Karnataka’s chief minister (CM) BS Yediyurappa and his son, BY Vijayendra, have been making trips to Lingayat mathas (mutt) or monasteries, meeting pontiffs, in what is widely seen as an effort to rally the support of a community that has largely sided with the 78-year-old leader.
With key Lingayat leaders making politically charged statements in favour of the CM, speculation is rife that the 78-year-old is trying to consolidate the support base that has so far considered him the “uncrowned” political leader of the community. This, in turn, has also spawned speculation about why the CM has felt the need to rally his base at this particular time — and whether his position is indeed under threat.
The main pontiff of Bekkina Kal Matha, Mallikarjun Murugharajendra Swami, on Saturday, said that people should not talk of a leadership change in Karnataka.
“No one should talk of a change in leadership which will be a bigger disaster for Karnataka than the Covid-19 pandemic,” the seer said, with Yediyurappa by his side.
The rise of Yediyurappa
In 2008, BS Yediyurappa led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in Karnataka — the first time the party, conventionally seen as a north Indian outfit, attained electoral and political success in any south Indian state. It was also the product of a long personal and political struggle, which started in 1983 when Yediyurappa first entered the legislative assembly.
HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) had broken the alliance with the BJP after nearly two years in power since 2006. He was accused of denying Yediyurappa his turn in becoming CM, which was said to be a part of an earlier agreement between the two parties. Lingayats, believed to be the single largest caste group in Karnataka, saw the denial of the chief ministership to Yediyurappa as an “injustice” to the community.
But while he did make it to power, Yediyurappa’s term since 2008 was riddled with allegations of corruption, infighting, and the surfacing of the illegal iron-ore scam, allegedly masterminded by Gali Janardhana Reddy, who herded legislators to a resort, seeking the removal of Yediyurappa.
But the party’s central leadership at the time was weak, compared to what is in place today with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah and JP Nadda helming affairs. The party leadership allowed Yediyurappa to step down but still retain control of the government and party by getting a replacement of his choice. Not once but twice — the first time with DV Sadananda Gowda, who was then replaced with Jagadish Shettar.
However, Yediyurappa’s difficulties with BJP had become insurmountable from his perspective. He left the party to form the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) in 2012, reducing the BJP from its tally of 110 out of the 224 seats in 2008 to a mere 40 seats in 2013.
“In 2011, when Yediyurappa resigned (from the post of chief minister) there was no one like (Narendra) Modi, our party was not in power at the Centre, our party was not as strong as it is now. We had power only in four states. That time, Yediyurappa was 100 times stronger than he is today but even then the central party got him to resign. Now, times have changed,” said a senior national leader of the BJP, requesting not to be named.
The TINA factor for the BJP
While it was with Modi’s rise that Yediyurappa returned to the party, the past few years have seen murmurs of a rift between Delhi and Bengaluru as far as the BJP is concerned. Yediyurappa was said to be more keen in staking claim to form the government when BJP did not have the numbers, and then engaging in a strong political offensive to win over defectors. But his political strength in the state was such that the BJP leadership did not want to upset the equations, and was happy to have another state in their kitty. To do so, however, the party had to make a rare compromise — allowing a 75+ leader to occupy executive office, when all other such leaders have been asked to make way for the next generation.
The tensions haven’t subsided through — particularly with regard to the CM’s tenure, appointments, and the political future of his family.
While a segment of the BJP leadership, according to party insiders, believes that it can replace Yediyurappa, the party remains wary of a backlash from both the CM and his support base. Unlike the bloodless transition of power in Uttarakhand, Karnataka has been firmly in the control of local chieftains such as Yediyurappa or even Siddaramaiah of the Congress who have firmly resisted any possible interference by their respective central leadership. Former prime minister HD Deve Gowda has played a key role on more than one occasion, negotiating and oscillating between the two national parties, successfully accommodating his son Kumaraswamy as CM twice despite a proportionally lower number of seats compared to the other two.
Analysts said that the BJP also does not have an acceptable replacement and is well aware of the damage the 78-year-old can cause if he is removed in haste.
Some of Yediyurappa’s demands, people aware of the developments said, was to allow him to complete his term till 2023 at least and accommodate his son, BY Vijayendra.
“When the time is right, he (Vijayendra) might also be considered based on his abilities. But not on account of his father. He has already enjoyed all bonuses the party has extended to Yediyurappa,” the BJP national leader cited above said.
The BJP, which stormed to power at the Centre in 2014, specifically targeted the Congress for its “dynastic politics”. Yediyurappa is not the only leader who has propped up his family in the BJP, but in Karnataka, his family’s involvement is conspicuous. Another of his sons, BY Raghavendra, is the Member of Parliament from Shivamogga, the CM’s home district.
But the central leadership’s diktats haven’t worked in Yediyurappa’s case. Unlike its strategy in other states, including Uttar Pradesh in 2017, the BJP did announce Yediyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate exactly a year before the 2018 elections. The recent rumblings within the party and government have barely dented Yediyurappa’s confidence that he is the rightful and only claimant to the job.
The intra-organisational rift
“For the next two years, I will be CM and will focus more on development works for the state,” Yediyurappa said last week, exuding confidence.
One of his known detractors is BL Santosh, the national general secretary (organisation), who has so far been unable to replace Yediyurappa but has kept a close eye on Karnataka, people aware of the developments said.
A Bengaluru-based political analyst said that any direct effort by Santosh would lead to the regrouping of the Lingayat support base that, at the moment, appears disenchanted with Yediyurappa. “The community stood by him all these years despite knowing he was corrupt. But there is resentment towards his other activities,” said a BJP legislator, requesting anonymity. Any drastic move could however change social equations.
The mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis has added to the CM’s challenges, and plays to the advantage of his detractors both within the party and in the Opposition. But the Congress is mired in its own share of infighting between state Congress president DK Shivakumar and legislature party leader Siddaramaiah.
Political analysts said that Yediyurappa has, over the years, become this popular and powerful on account of his caste-based politics and coalition-building abilities, which few others in his party can claim.
“At the moment, the Lingayat support base to the BJP is routed through Yediyurappa,” A Narayana, political analyst and faculty at the Azim Premji University said. He added the BJP may have no reason to retain Yediyurappa but will not be able to remove him either, unless the CM does not give his consent and is not party to the larger plan.
“He has an ability to get people to do what he wants,” said one Bengaluru-based analyst, requesting not to be named.
The analyst also added that those calling for Yediyurappa’s removal are also well aware that the power they enjoy is because of the latter’s almost single-handed effort.
In an interview with ThePrint, Vijayendra once said that BJP and Yediyurappa are synonymous. And this is probably the biggest challenge for the party as it navigates its troubled relationship with its own CM.