When Basavaraj Bommai succeeded Yediyurappa as the Chief Minister of Karnataka, many believed that he wouldn’t give in to the hardliners in the party, just like his predecessor and mentor BSY. Bommai was seen as a moderate face of the party — educated, usually measured, and with ample administrative experience to take everyone along. But in just about four months of being the CM, Bommai’s actions have shown that though he did not start off his career with the RSS, like many other BJP leaders, he will not be left behind in demonstrating his commitment to Hindutva.
The politics of SR Bommai, Basavaraj Bommai’s father, was in stark contrast. A leader of the Janata Party, he was the Karnataka CM in 1988-89. Bommai senior’s political ideology was rooted in socialism and secularism. A self-professed follower of revolutionary leftist MN Roy’s principles, he started his political career from Roy’s Radical Democratic Party. As the Human Resource Development Minister of India, SR Bommai is credited to have introduced the concept of education as a fundamental right, which many years later, materialised as the Right to Education Act, 2010. He is best known for challenging the then Karnataka Governor P Venkatasubbaiah’s decision to dismiss his government without giving him a chance to prove majority on the floor of the Assembly. The verdict in the case in 1994 has been a milestone, cited every time there is a hung Assembly in the country. The verdict stated that the President’s power to dismiss an elected state government is not absolute, and this formed a key reference point for federalism in the country.
Basavaraj Bommai, as a young politician, followed in his father’s footsteps and espoused socialistic principles as a young leader. During his time in the Janata Party, Bommai was elected a member of the Legislative Council twice, once in 1998 and again in 2004. He also served as political secretary to the then Chief Minister JH Patel. Former legislator and senior JD(S) leader YSV Datta told TNM that when Bommai was his party colleague, he was an ardent socialist and strongly disagreed with the BJP on many important issues.
“Basavaraj Bommai was not a communal man when he was with us. He was our comrade and worked with us on secular issues. Along with Deve Gowda, Siddaramaiah, Surendra Mohan, and Madhu Dandavate, SR Bommai was almost leftist in his position on many issues. Basavaraj Bommai too stood by his father,” Datta recalls.
Another senior JD(S) leader said that Basavaraj Bommai, when he was a member of the Legislative Council — the Vidhana Parishad — had criticised BJP on many issues. The leader recounts that Bommai had spoken strongly against the BJP and the Sangh Parivar on issues relating to cow slaughter vigilantism, as well as moral policing.
Political journalist Naheed Ataualla concurs. “His father was from the Lohiya movement and those principles were with Basavaraj Bommai too,” she says. Ram Manohar Lohiya is one of the stalwarts of the socialist movements in India.
Senior journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju, who has known Basavaraj Bommai from when he was a Janata Party youth leader, says that before 2008, Bommai was in a huge dilemma on whether to join the Congress or BJP. “He was more inclined towards the Congress but suddenly joined the BJP and got a ticket to contest from Shiggaon,” he says.
When Bommai left the Janata Parivar and joined the BJP, he had alleged that “politicians talk about secularism and communalism out of selfish interest,” clearly indicating that he, unlike several others who joined the BJP from ‘secular parties’ and faced ideological dilemma, will not have any such predicaments.
Over the next few years, Bommai held several important positions both within the party and the government. While maintaining a relatively low profile, he proved to be reliable in many difficult circumstances. When Yediyurappa formed BJP’s first independent government in 2008, Bommai was given the important Water Resources Ministry, a portfolio he managed to hold on to for five years despite the party seeing three different CMs in the same period.
He has also managed to hold on to his constituency for three consecutive terms, although he has not emerged as a tall leader in the region or even the district. Bommai earned a reputation as an effective orator who could defend the party both on news channel debates and on the Assembly floor.
When Bommai was the Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, the party, particularly Yediyurappa, heavily depended on him to confront the Opposition as well as broker peace to resolve legislative stand-offs. Sugata says his equanimity came from a lack of commitment to a particular ideology. “He has no commitment towards either Hindutva or socialism or even MN Roy’s principles that his father espoused. He is just going with the flow. Because he has not been stable about his stance on issues, he has not been able to earn the trust of his party colleagues. He is still seen as an opportunist,” he says.
