The actual electoral history of the BJP goes back to 1983, when, for the first time, the BJP had benefited from the Janata Party experiment, and was, for the first time, able to translate its base in the western coastal plains into seats. The Janata party days had given its candidates high profile appearance, and many had been elected from the coastal plains. More importantly, it had given the BJP its first taste of proper politicking. The RSS cadre had instilled discipline, and ability, but they still lacked political skills until then. The high level dramabazee, often vital for political success, was one such trick the BJP learnt during this period. The principal architect of the party in this period was the legendary Rama Bhat, who worked relentlessly from his constituency, Puttur, and built up the party in the Mangalore plains. This area already had a strong RSS presence, (often raised to protect against the immigrating Muslims from Kerala, because it caused local frictions). Consequently, even before 1980, the BJP and RSS had a reasonable influence in the farmer lobbies, because many farmers joined the RSS for safety.

Building up the party in the erstwhile Dakshina Kannada and Uttar Kannada districts, Rama Bhat led BJP managed 18 seats in Karnataka for the first time, winning about 8% of the popular vote. However, the party had contested only in constituencies where they felt they had a reasonable chance. In all actuality, the vote share of the party where it had contested was about 16%. Nevertheless, the party had established itself as a viable alternative to the Congress on the coastal plains. Rama Bhat had raised a whole crop of local leaders (some of whom it would be more proper to consider his colleagues) who would become very prominent in later years, and ensured their election to the Assembly. Karnataka watchers will recognize the names of some of those elected to the Assembly in the 1983 elections, viz, Dhananjaya Kumar (Mangalore), Rukmayya Poojary (Vittla), Vasanth Bangera (Belthangdy), and V S Acharya (Udupi), and D. V. Sadananda Gowda (Puttur). The BJP had arrived in the state, but was still limited to only a very small region on the west coast.

Even during this period, there were many others who were not in the coastal plains, and who were still able to win (eg: N Gangadhara from Krishnaraja in Mysore, and B S Yediyurappa from Shikaripura in Shimoga) on their own. Nevertheless, their influence was very limited. Both Yediyurappa and Gangadhara were essentially one seat wonders (they could win their seat, but had little influence beyond).

In terms of institutional influence, except for their penetration into the arecanut, cashew and coffee planters associations on the west coast, BJP had zero influence in institutions. There was no way the BJP could get into the big farmer lobbies. Industrialists influence was limited to Bangalore, and educated elite of Bangalore still tended left (as an example, CPI often won seats from Bangalore city). BJP’s only ability was as a spoiler, and even their hold on the west coast, while organisationally sound, was politically tenuous.

This would be proved in the next 1985 elections. Almost all BJP MLAs who had won in 1983 were wiped out, including the great Rama Bhat himself. The pro JNP wave that swept the remainder of the state, also threw the BJP out of power in the Mangalore plains. In part, this was due to the splitting of the BJP vote in the coastal region (at this stage, the BJP and the JNP competed for the same base) and the Janata Party was still reasonably strong on the west coast. Anyway, BJP lost all its seats in the Mangalore region, except one (Vasanth Bangera in Belthangdy). Yediyurappa was the only other winner in the election from the BJP. To add insult to injury, Vasanth Bangera would desert the party in the coming years. The fall of the BJP on the west coast would have another casualty – that of Rama Bhat. He would essentially retire from active politics, and content himself with guiding the BJP and supporting his protege D V Sadananda Gowda. (It is the irony of ironies that the former chief minister, D V Sadananda Gowda, his protege, would fall apart from his one time mentor to the extent that Rama Bhat would send his other protege, Shakuntala Shetty, to the Congress to teach D V Sadananda Gowda a lesson)

Then came the 1989 elections, and a very strong pro-Congress wind blew in the state. The BJP, which in usual time, would have been able to profit from the anti-incumbency against sitting MLAs was stymied by the pro-Congress wind. And only a few small gains accrued to it in the Mangalore plains (Rukmayya Poojary returned from Vittla, but no one else won). However, in the meantime, the BJP had grown a bit in the Shimoga district. Capitalising on another BJP MLA’s legacy in Shimoga (Ananda Rao), the BJP was able to snatch this seat from the Congress and get K S Eshwarappa elected.

