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The Sunday profile: The Bommai in the BJP

He has managed so far to both honour father’s socialist principles and tread lightly around BJP’s ideological priorities. But as mentor BSY may tell new Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai, the pulls and pressures are set to spiral.

Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

On July 28, shortly after he had taken oath as the 23rd Chief Minister of Karnataka, Basavaraj Bommai, 61, took his first major decision at a one-man Cabinet meeting. He allocated Rs 1,000 crore for scholarships for children of farmers in the state. With the step, Bommai sent out the message that his government would not be confined to caste identities (him being a Lingayat seen as a major factor in his rise), paid tribute to the legacy of his father, the late S R Bommai, and reinforced once again the shrewd, political mind he is, that has helped him rise in the BJP without any deep-moorings in the right-wing ideology of the party.

A former CM of Karnataka, Bommai Sr served as Union HRD Minister in the H D Deve Gowda-led United Front government in 1997 when he piloted the introduction of education as a fundamental right in the Constitution. This eventually led to the Right to Education Act, 2010.

“Children of farmers must not be denied access to education and should be in the mainstream,” Bommai said at his first press conference after being sworn in last week. He also said that he drew inspiration from his father’s principles: “My father was a Royist (follower of Leftist leader M N Roy) and was involved in principled, exemplary politics. He used to take victory and defeat in his stride.”

This is not what Karnataka has heard in some time now, used more in the recent past to cloak-and-dagger politics where governments have been toppled, legislators have overnight jumped ships, and CMs have been pulled down crying.

Even Bommai’s entry into politics did not take the usual route. His first Assembly election was in 2008, at the age of 48, after his father died. “Mr Bommai and my father never wanted their children to use their names for growth,” says Mahima Patel, the son of former Janata Dal chief minister J H Patel and president of the Janata Dal (United) in Karnataka.

Having made his first foray into politics in 1996-97 as political secretary to J H Patel when he was the CM, this meant a long wait for Bommai — but he quietly bided his time. One highlight of this backroom stint was a 232-km padayatra that Bommai undertook for a Mahadayi drinking water project.

In a sharp contrast, his predecessor B S Yediyurappa’s promotion of his younger son is seen as one of the causes for his forced departure; even fellow socialist Deve Gowda has let his family follow him into politics and posts.

The year Bommai finally took the electoral plunge though proved fortuitous. In 1999, the Janata Dal had split into the JD(S) and JD(U), led by Deve Gowda and J H Patel respectively, and the two factions had quickly dropped all pretences about the BJP being “ideologically untouchable”. In 1999, the JD(U) allied with the NDA for the 1999 Lok Sabha polls; in 2006, the JD(S) formed a coalition government with the BJP in Karnataka.

“There was only S R Bommai and I left in the JD(U) at one time. As we sat alone at his home in the evenings, the senior Bommai would ask me why I remained in the JD(U). But we decided that we must stand by our ideology,” says former MLA M P Nadagouda. He also defends the JD(U)’s dalliance with the BJP in 1999, then led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, saying it was “on the condition that it will not take up uniform civil code, Ram Mandir and Article 371”.

Simultaneously, Karnataka was seeing another churning. The unceremonious sacking by Rajiv Gandhi of Congress leader Veerendra Patil as CM in 1990 and the sidelining of J H Patel and Bommai Sr had left the state without any tall leader from the Lingayat community — the single largest caste block in Karnataka, at 17% of the population. In 2007, Yediyurappa, by then the biggest Lingayat name, lost out too in the contest for the CM’s post in the JD(S)-BJP government.

The same year, Bommai Sr died. It was then that Yediyurappa, who was riding a sympathy wave, invited Bommai to the BJP. “Politicians talk about secularism and communalism out of selfish interest,” Bommai said in February 2008, making the crossover.

For his constituency he chose Shiggaon, which did not have a BJP leader. He has retained it since — in 2008, 2013 and 2018.

In government, Bommai proved an efficient minister, steering first Water Resources Ministry under three different CMs, and lately Home, Law and Parliamentary Affairs. Even former JD(U) comrade Nadagouda agrees: “Bommai is hardworking and has the passion to become a big political leader.”

Another associate from Janata Dal days who remains a friend, V S Ugrappa (now in the Congress), also appreciates how Bommai has charted his own course: “Since joining the BJP he has not been involved in any controversy. In the BJP and RSS, he has maintained good relations.”

