BL Santhosh: The man with unbridled powers who oversaw BJP's Karnataka loss | Azad Times

3 months ago 77
Google News-EN Google News-KN Telegram Facebook

Azad Times News Desk.

BL Santhosh holds sway over the most powerful duo in the BJP – Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. His opinion carries weight in how the party functions, who gets promoted, and even how a BJP-run government operates.

When former Karnataka Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar blamed BL Santhosh, BJP’s national general secretary (organisation) for being denied a ticket to contest the Karnataka Assembly polls, it was the first time a senior leader had spoken openly about Santhosh’s mishandling of the BJP unit in Karnataka. Shettar, a three-time legislator from Hubballi-Dharwad Central, had recently quit the BJP and joined the Congress. Supporters of BL Santhosh questioned why Shettar did not speak up when he was in the BJP and waited till he joined Congress to make the accusation. Shettar’s defence was simple; he said nobody in BJP today could speak openly against Santhosh without dire consequences. 

BL Santhosh, who many believe to be the number-three in BJP today, has carefully cultivated an image of being a simple, selfless karyakarta of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In many conversations TNM had with BJP leaders, he was described as an ordinary man, usually clad in white cotton panche (dhoti) and shirt and somebody who prefers to stay in the background. His supporters often play up his humble background, as he hails from a village in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district. He went on to secure an engineering degree and worked in a few companies before becoming a full-time RSS worker in 1993. They insist that despite working tirelessly for the party for almost two decades, he does not have political ambitions. 

But his detractors, and there are quite a few of them in Karnataka BJP, call his simplicity a facade. They say that he's a strategist who has kept his interests above that of the party. That he nurses political ambitions and has been systematically sabotaging his rivals in the party to climb the ladder. 

Read: Amul-Nandini row: Why the BJP is insistent on a merger despite massive backlash

Fifty-seven-year-old Santhosh is from the Shivalli Brahmin community and this means that numerically he does not have a caste vote bank. But over the years, he has carved a niche for himself as the man who can mobilise party workers and rope in highly skilled supporters to work for the party. He has a reputation for drawing a large number of young engineers in Karnataka to work for the BJP, either part-time or on a full-time basis. 

The role of general secretary of organisation within the BJP is often reserved for an RSS nominee, sent as a liaison between BJP and its ideological fountainhead. In the past, while the person holding this position would wield influence and have a say in party matters, they would be restricted to enforcing the Sangh’s visions. Santhosh, instead of restricting himself to this brief, was zealous to do Modi’s bidding with respect to political manoeuvring than ideological adherence. 

For example, when a senior minister or Chief Minister of a state was to be made to resign, the call would come from Santhosh. If Union Ministers had to be asked to fall in line with PM Modi’s diktat on any particular topic, the person communicating this would be Santhosh. Many observers in the party say that as Santhosh himself nurses political ambitions and hopes to leverage his position sometime in the future, he is happy to act as the political executioner for Modi. After all, Modi himself once held the position that Santhosh now does and from then went on to become the Gujarat CM and then the Prime Minister. 

Also read: Congress will repeal anti-conversion and cow slaughter laws: Siddaramaiah to TNM

Santhosh has never contested a single election in his life but has almost unquestioned decision-making power when it comes to the BJP’s election strategy, especially in the southern states. While this is not new in the BJP, considering many leaders close to the RSS have wielded this kind of power, what is different about Santhosh is the kind of sway he holds over the most powerful duo in the BJP – Modi and Shah. Santhosh, according to party insiders, enjoys unbridled powers. His opinion carries weight in how the party functions, who gets promoted and even how a BJP-run government operates. 

But he is rarely held liable when his grand strategies fail. And this they believe is the primary reason for the party’s drubbing in the Karnataka Assembly elections. 

His micro-management of the party in Karnataka started from his time as the general secretary of Karnataka BJP, between 2006 and 2014. During this time, he had two rivals he constantly tried to undermine – late Union Minister Ananth Kumar and former CM BS Yediyurappa. 

In the late Ananth Kumar’s case, those who observed the relationship between the two leaders say that Santhosh’s animosity stemmed from the fact that both were Brahmins and that Ananth Kumar was also close to the RSS, undercutting Santhosh’s influence. Ananth Kumar enjoyed electoral and administrative success which Santhosh did not. When Modi and Shah took over the party reins in 2014, BL Santhosh played a crucial role in undermining Ananth Kumar by constantly pointing at his proximity to LK Advani, who had been sidelined by Modi. 

But thwarting Yediyurappa was more complicated. He was a leader who defied many norms set by the post-2014 BJP. He represented the old guard and had become a Chief Minister much before 2014. He was the face of two traits that Modi’s BJP often attacked the Congress for – corruption and dynastic politics – but he was also pivotal to BJP’s Karnataka expansion plans. As much as Santhosh tried to sabotage Yediyurappa, he could not be sidelined easily.

