Clearly, the BJP national leadership's attempt to contain dissension in the party by balancing interest groups isn't working

With assembly elections approaching, factionalism within the Karnataka BJP is threatening to derail the party’s efforts to win another term in the state. On Thursday, senior leader B S Yediyurappa was forced to call off his Vijaya Sankalpa Yatra in Chikkamagaluru district following protests against the incumbent MLA. Earlier in the week, party MP G M Siddeshwara had declared that no legislator, including Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, could be assured of a ticket while national general secretary, C T Ravi, said that candidates are decided by the party parliamentary board and not in anyone’s “kitchen”. Ravi’s comment was in response to Yediyurappa’s announcement that his son, Vijayendra, would contest from Shikaripura, his pocket borough. Clearly, the BJP national leadership’s attempt to contain dissension in the party by balancing interest groups isn’t working. And the search for a post-Yediyurappa leadership has yet to yield the desired result.

The party is projecting Yediyurappa, who was replaced as CM in 2021, as the “mascot” of the election campaign while making CM Bommai the campaign committee chief. These choices suggest a course correction. A section of the party had been aggressively pursuing polarising anti-minority agendas — for instance, seeking a ban on hijab and conversions, regulations on diet, etc — in the past few months. This may have helped the party to shift the focus away from corruption scandals that have singed the government but it has also run the risk of deepening social divisions and turning away a section of supporters who preferred the more conservative communitarian politics of Yediyurappa. The BJP’s attempt to look beyond Yediyurappa’s leadership is limited by the fear that it could lose the support of the Lingayat community. Its endeavours to reduce dependency on exclusive community support by building a broadbased hardline Hindu votebank have also not succeeded.

The legislature party Bommai inherited when he took over as CM has many former Congress and JD(S) legislators. Some are leaders in their own right and have resources to fight elections, even without party backing. This makes it difficult for the party to replace incumbent legislators on a large scale, as it did in states such as Gujarat. The only choice left with the party may be to bet big on the prime minister’s vote mobilising abilities. He has already held large rallies in cities such as Mandya, the southern Karnataka heartland of Vokkaligas, another influential community, which has traditionally supported the JD(S). The renewed promise of “double-engine growth”, however, will also be tested by the Bommai government’s record in office.