Nearly three years after it came to power in Karnataka, the BJP, which has always kept at least four vacancies open in the state Cabinet to ward off dissension, is now set to fill all 34 ministerial berths available in the state with just a year left for the Assembly elections.
Several political developments over the past week suggest that the BJP is preparing for a ministerial overhaul in the final lap of its current tenure in Karnataka.
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is expected to travel to New Delhi shortly to meet party leaders to decide the shape of the BJP government in its final year. On Tuesday, Bommai indicated that Cabinet changes are in the offing with efforts to represent all regions and castes of the state in the proposed changes.
“We intend to give representation for all the districts. Some decisions will be made depending on the political situation,” Bommai said in Vijayapura on Tuesday.
While there has been speculation that the Karnataka CM may meet top BJP and RSS leaders during a visit to Delhi scheduled to be announced soon, Bommai himself said this week that no call had come from the Delhi leaders as yet.
“The party’s top leaders have not called me to discuss Cabinet expansion. I will be informed when it is decided in Delhi,” Bommai said Tuesday.
The BJP’s top leaders in Delhi are expected to consult among themselves before summoning Bommai to discuss party strategies, and changes in the Cabinet and BJP state unit.
The Bommai Cabinet at present has only 29 ministers against a full strength of 34 — veteran leader KS Eshwarappa quit earlier this month after being accused of corruption in the wake of the death of a civil contractor. Bommai is yet to allocate the Rural Development Ministry vacated by Eshwarappa to any of his Cabinet colleagues.
Last week, Bommai held a surprise meeting with the young BJP MLA Arvind Bellad in the Hubbali region of Karnataka, the home region for both leaders.
The meeting of significance since Bellad — son veteran RSS and BJP leader Chandrakant Bellad — is an aspirant for a ministerial position in the government and was even a frontrunner for the chief minister’s post when the BJP eased Lingayat strongman BS Yediyurappa out of the chief minister’s seat in July 2021.
Bommai’s meeting with Bellad comes at a time when the Panchamsali Lingayats, a sub-sect of Lingayats (to which Bellad belongs), has threatened to go on the warpath to seek categorisation as a backward class community to avail 15 per cent quotas in the state .
Bellad, and another Panchamsali Lingayat leader, the outspoken Basavaraj Patil Yatnal, are the front runners for Cabinet induction as the BJP tries to mollify the Panchamasali Lingayat demand for OBC categorisation and reservations in Karnataka.
The move to induct Bellad or Yatnal would have a ripple effect on other BJP Lingayat leaders in Karnataka, sources in the government said. “CC Patil and Murugesh Nirani (both Panchamasali Lingayats) who are in the cabinet will threaten to feel,” the sources said.
Patil, the Public Works Department minister, is considered to be close to both Bommai and former CM Yediyurappa while Murugesh Nirani, the Industries Minister, is a wealthy businessman who is seen in BJP circles as being the man behind the floating of a new Panchamasali Lingayat Mutt in Karnataka in February this year. “The mutt has been created to lobby on behalf of Nirani in Delhi,” Yatnal recently said.
The BJP is reportedly considering an overhaul of the Cabinet and the party to provide fresh energy and to project future leaders while also focusing on candidates with a clean image, BJP sources said.
The induction of young Lingayat leaders is expected to provide leverage for Yediyurappa’s son BY Vijayendra, too, to seek a place in the Cabinet. However, the BJP is reportedly reluctant on inducting the young ‘Banajiga Lingayat’ leader, who was considered a “Super CM” while his father was the CM.
The Lingayats, who make up 17 per cent of the state population and are a determining factor in nearly 70 to 80 of the 224 Assembly seats in the state, are the BJP’s core vote base.
Sources said the backward class Billava community member Sunil Kumar Karkala, who has roots in the Sangh in coastal Karnataka, is likely to be upgraded from his current portfolio of Minister for Energy, and Kannada and Culture.
Among BJP veterans whose portfolios may be on the line is Home Minister Araga Jnanendra, a BJP veteran but a first-time minister, who has received wide criticism from within the BJP over his functioning in recent days.
According to party sources, one of the moves being considered is to drop some of the 10 ministers who were inducted into the Cabinet after they switched from the Congress and JDS in 2019 to help the BJP form the government by toppling the coalition.
However, the BJP is wary of the political message that the dropping of the new inductees might send out to candidates waiting to switch over from opposition parties, besides the outcome it might have on the remaining one year of the government’s tenure.
The BJP is also actively considering changes to the party structure in Karnataka including replacing state party president Nalin Kumar Kateel with a stronger, more vocal leader like Union minister Shobha Karandlaje.
Although not a leader with a mass following, Karandlaje’s induction, party sources say, might help the party woo women voters and her Vokkaliga community to the BJP. Karandlaje’s Sangh credentials and her ties with Lingayat leader Yediyurappa are expected to hold her in good stead. A Vokkaliga leader, Karandlaje’s appointment is also expected to balance the caste and regional equations and ease the BJP’s heavy dependency on the influential Lingayats.
The Vokkaligas are an influential community in south Karnataka while the Lingayats dominate the north. Besides Karandlaje, key Vokkaliga leaders in the BJP at present are ministers CN Ashwathnarayan, Araga Jnanendra, BJP general secretary CT Ravi.
Over the past few weeks, the BJP government has carried out changes in the administration – seen as the final change ahead of the state polls – with transfers of IAS officers and policemen.