Read: Election strategist Sunil Kanugolu appointed Siddaramaiah’s advisor, with cabinet rank

In the past, the general secretary of Organisation, acted as an ombudsman who balanced the RSS's expectations of ideological purity with the realpolitik of running the BJP. And this had caused friction on many occasions. For example, when LK Advani visited Pakistan in 2004 and praised its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, the Hindu nationalist BJP and the other Sangh affiliates were embarrassed and incensed. But none of the senior BJP leaders could muster the courage to initiate any action against Advani, a mentor to many of them. The then general secretary of Organisation Sanjay Joshi, although much junior to all of them in age, passed a resolution against Advani.

Joshi’s predecessor KN Govindacharya, who in 2000, reportedly said that Advani was the real power in the NDA government and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was just a mask — a comment that had him expelled from the BJP. 

But with the party growing bigger than the organisation in the Modi-Shah years, this friction reduced considerably. Santhosh never countered the power duo too much like his predecessors, earning their trust. He also found a region where their expertise and insight were the least – the south. He was trusted with BJP’s southern expansion plans, given the challenges the party faced in the region. He convinced the two that while there may not be immediate electoral results, he would prepare the grounds for the future. 

But this promise would not suffice in Karnataka, a state where the party had already come to power. Ahead of the 2018 elections too, Santhosh was one of the key decision-makers in the state. After the BJP failed to secure a simple majority despite anti-incumbency, he tactfully shifted the blame to Yediyurappa. But his work did not end there. He remained involved with identifying disgruntled, potential defectors from Congress and for this, he used Laxman Savadi, his protege.

A Lingayat leader from Belagavi’s Athani, Savadi, was instrumental in the BJP’s poaching expedition, ‘Operation Kamala’ as the media dubbed it. “Savadi was made a Deputy CM in Yediyurappa’s government, again a decision Sathosh imposed on the party as a reward for his efforts in safeguarding the defecting MLAs in Mumbai. Savadi himself had not expected to be rewarded with such a high position,” a BJP leader said. Ironically, in 2023, Savadi was denied a BJP ticket, reportedly on Santhosh’s instructions. Savadi then jumped to the Congress. “No one knows why they had a fallout. But Savadi was not someone who should have been sidelined this way. Other than reducing morale, it definitely cost the party votes from the Ganiga sub-caste of Lingayats to which Savadi belongs,” a BJP source said.

Since 2014, Santhosh has earned a reputation for ably handling specific tasks. He is said to have engineered a complete overhaul of state cabinets close to Assembly elections in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Tripura to beat anti-incumbency. He is said to have played an important role in the coup in Maharashtra where Eknath Shinde, along with 39 MLAs, broke away from Shiv Sena and helped BJP form the government. He is known as a party leader who challenges status-quo and brings in new leadership, a task that has particularly won him laurels from PM Modi. A long list of fire-brand leaders in the party are said to be Santhosh's finds. This includes Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya, Tamil Nadu BJP chief Annamalai, Mysuru MP Pratap Simha and the elevation of CT Ravi to national secretary role.

The Karnataka debacle

But in his home state Karnataka, many party leaders believe that his conflict of interest meant that he overplayed his hand. Santhosh’s list of strategic errors in the state started way before the Assembly polls were announced. In 2019, Nalin Kumar Kateel – a leader with strong Sangh Parivar background, a Hindutva hardliner with little clout outside his home district of Dakshina Kannada – was hand-picked by Santhosh to be the party president. Kateel failed to gain the confidence of party workers and leaders but he was not shunted. In early 2023, there was a clamour within BJP to appoint a strong president ahead of the elections but Santhosh managed to shield him. 

In 2020, when the party saw a rejig of district presidents, the names came from Santhosh’s office, through the state president Kateel. “District leaders were not consulted and many of Santhosh’s close aides like TS Srivatsa who was appointed in Mysuru, M Sudharshan in Dakshina Kannada and Kuilady Suresh Nayak in Udupi made the cut. This was a unilateral decision that made every senior leader in the party feel irrelevant,” said a former BJP MLA. “Their only relevance was that they were followers of Santhosh and most of them were hardly known at the Gram Panchayat level,” the source added. TS Srivatsa also hails from the Brahmin community and was a follower of Santhosh from his days in the RSS. M Sudharshan had been one of the strongest advocates of the love jihad bogey.

A similar approach was used in the appointment of Corporation Board Chairpersons in 2022. Usually, legislators who cannot be accommodated as ministers, are appointed as chairs of corporation boards. BJP vice president Nirmal Kumar Surana, who is called the ‘money spinner’ in the party, was given complete authority by Santhosh to make these decisions, superceding the then CM Basavaraj Bommai. 

When Rajya Sabha members had to be nominated in 2020, Santhosh brought in unknown faces like K Narayana from Mangaluru and sent their names to the party national leadership, without any discussions and leaving many state leaders snubbed. Narayana used to run a printing press in Mangaluru and many had argued that getting him a Rajya Sabha ticket would have no use for the party, but he is said to be an old-time associate of Santhosh’ from his home district and had been regularly helping local Sangh leaders with printing pamphlets and books. Similarly, when members were nominated to the Legislative Council, the nomination of two candidates, Keshava Prasad and Hemalatha Nayak, was announced without any due consultation. Keshava Prasad was a BJP office secretary in Bengaluru and insiders say he had been Santhosh’s eyes and ears in the party office. 

