, I was the first to meet him. Congress has denied ticket to a Dalit MLA who was victim of riots. Who instigated these riots? Who is behind the hijab and halal conspiracies? There are definitely anti-social elements. Outfits like Al-Qaida have backed pro-hijab demands. In the Mangaluru cooker bomb case, an IS [Islamic State]-related group claimed responsibility, but Congress leaders like DK Shivakumar said the accused Shariq was like his brother. Whose side are they on? If you don’t have the spine to call a spade a spade and can’t condemn a person who has committed anti-social and anti-national activities irrespective of their religion, how will you govern or administer? If this is the case, if you are in government, naturally there will be communal clashes.
In the last nine years, there have been no communal riots or clashes in the country. Prime Minister Modi has been projected as “anti-Muslim”, but he has never indulged in any anti-Muslim activity in the last nine years. That is the difference between us and them.
Q. You accuse the Congress of appeasement politics, but isn’t it also appeasement and vote bank politics when you strip Muslims of OBC reservation and give it to Vokkaligas and Lingayats on the eve of elections?
A. This is not politics. Dr BR Ambedkar, too, sought reservation not on the basis of religion but for communities that are backward. There is no mention of religion anywhere in the Constitution, only mention of caste. But Congress and JD(S), for appeasement and vote bank politics, introduced quota for Muslims only in Karnataka. This doesn’t exist even in states where there are huge Muslim populations.
Vokkaligas and Veerashaivas/Lingayats or Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes are deserving of this reservation. That is why we hiked quota for them and an unconstitutional quota has been taken away from Muslims.
We have worked as per the Constitution. The Supreme Court has posted the matter for hearing on 9 May and has asked us not to make appointments or allow admissions into educational institutions under the new quota till then. We will present our argument before the Supreme Court. The question of implementing the new quota doesn’t arise because the election Model Code of Conduct is in place in Karnataka and the government can’t take any decisions.
We will not accept any unconstitutional move. We will go even to the Constitution Bench and argue that Muslim quota is unconstitutional.
Q. The BJP is criticised for being an anti-Muslim party. Doesn’t such move reinforce that image? Especially when reservation was given on the basis of backwardness as recommended by several commissions, and not on basis of religion?
A. BJP is not anti-Muslim. We are inclusive and take everyone forward. We are against anti-nationals, against anti-socials, we oppose people who stab Hindu youth to death, we oppose people who burn the national flag. We oppose people who abuse Modi and (Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister) Yogi Adityanath.
We can take everyone along only when everyone is willing to come together. We have to take on Pakistan, China and other countries. We should never fight among ourselves. Prime Minister Modi also insists that the country can develop only when we take all communities along. Today, the BJP has no elected representatives — MPs or MLAs — in Kerala, yet we are working towards developing that state because not a single link in the chain should be weak. Not a single state should be weak.
That is why we focus so much on the North-eastern states too and give them special schemes. Even in a 100 percent “converted” (Christian) state like Nagaland people like Modi today because he has proven that you can win people over with development work.
Q. You spoke of the Congress not giving tickets to its MLA, but the BJP too has replaced many of its own making way for rebellion. Why this largescale change?
A. The central leadership of the BJP is very categorical that they want to bring in a new generation of leaders. New leaders, new spirit, new technology, new blood should be in the legislature. We have given tickets to some 70-plus new faces. Some 75 of our candidates are below the age of 50. All castes, communities have been given representation. We had convinced the old guard that they will be given roles at the central level. Some haven’t agreed and have left the party.
The BJP is looking to infuse new blood nationwide, not just in Karnataka. Gujarat saw big changes and so did Uttar Pradesh and, likewise, we implemented it in Karnataka too.
Q. But this didn’t work for you in Himachal Pradesh elections, did it?
A. It is okay. Winning and losing are a normal part of the electoral process in a democracy. That doesn’t mean we should drop our attempt. New blood has to come. A New Generation has to take the party forward.
Q. A big name from old guard who quit the party was Jagadish Shettar… and he made some serious allegations against BL Santhosh. Your take on it?
A. As our National General Secretary (Organisation), BL Santhosh, is working towards building the party in the state and at the national level. I don’t know in what sense Shettar spoke and why, but Santhosh is doing the party’s work.
Q. You have returned to state politics for the first time since your elevation to the Modi Cabinet in 2021. How has that experience been?
A. After the 2018 Assembly polls, I won as MP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and people gave me the opportunity to focus on my constituency. In 2021, I was given the opportunity to serve the country as Union minister. Working with Prime Minister Modi is an experience and honour in itself. It is like a university. I consider it my luck and want to utilise this opportunity to tour the whole country and lead my department into realising Modi’s vision for 100 years of Indian Independence. He wants us to be No 1 in the world and all departments are working towards that vision.
Q. Do you see yourself as the first woman chief minister of Karnataka?
A. No. I have no such aspirations. I am honoured to be working with Prime Minister Modi. Like I said, it is also a learning experience. I have a lot more to learn from him. I have been a minister just for two years now. I am not letting go of this special opportunity. As MoS, I get respect and recognition not just in one state but in every place in the country, and I experience different places, people, their concerns. I am very happy there (Centre). I won’t come to state politics.