However, by 1991, the ecosystem had changed hugely. The rise of Hindutva had turned the Bangalore elite to the BJP, and henceforth, this city would always have a fondness for the BJP in its heart. As a side effect, the CPI would lose its influence in Bangalore. There would be no more MS Krishnans for the CPI. What was more, by espousing Hindutva, the BJP had signalled to the big Hindu mathas that here was a party that would keep their interest in mind (and Yediyurappa played a superb role in this diplomacy, for which he should be lauded). While many mathas were already locked into political arrangements, the BJP’s rise was welcomed by one hugely influential matha, the Siddaganga matha in Tumkur district. Its head, Shivakumaraswamy, would help the BJP (but like all clever people, he did not put all his eggs in the BJP basket). The 1991 Lok Sabha elections elected four BJP MPs from Karnataka for the first time (and I think it was the first time that the Congress got less than 25 seats out of 28 from Karnataka). The BJP had established itself as a credible opposition. It only remained to translate these gains in 1991 to the local level. By now, a large number of people had been attracted, and many rose from the RSS ranks to step up and take the party to the next stage. However, what is vital to observe, is that the BJP in 1991, had to rely on outsiders to take advantage of the Hindutva wave. It did not have its own members to take advantage of the Hindutva wave. Thus, Venkatagiri Gowda (a cantankerous and contentitious outsider) was fielded against Gundu Rao from Bangalore South, and ended up winning it, purely on the Hindutva wave. The other prominent outsider who came into the party was Srikanta Datta Narasimha Raja Wodeyar, the scion of Mysore. He lost the elections, but he was necessary, because the BJP had no real base outside the educated elite, in the district. Funnily enough, at this stage, the BJP had no base at all in northern Karnataka outside Bidar, and it was the principal opposition in most southern districts. At this point, its base was southern Karnataka, not northern Karnataka.

The 1994 Assembly election was a watershed. A strong anti-congress wave washed over Karnataka, but what was surprising was that, wherever the BJP was strong, it emerged the main beneficiary of this anti-Congress wave instead of the JD getting that benefit. However, in the Vokkaliga dominated old Mysore region, the JD became the main beneficiary because they projected H D Deve Gowda as their chief minister. Further, the old Mysore had, in the previous election, voted in the hopes that S M Krishna would become the CM. Their hopes had been belied, and they were in no mood to trust the Congress again. And the Vokkaliga belt had switched en masse to following Deve Gowda (but his full control of his community was still a good distance away)

The main regions that welcomed the BJP were the urban regions (Bangalore, Mysore, and Hubli), the coastal plains, and the Malnad regions of Karnataka. Some of these were the regions that had, at some point, elected BJP in the past (while the Bangalore urban elites were more recent converts, the urban elite of Hubli and Mysore had a tradition of electing the BJP before), and where the BJP had an organisational base to take advantage of the sympathy for the BJP. Further, particularly in Hubli-Dharwad, the BJP had benefited from the Idgah Maidan controversy. The sense of entitlement of the minority community had left the Hublikars thunderstruck. The BJP was able to capitalise on this problem. The final advantage was Yediyurappa’s methodical building of the party particularly in the Malnad areas (Coorg, Shimoga and Chikmaglur districts), and the Hubli-Dharwad region. What the party had gained in 1991, Yediyurappa had not frittered away. He had methodically consolidated it using the organisation at every level. In fact, the organisation that the BJP has in Bangalore district is also the result of the hard work of Yediyurappa. Prominent finds of Yediyurappa include C T Ravi in Chikmaglur, Bopaiah in Virajpet, Appachu Ranjan in (the then) Somwarpet, and Y Ramakrishna (the SC cell chief of the BJP) in Anekal. The end result of it all was that the BJP emerged as the principal opposition party to the ruling JD. The Congress, struck by the anti-Congress wave, and the sabotage of Bangarappa, was relegated to third place in number of seats (but their vote share was still far higher than the BJP).

