By repeatedly changing the goalposts over the timing of cabinet expansion in Karnataka, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and the ruling BJP managed to deftly sidestep potential disgruntlement within a section of the party, that would have in a way put the leadership in a firefighting mode in the run-up to Assembly elections, instead of strategising for poll victory.
The Bommai-led government is going to the elections, due by May, with six vacant berths, with the Election Commission expected to announce the poll schedule in the next few days.
A week after taking over as Chief Minister from B S Yediyurappa, following his stepping down, Bommai on August 3, 2021 expanded his new Ministry, by inducting 29 Ministers. It had taken the cabinet’s strength to 30 including the CM, against the sanctioned strength of 34. However, due to subsequent resignation of Minister K S Eshwarappa following a case for allegedly abetting the suicide of a contractor, and death of Minister Umesh Katti, the strength of the current cabinet stands at 28.
Soon after the cabinet expansion, discontent started simmering within the party, and Bommai had the task of having to manage the situation and run the administration by cleverly navigating between the party old guard or loyalists or ”natives” and ”migrants”, those who had defected from JD(S)- Congress that led to the fall of the coalition government, and helped the BJP to come to power.
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Several loyal party old guards were unhappy and had expressed their displeasure openly about ”migrants” scuttling the chances of them becoming Ministers.
With only six berths in hand and too many aspirants, the Chief Minister had been under pressure from aspirants to expand his Cabinet from the beginning.
Boomai too had never ruled out the cabinet expansion but kept buying time. He always had been maintaining that he was willing to carry out the exercise, once the party’s central leadership approves, while the high command representatives including party General Secretary in-charge of Karnataka Arun Singh always stuck to the stand that it is the prerogative of the Chief Minister and that he would decide on it, in consultation with the leadership.
The speculation of cabinet expansion cropped up every time the CM travelled to Delhi, and Bommai too had most of the time maintained that he would discuss it with BJP National President J P Nadda or Union Home Minister Amit Shah, but never returned with any positive news in this regard.
On a couple of instances, there were signs of expansion turning out to be a reality, which had resulted in some aspirants even camping in New Delhi to lobby their case.
Following political developments in Uttarakhand and Gujarat ahead of Assembly polls in those states, there were murmurs in BJP circles that a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Cabinet cannot be ruled out, and ministerial aspirants were hopeful about a decision regarding Cabinet expansion or reshuffle, in which case several incumbents could make way for fresh faces. But that was not to be.
The issue seemed to have had its silent death in the last couple of months, with polls nearing, as many aspirants were of the opinion that such an exercise will not be useful at this juncture, as the duration for the new inductees will be very less to prove themselves.
According to party insiders and poll observers, the leadership was wary of the possible disgruntlement by aspirants who would not make it to the cabinet.
It seems there was a feeling that the impact of dissidence by aspirant MLAs would be much stronger to an extent that it may turn out to be a revolt against CM Bommai, who is someone who came to the party from outside (Janata Parivar), a party functionary said.
Political analyst A Narayana from Azim Premji University feels not carrying out cabinet expansion was some kind of a strategy to maintain an equilibrium.
”Because the moment you give it (Ministerial berth) to someone, others will be unhappy. I don’t think they were confident of handling such a situation or maybe they did not want to give it to someone. If the party had given to someone, the kind of discontent it would have generated would have proved costly for them,” he had told PTI recently.
The whole question of political dissidence in the party was suppressed, not that it was not there, Narayana further said, ”They (party) kept it suppressed because of two things- one is the high command is too high and mighty, so nobody would have ventured to offend them too much, which was to their advantage. The second is maybe by keeping the berths vacant as long as possible, they were making people just wait in expectation…that’s one way of managing.” One party leader said, cabinet rejig or expansion should have been carried out eight to six months ago. ”By making way for new faces, anti-incumbency could have been tackled to an extent, ahead of polls.” It can be noted that without succumbing to pressure like the one exerted by senior leader Eshwarappa to be reinducted into the cabinet, after he reportedly got a clean chit in the contractor suicide case, the party high command and Bommai moved cautiously by not carrying out the Cabinet expansion, as inducting him would have opened up a ”pandora’s box”.
Some religious personalities had come out in support of Eshwarappa, however, as the party and CM seemed undeterred, the former Minister himself announced that he was no longer an aspirant. Pressure tactics by Gokak MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi, who had resigned from the earlier Yediyurappa cabinet, in a sleaze CD row case, was also handled by the party in a similar fashion.
Calling BJP leadership’s move of not giving a go-ahead to the cabinet expansion or rejig as ”calculated”, a political observer said, the party’s structure and nature of its strength in Karnataka is different compared to that of Gujarat and Uttarakhand, for it to have carried out an overhaul here, like it did in those States.
”The party here is a mix of natives or loyalists from RSS background, and also migrants, who came from other parties, like Janata Parivar in 2008 and Congress-JD(S) in 2018,” he added.
Meanwhile, senior Congress leader Siddaramaiah had recently claimed that the ”secret” behind Bommai not expanding the Cabinet is to avoid making BJP strongman Yediyurappa’s son B Y Vijayendra a minister.
“As he (Bommai) will have to make Yediyurappa’s son a minister if the cabinet is expanded, the Chief Minister did not expand the Ministry and is keeping six posts vacant, it has been more than one-and-half years now,” he had said.
Almost one-fourth of the portfolios are with the Chief Minister, as Bommai is in charge of about eight of them, including Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR), Bengaluru City Development and Finance. Bommai’s father and former CM S R Bommai-led government (1988-89) had collapsed just two weeks after the cabinet expansion, due to defections. This factor would have been in Basavaraj Bommai’s mind, making him more cautious about carrying out the exercise, a party leader said.