Dressed in a cotton shirt and white panche, his brown-strapped wristwatch on one hand and his diary in another, when BL Santhosh walks up the two-flights of stairs to his workstation at the BJP Karnataka headquarters in Bengaluru, all voices fall silent, and all eyes are on him.
The national general secretary (organisation) of the BJP commands great respect, if not admiration, among the cadres, leaders, and even his baiters in the party.
When he was general secretary (organisation) for Karnataka, his office was on the first floor. Now, as national general secretary — officially No 4 in the party’s hierarchy of leadership — his workplace in the Karnataka office has been bumped up a floor.
That, however, isn’t the only thing different about BL Santhosh now.
Related: Jagadish Shettar says BL Santhosh ‘set Karnataka BJP on fire’
Walking into the limelight
From a man who quietly worked behind the scenes, and in the shadows, without being seen by anyone outside the Sangh and the party, Santhosh has consciously walked into the limelight to take centrestage in the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023.
It would seem to an observer that BL Santhosh has spent all his years in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — 30 years now – and on deputation to BJP looking for new faces, grooming the next generation of leaders, replacing old structures with novel approaches, and building ideologically unwavering narratives — to arrive at this exact moment.
His moment in the limelight. His time to be seen and acknowledged publicly as the one responsible for the BJP’s Karnataka story this election.
As organisation secretary, whether at the state or national level, Santhosh had always worked behind the scenes.
His job was focused on training and motivating a huge network of cadres, leaders, and Sangh Parivar workers.
Given the post he holds, Santhosh never gave media interviews or soundbites, never appeared on television screens; nor was he heard dispensing opinions, but journalists were welcome to meet him for a conversation — off the record, of course.
An impactful orator, Santhosh has delivered speeches, but only at party meetings and often to invoke a sense of commitment in cadres.
Related: ‘Those who make allegations against me will face consequences’
The new BL Santhosh
In the run-up to the 2023 Karnataka elections, however, Santhosh broke with convention and chose to speak from public platforms directly. Not only did he address people, but even took questions from supporters, journalists, followers, and curious listeners.
Ahead of the elections, Santhosh spoke on two Twitter Spaces — both centered on the BJP’s vision, plans, strategy, and expectations over the Karnataka Assembly polls.
The move came barely days after former BJP leader and ex-chief minister and now Congress candidate Jagadish Shettar publicly accused Santhosh of conspiring against him.
This was the first time any leader in the BJP — present or past — had accused Santhosh of anything in public. All criticism against Santhosh, till now, had been behind closed doors.
In his Twitter Spaces, Santhosh put up a passionate defense of the BJP’s decision to field new faces and drop senior leaders.
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He was unsparing, direct, and unapologetic about the decisions the party had taken. The conviction coming from the fact that it was Santhosh himself who had played a key role in every decision the party has made in Karnataka in recent years. Consider:
It was he who propped up leaders like KS Eshwarappa and Laxman Savadi — at different times — as alternatives to former chief minister BS Yediyurappa. It was he who groomed next-generation leaders like Sunil Kumar, CT Ravi, Tejasvi Surya, and Pratap Simha.
It was he who experimented with new faces for candidates in the 2018 Assembly polls (like Preetham Gowda for the Hassan seat). It was he who pushed for Yediyurappa’s exit as chief minister in 2021, replacing him with Basavaraj Bommai.
It was he who convinced the central leadership of BJP to attempt a total re-haul of the candidate selection process for the current Karnataka Assembly elections.
And it was he who has now cemented his position in the leadership vacuum that stares at the BJP with Yediyurappa’s retirement from electoral politics.
In short, BL Santhosh has had a pivotal role in where the BJP stands today in Karnataka.
Related: As Savadi quits, BJP faces the heat in over 25 Assembly seats
Hero or villain? Saturday will tell
With the demise of former Union Minister Ananth Kumar, BL Santhosh’s presence in the party’s state unit has only grown bigger, even replacing the former as Yediyurappa’s rival in the state BJP.
Several leaders in Karnataka hold BL Santhosh responsible for practically all the electoral decisions made this time by the party — from candidate selection to appointment of in-charges, booth mobilisation, campaign strategies, and even star campaigner lists.
From accommodating younger faces to denying tickets to incumbents, Santhosh’s influence trumped others, party leaders insist. Given the rebellion its first two lists threw up, the BJP was quick to take corrective measures in its last list, but the opinion on choice of candidates is divided in the BJP camp.
Despite whisper campaigns about “Brahmins taking over the BJP”, or “Lingayats being sidelined”, Santhosh has stuck his neck out. In his Twitter Spaces interactions, he claimed that the choices were considered and conscious, and were meant to change the way politics was approached in Karnataka.
He was sure that the decisions he convinced the party to take would yield miraculous results for the BJP, which has never won a majority on its own in Karnataka.
In essence, with his public embrace of the limelight, BL Santhosh has taken the responsibility of this election on his shoulders.
If his decisions work, he would have changed the way BJP approached politics in Karnataka.
If it doesn’t, he will be blamed for misjudging.
When the counting of votes concludes on Saturday, the results will decide whether BL Santhosh is the hero or the villain of the BJP’s Karnataka story.