In the end it was a pragmatic decision from the BJP in Karnataka. It is easy to see Jagadish Shettar’s elevation as chief minister as abject surrender of the party’s national leadership to the muscle-flexing and arm-twisting tactics of BS Yeddyurappa. But let’s see it this way: it is the acknowledgement of the ground realities by the party. Any other decision would have been counterproductive for it.
What are the ground realities in Karnataka? First, the party has no other leader bigger than Yeddyurappa; second, he is a street-smart character who understands that the central leadership is a coalition of political featherweights and can hardly afford to take firm action against him without inviting damaging consequences; and third, whatever his flaws, he is irreplaceable as a vote-puller.
Does he remind of one Narendra Modi? Well, the parallels are difficult to miss. Both leaders are aware of their own strength, and the weaknesses of the central leadership as well. Both have worked hard to create their respective political turf and expand it. To expect them to let go of the control they exercise over what they have created with calculated effort without a fight is naive. Their political existence depends on it.
That brings us to the larger question: discipline. The presumption while analysts discuss discipline is individual leaders must bow to the collective decision in the larger interest of the party. It provides a sense of order to the management and structural balance of the party. Theoretically it is the ideal way political outfits should operate. But it rarely plays out that way in actual politics.
It always boils down to the individual and the electoral heft he commands. From the individual leader’s perspective, he brings some value to the party. He is the sole creator and owner of that value. Modi brings with him the strong political mandate of the population of a state. The support he generates election after election for the party is almost entirely his own creation. Yeddyurappa provides the party the comfort of the Lingayat votes. Of course, it is difficult to ignore the network of loyalty he has built in the party organisation.
In a way, these leaders are bigger than the party in their respective turfs. Any talk of discipline has to take care of this consideration. The state of the Congress would make the explanation clearer. The party has virtually finished leadership at the state level by trying to enforce discipline from the top. Its obsession with discipline could be interpreted as threat perception from the powerful regional leaders. Whatever the reason, the party is suffering now because it sought to make the ‘value’ of the regional leaders irrelevant.
Of course, it is never a balanced arrangement when the state leaders call all the shots and the central leadership remains a silent spectator. When there are serious charges against a powerful regional leader – they invariably get embroiled in corruption allegations and controversies at some point – the party has to initiate action. Its real skills at ego management are tested in this case.
The BJP’s decision to remove Yeddyurappa was a hurried one – if parties kept throwing out chief ministers on the basis of allegations only, there won’t be any leader left to lead governments. What aggravated matters was the effort of some leaders at the national level to play his protege Sadananda Gowda against him. There was reason for the leader to take offence and make efforts to show the national leaders their place.
The BJP has been pragmatic by making Shettar, a Yeddyurrappa nominee, the chief minister. But it cannot afford to make bowing to powerful local leaders the thumb rule in party management. It needs structural balance. It would help if it has elected and electable leaders –with a strong political base – such as Modi (but he brings other liabilities with him) — at the top.