Basavaraj Bommai usually speaks ex tempore at public events. The engineer in him has an eye for technical minutiae. Last week, for instance, at the Karnataka Power Corporation’s anniversary celebrations in Bengaluru, he recalled, with some degree of detail, how the process of laying the foundation for the state’s tallest dam across the river Kali four decades ago had been a particularly tricky job—Bommai had apparently witnessed the dam’s construction as an engineering student. Then, he cut to the present with a nonchalant quip that drew a laugh from the audience: topics such as power, power grids and electricity distribution interested him because they were somewhat related to political power. “Political power too is generated… it is only generated in a few places, then it is distributed,” the Karnataka chief minister observed. “And it can’t be stored… political goodwill can’t be stored, it has to be replenished.”
Well into an election year, power management is surely Bommai’s challenge too. The 62-year-old, who completed a year in office on July 28, faces the uphill task of ensuring that the BJP’s supply of goodwill in Karnataka is safe from any peak demand fluctuation. There’s a historical basis for this—since the mid-1980s, a ruling party in Karnataka has been able to return to power only on three occasions, twice via coalitions. Even in its current avatar, the BJP had had to play the defection game to topple the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) coalition to capture power in 2019—one year after the assembly election was held.
Bommai took over as chief minister last July in a surprisingly smooth transition from the BJP’s veteran Karnataka leader B.S. Yediyurappa just as the second Covid wave was ebbing. He hit the ground running, as they say, by announcing on Day 1 scholarships for farmers’ children, enhancing monthly pensions under social security schemes and setting to work on sprucing up the administration. He also focused on implementing a string of welfare measures for the farmers, women and the young that he had initiated. On the economic front, the post-Covid rebound driven by Karnataka’s strong IT services sector helped the state clock 9.5 per cent growth by March 2022. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows into the state were at a high—Karnataka topped the charts with an equity inflow of Rs 1.63 lakh crore last fiscal. In an exclusive interview to india today, Bommai says, “I am putting all my strength, my time and energy into the upliftment of those at the bottom of the pyramid. I am convinced it’ll make a difference.”
But the dominant socio-political narrative for much of Bommai’s year at the helm has been another story altogether, with communal issues taking precedence. When he was chosen CM, the persona most people gauged Bommai by was of a balanced, non-controversial politician with some vestiges of his early Janata Party moorings. That image changed somewhat dramatically as right-wing groups infused a distinct saffron flavour that Karnataka has been unused to so far, or which had so far been restricted to a few pockets of the state. Last December, the government brought in an anti-conversion bill, which was passed via an ordinance this year. Soon to follow was a row over wearing the hijab at a women’s college in Udupi which grew into a raging controversy. In quick succession came campaigns by the right-wing fringe to boycott Muslim street vendors at temple fairs and then a call to shun halal meat. Bommai maintains that all he did was follow the rule of law and to charges that he was doing it to prove his Hindutva credentials—he joined the BJP in 2008 after defecting from the JD(U)—he says, “If the rule of law to be followed is Hindutva, I don’t mind it.”
In May, as the combined effect of these shrill campaigns reached a crescendo—and concerned citizens and prominent voices from the industry flagged a threat to Karnataka’s image as a top-performing state—the CM doubled down on review meetings and the implementation of welfare schemes he had announced in the state budget in a bid to change the drift. Karnataka—pipping other states vying for electronic chip manufacturing investments—signed an MoU with the semiconductor consortium, ISMC, for a proposed $3 billion investment in a chip fabrication unit near Mysore.
Bommai then headed to Davos and announced, on his return, investment commitments totalling about Rs 65,000 crore from 25 companies in new sectors such as renewable energy and data centres besides ongoing expansion plans. “Karnataka is very progressive from the perspective of the industry and the government is very accessible,” says K.R. Sekar, president of the Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce (BCIC), who points out that the recent liberal policies in acquiring land for the industry have improved the investment climate. However, on the infrastructure side, especially logistics, the challenges remain, he says.
Meanwhile, corruption allegations have given opposition parties enough ammunition to attack the Bommai government—starting with the complaint late last year by the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association that commissions being demanded for work orders were as high as 40 per cent. “The major issues plaguing Karnataka right now are corruption, price rise, unemployment and lack of development,” says Congress legislator and spokesman Priyank Kharge, who has been raising questions about a series of issues such as an alleged Bitcoin fraud, irregularities involving the digging of borewells and a scam in the recruitment of 545 police sub-inspectors—the latter leading to a large number of arrests, including that of a local BJP worker and a high-ranking police officer. Bommai counters the contractors’ allegation as being politically motivated while pointing out that it was the home ministry which ordered an impartial probe into the police sub-inspector recruitments.
“The major issues that are plaguing Karnataka right now are corruption, price rise, unemployment and lack of development”
– PRIYANK KHARGE, Congress legislator and spokesman
An affable politician, Bommai is seen to get along with people and, as one party functionary puts it, “he’s not a rash figure to antagonise people.” Party leaders like to point to his ‘common man’ persona. The CM makes it a point to meet and accept petitions from citizens outside his RT Nagar home in Bengaluru—which his father, the late Janata leader S.R. Bommai, built. In the assembly, Bommai is his party’s main bulwark, having deftly steered it through some tricky occasions. But he does not fall into the mass-leader mould like his predecessor Yediyurappa though they are both from the same Lingayat community. Nor was he, as critics point out, as tactful as his Yediyurappa on communal issues. “He has to maintain the citadel. So anything that brings up Hindutva, he can’t afford to oppose,” says a partyman.
Even so, Bommai hasn’t had as easy a ride as when he pipped other claimants for the top seat. Until recently, the buzz was that his position as CM was shaky, with partymen trying to second-guess the central leadership’s thoughts on changing the state leadership. The apparent logic against such a move, however, was that the party wouldn’t risk a dramatic change with election less than 10 months away. Besides, with Bommai at the helm, the leadership in Delhi is seen to have greater control in steering Karnataka. With polls due in May 2023, Bommai has to come up with a “high-octane performance”, as he terms it, if the BJP has to retain power in this crucial southern state.