Will ‘Raja Huli’ Yediyurappa Convince BJP to Keep Him?

The Karnataka chief minister is continuing in office only “because the BJP hasn’t found an acceptable replacement.”

Updated
Politics
5 min read
Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa’s sheen as the unquestionable leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be waning.
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Enmeshed in a gamut of challenges – sleaze CD row pertaining to his colleague Ramesh Jarkiholi, demand for reservation from Panchamasalis, a sub-sect of his own Lingayat community, and opposition from loyal party legislators – Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa’s sheen as the unquestionable leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be waning.

Added to that is a complaint against him that sitting Karnataka BJP minister Eshwarapppa filed before the state’s governor Vajubhai Vala on Wednesday, 31 March. The minister has accused the CM of favouring his kin. On the same day, the Karnataka High Court ordered a probe into the allegation that Yediyurappa tried to “poach an MLA” from JD(S) in 2019.

What’s Troubling Yediyurappa?

The sharp instinct which Yediyurappa was known for, when he floated the Karnataka Janata Paksha in 2012, crippling the BJP’s prospects in 29 constituencies in the 2013 Assembly elections, is now missing in the 78-year-old veteran. His confrontationist attitude has been replaced with that of compromise and cooperation.

Though entrusted with a minority government after he dislodged the JD(S)-Congress coalition in July 2019, Yediyurappa managed to win a majority in the House with the aid of Congress-JD(S) turncoats who later won 12 of the 15 Assembly seats in by-polls. However, his political trajectory from then to now has been one of firefighting.

The BJP’s central leadership has been keeping him on tenterhooks. First, the party bigwigs had delayed a nod for his Cabinet – and the Centre delayed a release of flood-relief to Karnataka. His Cabinet colleagues are being questioned for mismanaging COVID-19 pandemic, and the Panchamasali Lingayats, Kuruba and Valmiki castes have been clamouring for a hike in their reservation percentage.

Most worryingly, the BJP national leadership did not take any serious action, except for issuing a showcause notice against the party’s MLA Basangouda Patil Yatnal who has been questioning Yediyurappa’s government.

Yatnal’s recent jibe, that the BJP will not win the three upcoming by-polls scheduled on 17 April under the leadership of Yediyurappa, has also not been censured by the party.

Dwindling Command, Growing Age

According to political analyst S Mahadeva Prakash, Yediyurappa has been putting in his best efforts, but he has failed to curb his losing grip over his community who constitute 17 percent of the total population in the state.

“Yediyurappa’s image as the undisputed leader of the Lingayats is definitely lost. The 700-km walkathon from Kudala Sangama in Bagalkot to Bengaluru led by Basava Jaya Mruthyunjaya Swami of the Lingayat Panchamasali Peetha signals this. This rally was similar to the one held during unification of Karnataka in 1956. None thought the response will be overwhelming, and even Yediyurappa at the helm of power has not been able to mobilise such an event.”
S Mahadeva Prakash

Moreover, his growing age will be a liability for the BJP during Assembly elections scheduled for 2023. The BJP has been boasting that it does not give tickets to leaders who are above 75 years.

“Yediyurappa is gradually losing hold as the unchallenged leader. His party legislators are aware that he does not have the complete support of the high command. At the same time, Yediyurappa knows that his chances of being renominated as the chief minister in the event of the BJP returning to power in 2023 are bleak due to the party’s age-bar factor,” BL Shankar, chairman of the state Congress media and communication department, said.

The BJP leadership, ironically, echoed the same concerns.

“There is no coordination between the BJP government and the state unit which is purportedly controlled by the party’s national general secretary BL Santhosh. Three deputy chief ministers were imposed on him when he was against such appointments. His Cabinet colleagues are working at cross-purposes, there are charges of corruption against the government and his own party MLAs are complaining of him sidelining them,’’ a BJP functionary said.

Can the BJP Dispense of Yediyurappa?

Amid frequent speculations of a change of guard, party insiders rule out such a possibility as the central BJP leadership has been unable to find a replacement for Yediyurappa.

The BJP’s lifeline to a steady increase in its electoral tally has been the Lingayat community, which has a decisive presence in over 100 of the total 224 Assembly constituencies in Karnataka. Of the total 104 seats, the BJP won in 2018 polls, 81 were from north Karnataka where the Lingayats are in a majority.

The Lingayats, who were a Congress vote base, shifted loyalty to other parties after the former unceremoniously dismissed Chief Minister Veerandra Patil, a Lingayat, in 1990. In 1989, Patil was the leader who had mobilised the Lingayats and the Congress had won 179 out of 224 seats in Assembly polls that year.

Following Patil’s exit, the Congress was drubbed in the 1994 Assembly polls, when it won only 36 seats. Though the JD(S) had come to power that year, it was the BJP which was the ultimate beneficiary as the Lingayats started shifting their base to Yediyurappa’s camp.

The Rising Son

Since the 2018 Assembly polls, in the 17 by-polls held so far, the BJP has been successful in expanding its base from the Lingayat-dominated constituencies to the Vokkaliga belt in the old Mysuru area.

This has resulted in chief minister aspirants springing from other communities. However, Yediyurappa’s 44-year-old son BY Vijayendra tops the list of upcoming leaders of the BJP. Now, there are complaints against him for interfering with his father’s administration. He is known as the “super CM” and this tag has irked the BJP bosses in New Delhi.

Though the BJP national leadership had reportedly told Yediyurappa to keep his family members away from the administration, continuing interference has not stopped, BJP insiders say. Two unsigned letters sent to the national leadership in March 2020 had complained of Yediyurappa failing health and Vijayendra’s interference in the government.

Finding a successor to Yediyurappa, however, should not be a daunting task, said Prakash. Political parties always find successors.

“In 1968, when S Nijalingappa was elected as the AICC president, the question was who would succeed him as Karnataka’s CM? They found a candidate in Veerendra Patil, who turned out to be the best chief minister.’’
S Mahadeva Prakash

According to him, the BJP should groom a successor now without limiting the search to the Lingayat caste group. From among the Vokkaliga caste, deputy chief minister CN Ashwath Narayan and revenue minister R Ashoka could be the probables. Among the Lingayats, industries minister Jagadish Shettar, who was chief minister for one term, Hubballi-Dharwad West MLA Arvind Bellad and Yatnal himself could be tested.

Yediyurappa, who is affectionately called Raja Huli or king tiger by his supporters, be leading the BJP campaign in 2023?

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Siddaramaiah government a 10 percent sarkar during the 2018 elections. Now he is silent on not only the corruption charges against the Yediyurappa government, but also his attempts to foist dynasty politics in Karnataka,” a party observer said.

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