Shortly before the Lok Sabha elections, the announcement by prominent Lingayat leader and former Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar to rejoin the BJP has left the Congress red faced. Shettar who had shifted to the grand old party ahead of the 2023 Assembly polls after being denied a ticket to contest from his Hubbali-Dharwad seat, which he had won six times, has now put the BJP back in the reckoning for the crucial Parliamentary confrontation. The 67-year old leader, who was nominated to the Legislative Council, has quit his seat, and shall now be the BJP nominee for the Lok Sabha from North Karnataka. The Congress apparently failed to utilize his services and though the former CM has cited multiple reasons for his ghar wapsi, it is well known that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, deputy CM, DK Shiva Kumar and party chief Mallikarjun Kharge had chosen not to involve him in important events.
Given his stature as the most influential member of his community after BS Yeddyurappa, the Congress committed the same mistake as the BJP had prior to the Assembly elections, and thus shall now have to bear the consequences of this decision. Shettar has a huge following in Northern Karnataka and had he been given enough importance, he would have managed to put the Congress on the front seat, in at least seven Lok Sabha seats in the region. Now this advantage goes to the BJP which is expected to perform better than what it was likely to before his coming back. In 2019, the BJP had won 26 out of the 28 Karnataka seats.
Now the number may not be as high as it was, but it should remain respectable. Shettar had quit the BJP since he had major issues with BL Santosh, who seems to have been marginalized now, at least so far as his interference in Karnataka is concerned. Therefore, in the Karnataka-Bombay belt, the strong Lingayat community would now shift its weight behind the Saffron Brigade. It is learnt that his switch over back to his original party had been kept as a well-guarded secret, and Shettar, who had been in touch with prominent Lingayat leaders, took the decision after being re-assured of his position by Yeddyurappa and the BJP chief J.P.Nadda. The Ghar Wapsi took place at the BJP Headquarters in Delhi.
According to some political analysts, the inauguration of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya has been a game changer, and a large number of people in the State feel that so far as Assembly elections were concerned, the Congress was the right party. However, they prefer Narendra Modi as their leader for the national polls. Shettar along with Yeddyurappa and the late Ananth Kumar, had helped in making the BJP as a major force in Karnataka. It is now anticipated that some other leaders who had moved to the Congress like Laxman Savadi may also come back to the Saffron Brigade. The problem within the Congress has been that both Siddaramaiah and Shiva Kumar have been engaged in a internal feud ever since the party returned to power. Shiva Kumar’s supporters feel that their leader would replace Siddaramaiah once the elections get over.
All this is likely to change now and the Congress may go in for a status quo, at least for some time in order to prepare itself for the Lok Sabha elections. The movement forward is not going to be easy and without the support of the Lingayat community, which apparently is divided, the Congress is on the defensive. State Minister MB Patil is a prominent Lingayat face within the Congress but his influence is not going to be sufficient to garner the votes of his community. The Vokkaligas are divided between the former Prime Minister HD Deva Gowda and Shiva Kumar, and thus the backward and Muslim card is going to be the Congress’s secret weapon.
However, so far as the Muslims are concerned, even though they have been backing the party, they would be happier if some of their representatives besides Zameer Ahmed Khan, a minister in the government and a Siddaramaiah favorite, are given some prominence. Shettar would never have left the Congress, had he been made to feel at home in his new party, where insecure leaders ensured that he was kept away. His attempts to meet Sonia Gandhi did not succeed and while his supporters had expected him to be a part of the State Cabinet, he was kept away.
Even during major meetings, Shettar apparently felt sidelined and his belief in the Sangh ideology, with which he grew up since his ABVP days prevailed in the end. If Himanta Biswa Sarma, has been the best catch for the BJP from the Congress stable in the last few years, the Congress failed to realise the electoral potential of Shettar, whose presence itself would have enhanced the party’s prospects. What Lingayat leaders in the Congress feared was that he would overshadow them and thus gain importance if he was involved in major party activities. The Congress has termed his ghar wapsi as betrayal but it has nobody but itself to blame. The leadership is evidently only interested in consolidating its position rather than finding ways and means of expanding the party base. The Congress which could have got nearly 20 seats in the Lok Sabha in Karnataka is now back to square one and would have to fight for each constituency with the aggressive BJP under the overall leadership of Modi breathing down its neck. Congress needs to both introspect on what went wrong in its dealing with Shettar, and now how it can regroup and perform in the Lok Sabha polls.