Former Karnataka CM, who joined the Congress party after BJP denied him an assembly election ticket, says he has never delivered emotional or hateful speeches to whip up emotion among the innocent public and is now with a party that holds similar views.
Former Karnataka chief minister Jagadish Shettar, who had a bitter parting of ways with the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), shared how the relationship with his party for several decades soured in an interview with Moneycontrol. He expressed confidence in winning for the seventh time as MLA from the Hubballi Central constituency in Dharwad district.
(A news analysis of Shettar’s tough fight in the constituency can be read here: Hubballi battle turns into BJP-RSS vs Shettar) Excerpts from the interview:
You were part of a team that built the BJP in Karnataka. Why did the party suddenly feel that it could do without you in the upcoming elections?
I am clueless. I am sure it was not the party’s decision but that of Sangh man BL Santhosh. Some people have colluded against me. Santhosh wanted to field his protégé, Mahesh Tenginkai, from the Hubballi Central seat. So, I was asked to move away. The BJP will realise my strength on May 13, the results day.
You enjoyed many posts in the party, including that of the chief minister. Was it difficult to make way for a new face?
It would not have been difficult if the party had handled me with the respect I deserve. There is nothing wrong with bringing juniors to the forefront. That is the way a party has to be built. In the process, seniors should not be insulted. I could not bear the humiliation meted out to me. The communication process was highly objectionable. If the party or JP Nadda had taken me into confidence and had requested that I step aside, I would have done it gracefully. But it was not to be so. Dharmendra Pradhan, the party’s election in-charge in Karnataka, called me over the phone a day after releasing the first list of candidates on April 11. He conveyed the message in just three sentences.
He said the party would not field me. I should issue a media statement saying I am voluntarily retiring from electoral politics. He also said a form in a particular format would be sent to me and I should sign it saying it was my voluntary decision to quit electoral politics. Is this the way a senior leader such as me is valued by the party? I am not a school kid to sign some paper and be done with politics. Even in private companies, a three-month notice period is given before terminating the services of their employees.
I was upset with the arrogance the party displayed in pushing me aside. My self-esteem did not permit me to continue with the party. The party failed to appreciate my sincerity and commitment. It has grossly underestimated my strengths. The party probably assumed that I would quietly accept the decision imposed on me. The party could have offered me some position or responsibility to make the best use of my experience. But such magnanimity was not shown by the central leaders. I found no reason to continue with the BJP. I am seeing a new culture in the BJP.
Being a senior leader, your network used to be strong in the party. Did you not foresee this coming?
Definitely, I did not doubt the party seniors. I failed to notice the scheme being hatched behind my back by Santhosh and a few others. I am a simple man who wants to serve society. I have never wasted time on petty politics. I have always lived up to my reputation as a gentlemanly politician. I believe in doing decent politics. But that was not appreciated by the party.
If I were to be over 70 years old, then probably that could have been the reason. The party has also fielded people who are over 70 years old. I have not gotten a convincing reply from the seniors as to why I was not re-nominated. What harm would I have done to the party by contesting for one more term? My victory margin in the 2018 elections was 21,306, and my vote share was 51 percent.
The late Union minister HN Ananth Kumar also hailed from Hubballi. Along with him, you had worked for decades, especially in North Karnataka. Do you think this situation would not have arisen if he were alive?
Yes, definitely, the situation would have been different if he were to be amidst us. He used to diplomatically handle crises. I, Ananth Kumar, and Yediyurappa, among others, worked as a team. We never had any differences as such. We had space to grow. I miss him. The party has denied a ticket even to Tejasvini Ananth Kumar after making her wait for a long time in the last Lok Sabha polls. After seeing her plight, I decided to quit before it was too late to make my next moves. But before that, I gave two days for the high command to reconsider its harsh decision.
Did Yediyurappa, Prahlad Joshi, and others take up your request with the party’s central leaders?
Yediyurappa tried hard to get me a ticket. But Joshi could have played a better role. I had worked so hard during his Lok Sabha elections in Dharwad. But this is the reward I received from him. Joshi claims that the decision was taken by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. I disbelieve this. He says he tried his best to get me a ticket. But where is the result to show his efforts? My name was on the list that was placed before the party’s central election committee in Delhi. At the last minute, my name was omitted. It is a well-planned ploy to finish me politically.