But already, at this stage, two more changes, little noticed, were taking place. The BJP, in 1991, had, for regions where it had no base, thrown any known name it could get to contest elections on its symbol. One such person, B B Shivappa (a man known in Karnataka, to those watching politics, as a long time and prominent BJP man) had been thrown into Hassan to contest in 1991 against prominent personalities like HC Srikantaiah (Cong) and HD Deve Gowda (JD). He had utilised the intervening years to build up the BJP base in the district, and had managed to win several converts (prominent would be H N Nanje Gowda and A Manju, both coming from the Congress). He managed to win Sakaleshapura, and his candidates put up a very good performance in Belur, Arkalgud, and Arsikere. In short, the BJP was building itself as a strong alternative to both the Congress and the JD in the district under the tutelage of B B Shivappa. The second change was the arrival of a man, little noticed at the time, but who would go on to play a prominent role in the BJP. That person was Basanagowda Patil Yatnal, who won the Bijapur city seat for the BJP. Bijapur already had a decent organisation, so this victory was not so noticed, but the man would play a vital role for the BJP in the coming years.

The 1996 Lok Sabha elections went along expected lines. The BJP expanded its base in constituencies in regions where it had MLAs. It retained Bangalore South, Mangalore and Bidar, and wrested Davanagere, Dharwad North, and Uttar Kannada (all regions where it had won seats in the previous Assembly elections). It lost Tumkur (but put up a very solid performance even there – some losses are to be expected anyway). In short, 1996 could be seen as a continuation of the situation that existed in 1994. The important point was that the BJP, continuing on its previous high, edged out the Congress in terms of number of seats. If the BJP was limited to some seats, it was a winner in those seats. The BJP’s gains became more permanent, and its 1991 performance was no longer seen as a flash in the pan.

By 1998, the entire scenario had changed, and everything turned topsy turvy. Deve Gowda had becoem the prime minister and had ensconced himself in the hearts of the Vokkaligas in southern Karnataka as their principal champion. Ramakrishna Hedge had been expelled from the party, and he was breaking the JD base in northern Karnataka (Several prominent JD leaders left the party to join Hedge – the principal ones included Ramesh Jigajinagi, Ajaykumar Sarnaik and Siddannagoudar. The BJP did an excellent job striking up a bargain with the Lok Shakti. Ramakrishna Hegde was very useful in making the BJP a household name in northern Karnataka and several JD leaders entered the BJP, particularly in (the then) Dharwad, Belgaum, Gulbarga and Bijapur districts. In all honesty, Hegde’s power was limited to these four districts. And the BJP was well poised to organisationally reap the benefit of Yediyurappa’s hard work, and Hegde’s defection.

But a development largely overlooked by most people is Basanagouda’s Patil coup in 1998. He managed to talk over one of the most powerful leaders of Belgaum district, i.e., Babagouda Patil. A man coming from the KRRS (Karnataka Rajya Raitara Sangha) background, Babagouda Patil’s entry into the BJP transformed the party in northern Karnataka. His entry gave the BJP, an urban party in the region until then, a handle into the farmers unions of the Bombay-Karnataka area, and more importantly, opened the party doors to the sugar barons of the region. Overnight, the BJP could now count on a cadre of farmer activists to campaign and help in every booth. It made the BJP look a party that would care about farmers’ interests, instead of being a party of city slickers. And, most importantly, it transformed the BJP into a party where sugar barons would throw in their lot and give it an enduring base in the region. Now we have an idea of why the BJP is so strong in the Belgaum-Bijapur-Bagalkot region. It is not the entry of the JD leaders (most of whom have deserted the BJP and had even in 2008). It is the base in the farmers unions and the entry of the erstwhile KRRS sugar barons that makes the party able to endure even shocks like Yeddy’s desertion. The credit for building the BJP in this region goes not to Yediyurappa,or even Ramakrishna Hegde, but to Basanagouda Patil.

The 1998 elections reflected the huge unpopularity of the JD and the Congress. The BJP won in plenty of areas where it had stood second, and the JD was almost wiped out, except in regions like Hassan. (But even in Hassan, the BJP had put up a superb fight, thanks to the spadework done by B B Shivappa, and was not remotely the non-entity it is in the district today.). It more than doubled its number of seats. For all practical purposes, the BJP, on its own stood within sight of power. However, there was a worrying factor, even at this stage. The BJP had failed to build up its base in several districts.

