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BJP’s Muthalik whodunnit

- Skirmishing camps locked in blame game after flip-flop
Pramod Muthalik (right) joins the BJP in the presence of former Karnataka chief minister Jagadish Shettar (left) in Hubli on Sunday. (PTI)

March 23: The BJP was left red-faced today when its Karnataka unit recruited a vigilante group chief, only for a “surprised” central leadership to revoke the step after an outcry even among pro-BJP Twitterati.

Pramod Muthalik heads the Sri Ram Sene, known for beating up women pub-goers and young couples in parks, vandalising restaurants for allowing Valentine’s Day celebrations, and attacking churches during the erstwhile BJP rule in Karnataka.

A byword for bigotry, the 51-year-old — who made global news when young Indian women mailed him hundreds of pink chaddis (briefs) as part of a campaign — seems to have been too far controversial even for a Narendra Modi-led BJP.

Party sources claimed the top brass knew nothing about his induction, and tried to use the development to blacken the L.K. Advani camp, locked in a tussle with the current pro-Modi dispensation.

They claimed the “operation” had been planned by general secretary Ananth Kumar and his acolyte Prahlad Joshi, the state unit chief, in tandem with Advani and Sushma Swaraj to “discredit” Modi and show him up as a “Hindutva hardliner”.

“Just when Modi is trying hard to keep his focus on development and governance, this trio is putting spokes in the wheel. I swear Joshi would not have done this without Ananth’s blessings,” a Karnataka BJP source said.

Ananth was not available for a response.

The BJP’s political opponents had been quick to react. A Congress spokesperson highlighted the “phenomenal expose” on the BJP’s “true colours” and the Aam Aadmi Party accused the BJP of wooing “regressive elements” to polarise voters.

Even pro-BJP netizens created a link called “No Muthalik” to marshal opposition to his entry.

So, hours after Joshi, former chief minister Jagadish Shettar and senior leader K.S. Eshwarappa had exchanged sweets, smiles and pats with Muthalik and a statement had confirmed his entry, the state BJP sent out a retraction.

It said: “Due to various reasons, induction of Pramod Muthalik has been set aside under central party direction by the state president Prahlad Joshi.”

Sources said Muthalik might respond tomorrow.

Goa spanner

A Goa BJP source said that a phone call from chief minister Manohar Parrikar to party president Rajnath Singh, demanding Muthalik’s induction be immediately scrapped, had stirred the party brass into action.

Parrikar had tried hard to grow a “secular and inclusive” image before the 2012 Goa elections and succeeded partially. He realised that Muthalik’s entry would rattle his state’s Christians who remember the Sene attacks on churches and Christian homes in Karnataka districts bordering Goa.

In July 2012, when Muthalik had threatened to come to Goa and do a Karnataka repeat, Parrikar had warned him he would be arrested on the border. The Sene chief stayed away.

Sources said that Rajnath, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari exchanged notes after Parrikar’s call and rang the Karnataka leaders.

The sources admitted that episodes of this kind raised the question whether the “Modi wave” was a myth. “People are saying, ‘If there is a Modi wave, why are our candidates resorting to desperate tactics like this one?’” a party official said.

Second attempt

In the run-up to last year’s Assembly polls, Muthalik had tried to persuade the BJP to field him from Belgaum North, but objections from the local leadership had sunk his attempt.

This time, following Modi’s spate of visits to the state, Muthalik had threatened to contest from Hubli-Dharwad against sitting MP Joshi to “teach the BJP a lesson for going soft on the real agenda”.

Joshi was apparently “seriously worried” that Muthalik, a Marathi speaker from Belgaum, would lure away the hard-core Hindu votes.

At the induction, Muthalik announced the Sene’s merger into the BJP and said: “I have joined in keeping with the instructions of the Sangh parivar as we all want to make Narendra Modi the next Prime Minister.”

He did not explain what “instructions” he had received and from whom.

The former Bajrang Dal member was part of the Shiv Sena in 2005 before he started the Sene a year later. He is yet to contest an election.