Santhosh’s dominance was not limited to the party affairs. In April 2022, when a government contractor killed himself after accusing then minister KS Eshwarappa as the reason for his death, BJP sources confirmed that it was Santhosh’s decision not to take stern action against Eshwarappa. Patil had publicly alleged that Eshwarappa had demanded a bribe of 40% of the project value to clear his bills and he was being hounded by loan sharks from whom he had borrowed money to complete the project. After pressure, Eshwarappa resigned as a minister, but party leaders continued to rally around him. This episode fuelled the opposition parties’ corruption charge against the Bommai government.

When Eshwarappa was denied a ticket to contest the 2023 elections, a video was released by the BJP where PM Modi called Eshwarappa to thank him for his services and assured him that the party would stand by him in the future. Sources in BJP say that this angered party workers because Eshwarappa was seen as the face of the corruption allegations. But for Santhosh, he was crucial in diminishing Yediyurappa’s hold over Shivamogga, the place that both these leaders hailed from. 

CT Ravi, another close aide of Santhosh, was used against Yediyurappa in the run-up to the elections. Ravi had lashed out against Yediyurappa and his son Vijayendra saying that the decision to give a ticket to Vijayendra would not be made in anyone’s kitchen. 

The decision to make ministers V Somanna and R Ashoka contest from two seats and challenge Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar on their home turf was reportedly at Santhosh’s insistence. In Mysuru, a seasoned SA Ramdas was snubbed and Santhosh’s follower TS Srivatsa was given the ticket. Several other candidates who were handpicked by him in the Old Mysore region lost by large margins. The biggest misstep was to unceremoniously shun Jagadish Shettar and instead field Mahesh Tenginakayi, another follower of Santhosh. It led to a public blow-out and though Shettar lost the seat, many Lingayat maths started distancing themselves from the BJP. In the 2023 elections, 34 Lingayats candidates won on a Congress ticket, the highest since 1989. 

The ticket distribution exercise was such a fiasco that a miffed Yediyurappa flew back to Bengaluru from Delhi in April. He cut short the meetings scheduled and left after ensuring that 28 of his followers were given tickets. 

Many in BJP believe that the survey done by a political consultancy firm named Varahe Analytics was pushed by Santhosh. A few believe that the survey was arbitrary, just an exercise to ensure that Santhosh’s men were accommodated. 

An engineer by training, Santhosh was in-charge of the broader strategy and also keenly involved in the social media campaign of the party. Although he usually prefers to stay away from the media spotlight, rarely giving interviews, Santhosh is active on social media. But for almost a year in the run-up to the elections, the Congress managed to capture the social media space, running several campaigns against the ruling BJP.

Will action be taken against BL Santhosh?

“Santhosh always created an impression that all his decisions were made at the behest of PM Modi and Amit Shah,” a senior party leader said. 

A source close to the PMO said that while Santhosh was given a free hand in principle and had the nod of the top leaders to not let Yediyurappa be the face of the election campaign, but it was his decision to purge many of Yediyurappa’s supporters.

And this mishandling of the ticket distribution has not gone unnoticed. 

During the central election committee meeting in April 2023, Modi reportedly told Santhosh that the party’s general secretary should not be getting into the everyday affairs but just give the broad vision for the party.

It has been difficult for Santhosh to shirk complete responsibility for BJP's performance this time around, say BJP insiders. There have been several errors of judgement by Santhosh that have dearly cost the party.

In 2022, in what the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) alleged was a bid by BJP and RSS to destabilise their government in Telangana, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) named BL Santhosh and three others as accused who tried to poach four BRS legislators. The SIT has said that they have electronic evidence of conversations between Santhosh and the main accused who was giving constant updates regarding the poaching of the MLAs. 

And now as Telangana becomes the next southern state to face elections later this year, the BJP has deputed Sunil Bansal as the in-charge for Telangana. Bansal is currently the national general secretary of BJP and has a track record of running successful campaigns in Uttar Pradesh (UP). He was the UP co-in-charge for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls where the party won 71 seats, largely contributing to the party's total tally. And again in 2017, during the Assembly elections, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he played a key role in strategy and campaign in UP. How much of a sway Santhosh will have in Telangana remains the question now. 

While bungling of the elections has impacted Santhosh’s stock in the party, no knee-jerk reaction can be expected, say BJP sources in Delhi. “It will also reflect badly on the top leaders, so action taken will be over a period of time. It will be subtle like creating more checks and balances for him and bringing in other leaders to handle states in the south,” a leader said. 

While leaders envious of Santhosh’s success say his pinnacle is behind him and he will gradually be curtailed, it does not necessarily mean the end of the road for him. Narendra Modi was barred from entering Gujarat in 1995 because of his political meddling but went on to become CM for four consecutive terms. 

Read: ‘Stop saffronising the force’: What Siddaramaiah, DKS told top cops in a closed door meet

Google News-EN Google News-KN Telegram Facebook
HTML smaller font

Azad Times.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a Syndicated Feed and has not been created or edited By Azad Times Staff.

This is the title of the web page
This is the title of the web page