The next elections in 1999 (both central and state), however, were a disaster for the BJP. The party, which was expected to double its strength in the Assembly, was instead forced into a near suicidal alliance with the hugely unpopular JH Patel government by Ramakrishna Hegde and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (As an aside, Vajpayee may have been a great statesman and brilliant orator and politician, but the `credit’ for limiting the organic growth of the BJP goes to him!) The BJP was routed, for trying to rescue Patel. Further, while the arithmetic may have added up (as seen by Vajpayee and his group in Delhi), chemistry did not. The JD(U) and the BJP had long been opponents. A marriage of two unwilling, even inimical, partners could not and did not work. BJP and JD ended up sabotaging each other. BJP stalwarts like Yediyurappa and Eshwarappa were crushed by unheard of opponents. JD(U) stalwarts faced a similar fate. Poor BJP leaders were reduced to asking for votes for people whom they had opposed until the previous day. Their credibility went into the dustbin, and unsurprisingly, both the BJP and the JD(U) were routed in Karnataka, not only in the Assembly elections, but also the Lok Sabha elections. The disaster occurred not only in the rural areas, but also in the urban areas. People who had looked to the BJP for a higher standard in politics were utterly dismayed, and they abandoned the BJP for the Congress, which had put up the erudite S M Krishna as the chief ministerial candidate.

In an ironic twist of fate, by breaking away from Patel and his government, and starting JD(S), Deve Gowda was able to garner a considerable amount of sympathy, particularly in the Vokkaliga strongholds. He also managed to escape the blame for the acts of the Patel government for which he himself was often wholly responsible.

The end result of the 1999 elections was that the BJP barely increased its tally, (its partner, JD(U) was reduced to an even more pitiful score). The Congress formed the government, a state they had hardly believed possible. However, in this general collapse of the BJP (particularly its bosses), two men had increased their clout. These were B B Shivappa and Basanagouda Patil. These men had remained standing, holding their heads high, while their stalwart colleagues had fallen. In fact, B B Shivappa had managed to wrest four of the eight seats in Hassan district (the other four were won by the Congress). Deve Gowda himself was trounced by his bete noire, Puttaswamy Gowda. His son was routed in Deve Gowda’s pocket borough, Holenarasipur. Deve Gowda’s fortunes seemed to have reached their nadir, after hitting a high two years previously.

At this point, however, not only did the fortune of the BJP fall precipitously, but also an acrimonious battle began inside the BJP. B B Shivappa, the man who had built the party fortunes in Hassan got into fight with Yediyurappa over the position of the party chief. The battle ended with B B Shivappa being expelled with his proteges from the BJP. The party’s base in Hassan withered away over the next few years, and the BJP has never been able to regain its influence again. In absence of B B Shivappa, Deve Gowda was able to poach on some of its more powerful leaders in the district, and A Manju deserted the party for the Congress. The BJP, by 20004, was a mere shell of its old self in the district.

However, the 1999 elections also had another side effect. Sonia Gandhi had contested from Bellary, and to pin her down to the constituency, the BJP imported Sushma Swaraj. The problem, however, was that the BJP had no base in the district. In order to overcome this deficiency, the party attracted a few people in the district. Among its more prominent catches were the Reddy brothers and Sriramulu. Sriramulu had joined the party a little earlier and he brought in the Reddy brothers, under the patronage of Ms. Swaraj. These people were rich and well connected, and having grown very rich on the iron ore rich region, were able to influence the party’s fortunes in central Karnataka. However, their unsavoury connections would prove to be a bane in the long run for the party.

By 2004, the party was able to put its house in order, and put up a united and spectacular performance. It won about eighty seats, and won, not only in its old strongholds, but also expanded into old JD haunts. With its coffers full thanks to the Reddy brothers and Sriramulu, some clever poaching by Yediyurappa in the Hyderabad Karnataka region, and united efforts by all leaders, the BJP was able to sweep all of western Karnataka, make a dent in the Hyderabad Karnataka region, and finish as the largest party. However, there were two major flaws in the BJP diamond. The recent breakthroughs in the Hyderabad Karnataka region depended on the personal charisma of Yeddy and the money power of the Reddies. The organisational base of the BJP in these regions was still weak, and the leaders owed their rise to Yeddy. They were loyal to Yeddy, not to BJP. To make matters worse, these new leaders had little in common with the ideology of the BJP.

The alliance with Kumaraswamy was another tactical success, but strategic blunder. Because the BJP was tied down in an Alliance with Kumaraswamy, they could not expand in Deve Gowda’s strongholds in Vokkaliga strongholds in the old Mysore. How does one go around canvassing against one’s own government and Allies? The BJP, therefore, between 2006 and 2008, was unable to expand the party base in the old Mysore region.

