Videos and photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa walking hand-in-hand into the Shivamogga airport on Monday, 27 February, was all the buzz in BJP circles.
The public display of bonhomie was only an addition to the high praise for the Lingayat strongman by Modi in his Shivamogga and Belagavi public speeches.
All these words of great admiration were for the same Yediyurappa who was asked by none other than Modi himself to step down as chief minister of Karnataka in 2021 and make way for “new leadership”.
Ironically, the person who didn’t find any mention in either of Prime Minister Modi’s speeches was the “new leader” that BJP replaced BS Yediyurappa with — Basavaraj Bommai, the incumbent chief minister of Karnataka.
It wasn’t an oversight. Neither was skipping Bommai’s name or the names of those in his government a mistake.
“The PM was careful enough to skip even the statutory salutations to dignitaries present on the stage in both speeches,” pointed out a senior BJP parliamentarian.
In multiple surveys of the BJP, anti-incumbency and a miffed Lingayat community have been identified as the party’s biggest hurdles in the run-up to the Karnataka Assembly elections scheduled for April-May.
In a bid to offset the anti-incumbency against the Bommai government and to woo Lingayats, it seems the party’s central leadership is adopting a “disown, distance and distract” model.
Model is not new to BJP
In under a week, at least two top leaders of BJP have steered clear of even mentioning Chief Minister Bommai in their appeals and addresses in Karnataka.
On 23 February, Union Home Minister Amit Shah asked voters in Ballari to “trust PM Modi and BS Yediyurappa”. There was no mention of Basavaraj Bommai or his government.
“Will root out corruption from Karnataka in next 5 years. Trust @narendramodi & @BSYBJP” says @AmitShah.
Shah’s appeal comes when @BJP4Karnataka faces “40% commission” corruption allegations from @INCKarnataka. pic.twitter.com/4IKkSUI4Un
— South First (@TheSouthfirst) February 23, 2023
Shah went a step further to promise that BJP will deliver a “corruption-free Karnataka in five years”.
It isn’t that the Union home minister forgot that his party has been in power in Karnataka for four years now.
It isn’t that Shah is not aware of the anti-incumbency his party’s government faces in the state.
It isn’t that he doesn’t know that corruption is the biggest challenge for the BJP government in poll-bound Karnataka.
Yet, with his one appeal, Shah seemed to quickly create the impression of distancing himself and his party from the incumbent government led by Bommai. A “we are not the same” impression, as if the BJP as a party and the incumbent government are two different entities.
‘Us’ and ‘them’ within BJP?
The last time BJP disowned its own government in Karnataka was when it asked BS Yediyurappa to resign in 2021 and brought in a new Cabinet led by Basavaraj Bommai. The party had done the same when charges of corruption and illegal mining started piling up in 2011.
If Amit Shah leaving out Bommai’s name from his appeal was not indication enough, Prime Minister Modi refusing to take Bommai’s name in both his speeches on Monday left no one in any doubt about what the message was.
Even when he spoke of “Double Engine government”, Modi left out the name of Bommai, who leads one of the “engines”.
“There is no other explanation than this being an attempt of disassociating party from government. Generally, when one disowns the government, chief ministers are changed, but we will have to wait and watch if that happens in Karnataka,” Prof Narendar Pani, Dean, School of Social Sciences at National Institute of Advanced Studies, told South First.
It is as though the central leadership of the BJP has decided to dissociate itself from the incumbent government instead of attempting an “image makeover”. Creating a distraction from issues that plague the Bommai government, the party is looking to offer voters its veteran and central leaders as the alternative.
In a case of “us” and “them”, the incumbent government can be held responsible for all things gone awry while the party can promise a “clean slate” and a “fresh start” in the name of Modi and Yediyurappa.
Don’t vote for person, vote for party: Amit Shah
At a later event on 23 February, organised by an RSS affiliate, another statement of Amit Shah made it clear how the party is looking to counter anti-incumbency — by deflection.
“When you vote, never vote for an individual. If you want India’s situation to change, then vote for the party and vote for the party’s leader. A leader is not a person but an institution because he is aligned to the party’s legacy and ideology,” Amit Shah said at an event organised in Bengaluru.
Addressing an august gathering in Bengaluru discussing ‘Indian Polity-65 years Scenario & Paradigm Shift Under Modi Ji’ organised by Samvada. https://t.co/0SG8mo3xqX
— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) February 23, 2023
Shah’s statement comes in the backdrop of the BJP’s surveys laying bare severe anti-incumbency even against MLAs. Shah’s message is thus clear: Candidates are not important, only party and its leader are.
“The top leadership of BJP is finding itself in a spot over the corruption allegations. At the Union home minister’s event in Bengaluru, he was asked about the 40 percent commission allegation against our government. It left him embarrassed,” a senior parliamentarian who was at Shah’s event told South First.
The solution to that problem? Deflecting from issues leading to anger against MLAs and presenting voters with an alternative like “vote for party and leader, not a person”.
BJP had made a similar pitch in the run-up to the Himachal Pradesh Assembly election as well, where the then BJP government faced severe anti-incumbency.
Congress had disowned its government in Punjab ahead of the Assembly election and even replaced its chief minister. In both cases, the attempts ended in electoral disasters.
In Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Assam, however, disowning governments and replacing chief ministers worked for the BJP, helping it manage power tussles and anti-incumbency.
In Karnataka, however, the party’s plans have gone awry since 2021.
While steering clear of even the mention of Bommai’s name, Prime Minister Modi too — like Shah — was all praise for BS Yediyurappa.
Votes are being sought in Yediyurappa’s name when the Lingayat strongman has already announced his retirement from electoral politics. Which means that votes are being sought for a person who won’t even be part of the government, even if the BJP returns to power.
Ironically, Yediyurappa, in whose name Shah promised to root out corruption in Karnataka, was arrested in a corruption case in 2011.
And it was Yediyurappa who split from BJP in 2013 and caused severe electoral damages to the party.
It is also the same BS Yediyurappa whose Cabinet and party colleagues accused him of indulging in nepotism and corruption until he was forced to forfeit the chief minister’s chair in 2021.
All of this has simply been brushed under the carpet in the party’s latest “distraction” attempt.
Barely days after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi a teary-eyed Yediyurappa announced his resignation at an event to mark two years of his government in 2021.
Then, the party had cited Yediyurappa’s age and the need to promote “new leadership” before the 2023 Assembly election as the reason to oust him.
Two years down the line, the BJP has gone back to leaning on Yediyurappa, now 80 years old, in an attempt to woo the miffed Lingayat vote bank.
Bommai, who the party had hoped would grow in statue as an influential Lingayat leader, simply couldn’t deliver, compelling the party to turn back to Yediyurappa who, back in 2021, was deemed a “spent force” by the aspiring “new leaders” of the BJP in Karnataka.