A senior police officer who has worked with Bommai says, “As Home Minister, he did not sit idle in Bengaluru but travelled all over the state to try to understand issues in detail.”

One way Bommai has avoided trodding on entrenched toes in the BJP is by staying away from Hubli, his family’s pocketborough from where he acquired an engineering degree. The region is now the stronghold of Union minister Pralhad Joshi and former CM Jagadish Shettar, who has deep roots in the RSS.

Bommai has also dodged any major clash between his own socialist leanings and the BJP’s politics, including faithfully toeing the Central line on issues like the National Register for Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In 2019, he said an NRC would check illegal immigrants. The same year, anti-CAA protests in Mangaluru witnessed police firing.

Nadagouda sees a parallel between Bommai and Nitish Kumar, the JD(U) CM in power with BJP support in Bihar. Both he and Ugrappa say it would be interesting to see how Bommai finds his way around “mismatch of ideology”. Calling it a “million-dollar question”, Ugrappa adds, Bommai will be “a good listener to matters of interest to the BJP. If the high command says something, he is unlikely to say no”.

Another police officer who has worked with Bommai notes that as home minister he did not let actions be dictated by narrow communal interests. “He is good for the state since he is willing to listen to all sides.”

Bommai’s name first surfaced as a possible replacement for Yediyurappa in March this year. Sources said that forced into a corner by the central BJP, Yediyurappa wanted the fellow Lingayat leader as his replacement instead of Delhi’s choice Pralhad Joshi. A BJP leader said Bommai tried to nudge Yediyurappa in the direction of suggesting his name, but the former CM ignored this at first.

After Yediyurappa quit on July 26, rumours swirled that the BJP was leaning towards Arvind Bellad, an MLA from Hubli-Dharwad region with strong RSS roots. It was then that Yediyurappa made it clear that he would insist on a vote to pick the CM if Bommai was not chosen. He reportedly also said he would not take any responsibility for the BJP’s performance in the next polls.

Having burnt its hands by sidelining Yediyurappa once — the veteran had left, and the BJP floundered at the 2013 polls — the central leadership yielded. The fact that Bommai is an effective communicator in Hindi and English and Kannada, was another factor.

Bommai’s son Bharath, an industrialist and businessman, claims the family was taken by surprise by the July 27 announcement. “We had no expectations. We got to know through the media,” he says. The family, including Bommai, his wife Chenamma, a home maker, daughter Aditi, an architecture student, and son, is a tight unit, and they had a quiet celebration later that day at the house belonging to Bommai Senior where the new CM continues to live. (With the sprawling government bungalows allotted to the CM occupied by Yediyurappa and Chief Secretary P Ravikumar, Bommai is not likely to make any changes in the living arrangements.) A few days ago, the entire Bommai family could be seen in pictures on social media mourning over the loss of their pet dog.

Apart from his father, Bommai also honours mother Gangamma Somappa Bommai every year with a book, titled Avva (mother) and covering different issues, through a trust named after her. Soon after taking over as CM, he visited a memorial for his parents in Hubli.

There is a sense now that Bommai could be a BJP and Lingayat leader for the future in Karnataka, if Yediyurappa and the BJP central leadership permit it.

His record in his Shiggaon constituency could be a pointer. Bommai is credited with getting to the region drinking water, irrigation for over 30,000 acres of dry land, cemented roads, a temple and educational institutions. After becoming CM, Bommai promised Shiggaon special time and special programmes. “Wherever I am, I will remain Basanna and Basavaraj to you,” he said.

In the constituency with 32% Lingayat voters, 19% minorities, 22% backward castes and 13% Dalits, Bommai also has a good standing among all due to his work, says a former journalist from the region. “He is not perceived as being communal.”

However, in his new role, Bommai’s biggest challenge will be managing the different pulls and pressures, arising out of both ideological and political differences. “Yediyurappa could act on his own. Bommai has to listen to Yediyurappa, the Centre, other people… Even a little bit of friction will create a big problem,” Nadagouda says.

The fact that Bommai hasn’t been able to form a Cabinet a week after he was sworn in is one sign of the pressures on him. He was last week in Delhi to iron out the wrinkles, and there is talk that he might get as many as five deputy CMs as the BJP balances caste and other dynamics.

“He has got the position of the CM, now he has to get the power of the CM. These are two different things,” says Mahima Patel.

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