Bommai as Home Minister
As the Home Minister, Bommai showed his willingness to toe the high command’s Hindutva line, even as Yediyurappa, an original RSS man, was pushing back on some of the pet projects. In the first few days of taking over as HM, Bommai had told the media that Karnataka too would implement the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) to keep tabs on ‘illegal immigrants’, a statement that created panic among minorities in the state. Later, the then CM Yediyurappa had issued a statement clarifying that the state had no such plans.
In December 2019, a protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Mangaluru turned violent, resulting in the killing of two people in police firing, and several injuries. In August 2020, Bengaluru witnessed violence after a mob of men in DJ Halli and KG Halli gathered in protest against a Facebook post which was derogatory to Muslims. The mob was infuriated after police sought time to take action against the man who made the post, after which police stations in DJ Halli and KG Halli as well as the MLA’s residence in Kaval Byrasandra were attacked. Many of the accused, after being released on bail, alleged harassment by the police, and residents of the area too have alleged that many of them, through the course of police investigation, had been subjected to harassment.
The Chief Minister — the opportunistic hardliner
When Basavaraj Bommai became CM, in one of his earliest press conferences, he spoke of his father’s socialist politics. But in the coming days, his actions spoke in direct contradiction.
Under Bommai as CM, Karnataka saw an increase in the number of attacks on Christian prayer halls and churches. From Udupi to Hubli, activists from right wing organisations barged into prayer halls to ‘stop forceful religious conversions’, staged protests and demanded a strong anti-conversion law. And CM Bommai promptly told them that soon, the state will promulgate a law.
The state also has seen a marked increase in cases of ‘moral policing’ to curb ‘love jihad’, with groups of men attacking interfaith groups and consenting adults in relationships more brazenly. And the groups even got the endorsement of CM Bommai when he chose to justify ‘moral policing’ saying “When there is no morality, action and reaction will happen.”
Bommai’s hardened advocacy of Hindutva has surprised many political observers but not many, including his own party colleagues, believe that his actions stem from complete conviction of the ideology. A BJP leader on condition of anonymity says that after Amit Shah’s announcement that Bommai will be the BJP’s CM face for 2023 Assembly elections, many senior leaders who had fancied their chances had started working to erode his position in the party. “He was initially not taken seriously as a long term contender but after Amit Shah’s endorsement, there is a section of senior state leaders who are now worried that Bommai may not just be a stop-gap CM, just a placeholder, and could be a long term contender,” the source says.
The BJP leader added that Bommai’s fervent embrace of Hindutva is an attempt to endear himself to the RSS and the high command.
Sugata also says that Bommai leaning towards Hindutva now is just for survival. “He pleased a certain section of the RSS in Karnataka. And that is how he became a CM,” he says. “He is not entirely acceptable to the RSS. Only certain individuals in the RSS like him so he is trying to make himself acceptable to the larger audience within RSS. He is not a popular or a mass leader and has only ridden on Yediyurappa’s fame. Hindutva is an easy shortcut for him to get acceptability and visibility,” he adds.
Having tasted success by conforming to the expectations of the decision makers in the Sangh parivar and the BJP, Bommai is now attempting to come out of Yediyurappa’s shadow and emerge as a leader in his own right. While electorally, he is still a greenhorn, with a no mass following to rely on despite belonging to the Lingayat community, his plan is to just ride on ideology to cement his place.
“To stay afloat, he has been making these statements,” says Naheed. “Now, he is just playing to the gallery. He even said that it is fine if the National Education Policy (NEP) policy comes from Nagpur,” she adds.
His former party colleague YSV Datta too says that since the BJP’s electoral success has been on the rise in Karnataka, Bommai has been capitalising on it to further his political career. “He has been given important positions in the party and government too. He has caste, region and the fact that Yediyurappa supports him, has all worked in his favour. For the sake of power, political career, he has compromised with many things,” he says.
From a soft, progressive face of the BJP, as he climbed the ladder in the party, Bommai became a proponent of Hindutva, like no other CM of the state has been.
This story first appeared on thenewsminute.com