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Why BJP Promotion For RSS Loyalist BL Santhosh Should Have Yeddyurappa Looking Over His Shoulder

BL Santhosh

A media shy backroom operator credited with expanding BJP influence in Karnataka, BL Santhosh may be projected as a replacement for BS Yeddyurappa within a year or two, party insider say.

On Sunday evening as the nation was caught up with the World Cup and Wimbledon finals and the countdown for India’s second moon mission, a three-line note from the BJP headquarters made an announcement: BL Santhosh has been elevated as national general secretary (Organisation).

In a statement as low-profile as the man himself, Bommarabettu Laxmijanardhana Santhosh replaced Ramlal, the party’s organisational general secretary for over 13 years.

Always seen in his trademark half-sleeved cotton shirt with a ‘panche’ or dhoti, Santhosh is a name whispered in BJP corridors with awe, with reverence, with expectation. He steered the party when its most influential mass leader in Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa, quit six years ago to launch his own outfit and that leadership stint may come handy soon.

“At some point, maybe a year or two down the line, there is a feeling he could be a possible chief minister for Karnataka,” a BJP MLA says.

The BJP, which is currently trying to claw its way to being the party in power in Karnataka now and has built its hopes for that through the large-scale defection of 16 MLAs, has always projected Yeddyurappa as its CM face. Be it ahead of the 2018 Assembly elections, or earlier still, Yeddyurappa has always been the ‘mass’ and ‘tallest’ leader for the party.

But he is now past 76 – the BJP’s age-limit for positions of power – and while he may be given the mantle of chief ministership if the party returns to power, it may be a short-lived realisation of his dreams.

Backroom Operator

Santosh, an engineering gold medallist who quit his job to join the RSS in the late eighties, could not be a more contrasting figure to Yeddyurappa.

A media shy operator who almost entirely functions out of his room in the BJP office in Malleshwaram in Bengaluru, he is known to prioritise grassroot-level workers with potential over caste-backed leaders.

Some party insiders feel he could be projected as the replacement as soon as a year from now. “We cannot rule it out. He has those qualities… look at his social media following. So people feel when you have seen people like Fadnavis or Khattar or PM Modi himself, that an ‘organisation’ man like him, that too one without family ties, would make a good CM,” says the MLA on condition of anonymity.

He adds wryly: “It is better to have leaders who have no family ties, than have leaders who think their family is the entire state.” He laughed off the suggestion that it was a sly on Yeddyurappa, who had to quit as CM during his earlier stint after his and his sons’ names figured in mining scams.

State general secretary CT Ravi went a step further and said the 52-year-old Santhosh “could even be a PM candidate in the future”.

“As organisational general secretary, he is an ex-officio member of the parliamentary board. That is the supreme authority of the party that decides the CMs of all states, what more could he ask for? The party president may preside, but the board decides.”

Ravi describes Santhosh as a ‘sanyasi’ who works within the society. “Earlier you had sanyasis who worked in forests or away from society. He works within the society. His biggest ambition is to make the country stronger, nothing else,” he says.

Grassroot Work

Santhosh gave up a lucrative career to join the party and work entirely on organising it. He was “loaned” by the RSS to the BJP as the Karnataka organising secretary in 2006 – roughly the same time that Ramlal was deputed by the RSS to become national organisational general secretary for the BJP. Hailing from Udupi in coastal Karnataka, he worked extensively in Mysore and Shimoga regions initially.

His focus has always been on the party’s weak points or areas. He may not, for instance, even know the names of the party’s taluk level presidents in coastal Karnataka, where the BJP is quite popular and has a big base. But in a district like Kolar or Gulbarga, he would network with thousands of ‘karyakartas,’ call them up on a weekly basis and motivate them to take on more and spread the word.

“He is a simple man… but not to be confused with a simpleton,” laughs Bengaluru MLA S Suresh Kumar. “A voracious reader, he is known for his ability and involvement, his memory. He knows who to entrust with which task. When it came to the membership drive, he knew exactly which places we are weak in, how to improve membership there. He would know each and every important functionary at Hobli and taluk level in those areas. He knows them by first name.”

Kumar adds: “Whenever you go to his room, you will see a bunch of newly-arrived books on his teapoy. He keeps reading – on ecology, environment, China relations, defence, different ideologies.”

Ravi says it is the focus on weak-spots that has helped BJP in the last decade in Karnataka.

“Earlier BJP was known as the party popular in the coastal regions or the urban regions or among Lingayats. But now in 2019, it is a pan-Karnataka party. If BJP is strong in Shimoga district, Santhosh would focus on Bhadravati (Assembly segment) where BJP has never won. And whatever he takes up, he would have statistics and data on that beforehand,” says Ravi.

Since his elevation as joint organisational general secretary in 2014, Santhosh has worked as the in-charge of the Gorakhpur region in the UP Assembly elections (in 2017), in the northeast, in Goa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry, Lakshadweep and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

Frosty relation

It is Santhosh who is credited with grooming and finding new faces as candidates for the party in earlier elections too – like Janardhan Swamy, a techie who returned from the US to his district in Chitradurga to become an MP in 2009, Pratap Simha, the journalist-turned MP from Mysore, and most recently, Tejasvi Surya, the surprise MP candidate from Bangalore South after it was decided that Union Minister Ananth Kumar’s widow Tejaswini will not be fielded.

His relations with Yeddyurappa, though, aren’t much to boast of. Months ahead of the 2018 elections, Yeddyurappa had publicly blamed Santhosh for the internal rebellion he was facing. At the time, an OBC leader from his own district Shimoga, KS Eshwarappa, had rebelled against the party by floating an organisation called the ‘Sangolli Rayanna brigade’ and organising conventions that BJP was not a part of.

Yeddyurappa had openly criticised Santhosh for working against him, while party insiders say that Santhosh had only sought to rein in Yeddyurappa and his penchant to make caste-based appointments to all party-posts.

But with Santhosh now appointed to a post from where he can call the shots, the moot question is whether it will have a ripple effect on the politics in Karnataka.

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