Karnataka Exposes An Amit Shah Off His Game - So Far

Nitin Gadkari got a phone call from his party president Amit Shah on Monday and dutifully complained to the Election Commission about the "gadbari" committed by the Congress in the Karnataka elections.

But it's allegation about an election that Shah has repeatedly guaranteed as a "Modi tsunami" is odd. Equally odd is the plight of poor 75-year-old BS Yeddyurappa, who is the Chief Ministerial candidate of the BJP and whose son, BY Vijayendra, and close Shobha Karandlaje have been denied tickets by Shah.

This is bound to disconcert Yeddyurappa who quit the BJP in 2012 to form his own party after his term as Chief Minister was aborted on account of corruption allegations.

Yeddyurappa, who single-handedly created a BJP presence in Karnataka, is extremely disturbed, said sources, because he does not trust Shah's intentions and feels his age will be used as an excuse to shaft him even if the party wins the election - the BJP holds 75 as its retirement age. The Karnataka veteran is reportedly worried that Shah "may do a Dhumal" on him - last year, Prem Kumar Dhumal, the chief ministerial aspirant in Himachal Pradesh, lost his election in a defeat that some felt was constructed by his own party.

Yeddyurappa has shared his fears with a central minister he is close to and who has counselled patience and told him that it is unwise to take on Shah and Modi in what is clearly the last roll of the dice for him. So while Yeddyurappa feels Shah treats him with scant respect, he has no choice but to tolerate it.

Shah, who usually thrives on elections, has not been his unflappable self in Karnataka. He has made a series of public gaffes, including calling Yeddyurappa the leader of Karnataka's most corrupt government (he meant Siddaramaiah of the Congress).

In revenge for the insults, Yeddyurappa has said that it was Shah's decision to return to centrestage the Reddy brothers, mining barons from Bellary accused of vast corruption, two of whom have been allowed by the BJP to contest the election. Close aides have also been chosen as candidates.

The RSS, the mothership of the Sangh, is upset with Shah over giving them tickets in what an RSS leader describes as a "wholesale way". Shah has now tried on three occasions over the past three months to explain and justify his decision to the RSS top brass who are yet to be convinced of the merit of the move. The last meeting was in Nagpur on April 26 with Mohan Bhagwat, RSS chief, and his deputy, Bhaiyyaji Joshi.

Shah has also asked his allies in the RSS, Suresh Soni and Dattatreya Hosabale, to "Make Mohanji and Bhaiyajee less upset about the Bellary barons", said sources who asked not to be named.

May 15, result day for Karnataka, has assumed huge personal stakes for Shah as a section of the BJP and RSS wants him replaced as party chief by either Rajnath Singh or Gadkari.

While the Bellary brothers dominate campaigning, Modi and Shah will not share a stage with them in order to claim that the anti-corruption plank they hold dear has not been compromised. There are also sadder excuses like Prakash Javadekar saying unconvincingly that the Bellary brothers' exertions are in their "personal capacity".

Talking to me, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah laughed and said "Yes, the Bellary brothers are well-known social workers who work selflessly, not expecting any gains. The BJP thinks people are fooled, but all of Karnataka has seen through the Bellary game. I feel sad for the way Shah has treated Yeddyurappa," he added for good measure.

Shah is also uncomfortable with the battle in Karnataka pitched as one between Siddaramaiah versus Yedddyurappa, who trails in the face off in the BJP's expensive in-house surveys.

Shah would prefer it to be Rahul Gandhi versus Modi. The Congress is ensuring that Gandhi and Siddaramiah do a tandem act and address joint rallies. Gandhi speaks first, followed by the Chief Minister - so far, pretty smoothly.

Modi meanwhile will hold 15 rallies this week but some say his inarguable eloquence is somewhat lost in translation.

Sources say that despite declaring nearly 35 rallies for Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for the final stretch, the BJP has had a rethink and could cut down his appearances.

These glitches are not normally witnessed in the awesome BJP campaign machinery witnessed in every election.

A win for the BJP and Shah and Modi will mean they approach the general election as conquerors with all dissent within the BJP and the Sangh squelched. If the Congress retains Karnataka, Gandhi will finally be able to offer himself as a leader capable of winning a tough election.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

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