WHO WOULD have thought it would turn out this way. In the summer of 2008, the BJP was bang in the middle of its impossible and wrenching generational change, from the Vajpayee-Advani era to the next one. Factionalism was intense; inner-party warfare was acquiring the dimensions of an existential crisis. In this gloomy atmosphere, Karnataka gave the party the best gift it had got since its election to office in New Delhi in 1998. A near-outright victory in a southern Indian state was, after all, about as momentous for the BJP as coming to power in the national capital.
By forming a government in Bengaluru, the BJP did more than just breach the geographical boundaries of northern and western India that contained it. It also gave itself a template for expanding into new geographies. The party’s early growth in Karnataka had been triggered by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the saffron surge of the 1990s. Yet, the victory in 2008 was of a different nature and not just due to the Sangh network in the state. Rather, it was because of a strong state leader, BS Yeddyurappa, and the unstinted support of his Lingayat community for the BJP.
The religio-political appeal of the early BJP had been complemented by a crafty caste coalition, led by the Lingayats, but actually comprising a spectrum of traditional upper and backward castes. Individually too, there was sympathy for Yeddyurappa, a political veteran who had helped build the BJP from almost zero in the state. He had been betrayed, his adherents said, by HD Kumaraswamy and the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S).
Kumaraswamy and his father, HD Deve Gowda, had formed a coalition with the BJP in 2006. Kumaraswamy was named chief minister and agreed to hand over the job to his deputy, Yeddyurappa, on an agreed date. The JD(S) reneged and the BJP was left with much public sympathy. In contrast, the Congress was in free fall. SM Krishna, the chief minister between 1999 and 2004, was ageing. When he came back to lead the Congress’ campaign in 2008, it was clear that this one-time Vokkaliga strongman was now confined to sectional support in the Old Mysore area and among the elites in Bengaluru.
Indeed, it was speculated that a confused Congress would slip irretrievably in Karnataka, and that Yeddyurappa and the BJP could keep it in permanent low-level equilibrium: with about a third of the vote, but just not enough to make a serious bid for office.
How things change. Today, the BJP is in much better shape nationally than it was in 2008. True, it’s still riddled with factionalism, but the generational change has more or less sorted itself out and the identities of the key leaders of the future have emerged. In contrast, Karnataka has seen the party committing suicide. Virtually everything that could go wrong has — three chief ministers in five years, corruption charges, the distancing of the party from sections of its core Lingayat base, dissension and, finally, a breakaway group lead by its one-time folk hero.
As Karnataka readies to vote in April- May, the BJP is gripped by defeatism. One senior leader in New Delhi said quite bluntly that the motivation was to “keep the government going and complete a full five-year term”. This meant resources and pressures had been used to prevent at least two ministers from the state Cabinet and a few MLAs, all of whom owed their loyalty to Yeddyurappa, from resigning. Anti-Yeddyurappa mavericks were also being activated within the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), the party he now leads.
“The government will not fall,” said a party insider in Bengaluru, “that much has been ensured. Elections will be held only in May.” However, even he was not willing to bet on Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar winning the re-election.