By 2008, in fact, the party seemed to be on the wane everywhere,except in northern Karnataka. And the high water mark of eighty seats in 2004, seemed to be a distant goal. However, then came the betrayal of Deve Gowda and the fall of the Yediyurappa government. This was a golden opportunity for the BJP, and it managed to win over some powerful Vokkaliga leaders. Principal ones include G T Deve Gowda in Mysore, and Bacche Gowda in Hoskote. However, Deve Gowda was able to successfully transform it into a contest between Vokkaligas and the Lingayats (Kumaraswamy vs Yeddy was seen in these terms in the Vokkaliga belt). This was the reason why even Vokkaligas in the BJP were unable to make much headway in the region (G T Deve Gowda was defeated by a greenhorn in Hunsur, and Bacche Gowda turned into a one seat wonder in Hoskote. Further, they never got much importance in the Yeddy government. Bacche Gowda could do little because he had little influence in the party or government. Ashok did not shoulder too much burden, and he is too much a `city slicker’).

The 2008 elections catapulted the BJP into power, but there were ominous signs in the aftermath of the victory. Once Yeddy came to power, he started cutting other Lingayat leaders to size, and gave no importance to the Vokkaligas (it did not suit his personal politics to have other powerful leaders). He got into a bitter fight with Basanagouda Patil Yatnal (after sabotaging Yatnal and making sure he lost in Nagthan),and the latter, a man who had done enormous amount of work in northern Karnataka, was expelled from the BJP to appease Yeddy. Another sacrifice to appease Yeddy was the sidelining of Jagadish Shettar (another very important leader from northern Karnataka). With both Shettar and Patil gone, Yeddy was the undisputed Lingayat leader. The dangers of this policy were already apparent in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Barely an year into power, the BJP victory margins, particularly in the Bombay Karnataka region, came down drastically, and the lack of Basanagouda Patil was felt heavily in Bombay Karnataka.

Yediyurappa initiated Operation Kamala to poach on leaders from the Congress and JD(S), but again, the leaders he got were exceptionally hard to stomach for anyone with half a sense of decency.

Yeddy also made sure no Vokkaliga leaders would rise to challenge him in any way. The Reddy brothers’ connection to illegal mining made them persona non grata in the BJP, and the exit of Sreeramulu led to the destruction of the BJP influence in large regions of HyderabadKarnataka and northern regions of old Mysore. Yeddy himself, after having destroyed all other leaders of significance in Karnataka BJP, deserted the party, taking most of its leadership in central Karnataka, and large regions of Hyderabad Karnataka and leaving it a shell of its former self.

For all practical purposes, the BJP is now limited to the coastal plains, Bangalore, and the sugar baron influenced regions of BombayKarnataka (Belgaum, and Chikodi). Apart from that, there are a few urban strongholds, and a few leaders still remaining from the old times, particularly in Dharwad and Chikmaglur regions (which is why the BJP managed to hold its own in these two districts). This was the situation in which the BJP faced the 2013 elections, and was unsurprisingly, routed.

Simply put, the BJP is, more or less, in the same situation it was in 1994, but with a few minor changes. It has two advantages. First, it is well established in Karnataka as a party of significance. Second, it has the power of the sugar barons of Belgaum at its back. Hopefully, these men will prove loyal to the party.

Yediyurappa’s return is touted as an answer, and to some extent, it is true. However, it is important to realise that his return is a short term solution for the current election, but in the long term, with his arrogance, nepotism and his propensity of ensuring the destruction of all other leaders of significance, he poses a serious challenge to the revival of the BJP in Karnataka. If Yediyurappa returns to the BJP, it will be tied to his goodwill (and as we have seen, it is not a good thing to depend on). Further, his performance as a CM was nothing to write home about. Whether people will vote for his chief ministership a second time remains to be seen. Yeddy has shown that he can be a spoiler, but nothing more. But his return, particularly in the coming elections, can help a great deal in assuaging Lingayat anger (where it exists), and help a few candidates, particularly in the Hyderabad Karnataka region, and central Karnataka.

What next?


(This post originally appeared in Bharat Rakshak Website. CRI editors wish to thank Bharat Rakshak moderators   and our resident commentator Girish for facilitating us to host this content)