Your replacement Tenginkai, 52, is the BJP’s state general secretary. Both of you belong to the same sub-caste of Lingayat. He has been working for the party and the Sangh for the last two decades. He says he worked for you in all six elections. Still, do you think it was a bad decision to field him?
It is a bad choice. His track record cannot be compared to my successful journey over the decades. This is his maiden election, whereas I have never been defeated in the six elections I have faced. He wanted to contest from Kalaghatagi in 2018. But he failed to make it because there was serious opposition to him from the local leaders. Tenginkai has been preferred over me because he is the manasaputra (mind-child) of Santhosh. That is the only qualification he has.
How has your experience been with Congress? Does Congress’ political culture suit your thinking? Has the Congress cadre accepted and begun working for you?
I have not experienced any cultural shock. My strength has increased since joining Congress. Earlier, my popularity and strength, combined with the BJP’s strength, used to work during the elections. This time, my strength has increased because I have been supported by even minorities, SCs/STs, and various other communities working for my success. My constituents and community members sympathise with me. In my career, I have never delivered emotional or hateful speeches to whip up emotion among the innocent public. I have never hated any religion. I am a peaceful man. I am now with a party that holds similar views. I continue to respect all parties while maintaining my individuality. My willpower is strong. I am committed to the Congress.
Since joining the Congress, you have been visiting Muslim leaders in your constituency. They are felicitating you. Does your Sangh right ideologue background for decades have left you at a crossroads?
For me, all religions are the same. I have friends in all parties. In a recent meeting, some minority leaders felicitated me with a cap and garlands. I did nothing wrong in accepting the felicitation. Some people are making a big issue of it. I have never been overtly religious. So I have been able to fit into the Congress. Minister K. Sudhakar recently attended an Idgah prayer meeting in Chikkaballapur. He was asked to leave the venue. Why don’t Sangh leaders talk about it?
You and the BJP both display betrayal cards against each other. How are people reacting to your decision? Are Lingayat mutt heads supporting you?
My voters are with me. They are upset about the way a senior Lingayat leader such as me is humiliated for no reason. Many Lingayat mutt leaders have called me to express their solidarity with me. But I don’t want to reveal their names.
You say the cadre is with you. But none resigned along with you. There is no exodus from the BJP. Even your brother, Pradeep Shettar, continues to be a BJP MLC.
I have instructed all my followers to remain where they are. I have asked the BJP councillors (about 19) not to resign. The elections are for just 20 days. But beyond elections, we must continue with our work. Let me do my work, and let them continue with their task. However, many in the party are ready to resign. But the Union Minister (oblique reference to Prahlad Joshi) and the BJP candidate are suffocating them to ensure they don’t quit.
The twin cities of Dharwad-Hubballi are strong forts of the RSS and BJP. The fight has now been reduced between you and the BJP-RSS. What are your chances of retaining the seat?
My victory margin in the previous elections used to be around 20,000. This time, it would be in the range of 40,000 to 45,000. I have no doubts about it. I have my cadre working for me. In addition, I am drawing strength from the Congress. The poll arithmetic shows that I can easily retain the seat. Even the minority communities will stand by me.
It is said an RSS special team has descended on Hubballi to work strategies to defeat you. Is it so?
Even I have been hearing about it. But the team is not seen anywhere here. A lot of whispering campaigns against me are going on. In the elections held for the Maharashtra legislative council in 2020, the BJP could not win the Nagpur teachers’ constituency seat. Nagpur is the headquarters of the RSS. When they could do nothing there, what would it do in Hubballi?
How would the ruling BJP perform in the elections at the state level? Will Congress come to power?
The BJP’s decisions are suicidal. It is going to pay a heavy price for all the wrong decisions it has taken in the distribution of tickets. North Karnataka is supposed to be the Lingayat belt. It is here that the party is going to lose 20 to 25 seats. I am not saying that because of my exit, the BJP is going to lose this number of seats. But it is because of the poor selection of candidates by vested interests. The ill-treatment meted out to me has created apprehensions in the minds of junior BJP leaders, in particular Lingayats, about their prospects. They are now concerned about their fate at the party in the coming days. If a senior leader such as me is treated so badly, then what future do they have in the BJP?
Earlier, it was thought that the Congress might emerge as the single largest party. But slowly, it is moving towards getting a clear majority to form the government in May. The BJP has already lost ground for the blunders it has committed.
In the event Congress comes to power, what role would you play?
I have not joined the party with any preconditions except asking them to treat me with respect. I am not aiming to become anything.