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An Inevitable Measure: Why Yeddyurappa's Son Was Made BJP President in Karnataka

As a leader of the Lingayats, Vijayendra represents a tribe whose presence in the state is loud in every sense.

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A lot has changed in Karnataka's politics and yet nothing has.

That seems to be the paradoxical message from the southern state last week after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) named Bookanakere Yediyurappa Vijayendra as the president of its state unit.

To seasoned political observers, the appointment of the first-time MLA should come not as a surprise but as a calculated risk aimed at giving away a pawn or two to gain a powerful rook and a bishop in the state's complex chessboard.

The BJP's new electoral warlord happens to be the son of B S Yediyurappa, four times former chief minister, and thus stands in ironic contradiction to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's battle cry against parivarvaad (dynastic rule) in politics.

However, in anointing the son of a corruption-scandal-accused state leader, it deftly sidesteps (at least in a technical sense) the charge that it encourages corruption. After all, you can argue that the son has an identity distinct from his father.

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What Vijayendra Represents

At a relatively young 47 years, Vijayendra may appeal more to youthful voters and also help the BJP counter Lingayat leader Jagadish Shettar, who is now with the Congress. Shettar had left the BJP after being denied a party ticket in state elections earlier this year.

The BJP seems to be smartly ducking the charge that it only pays lip service against dynastic politics by pointing to two things.

One, that dynastic rule essentially refers to the Congress party because one political dynasty (the Nehru-Gandhi family) is in control of an entire national party, and secondly, that a political scion rising within the ranks of a broad-based political organisation through hard work or talent is acceptable.

Look beyond the nuances of what constitutes a dynasty or not, and you will find that Vijayendra's appointment is almost an inevitable measure for the BJP to keep its chances alive and reasonable in Karnataka.

As a leader of the powerful Lingayat community, Vijayendra represents a tribe whose presence in the state's electoral politics is loud in every sense: the vote, socio-economic influence, and agenda-setting.

There is a twist to the old tale that Karnataka is in effect led by two unofficial political groupings: the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas.

Historically, the communities rivalling each other in ambition have been courted by both the Congress and the BJP. However, the Congress rode to power in assembly elections in Karnataka earlier this year with a distinct OBC-Vokkaliga flavour that made the Lingayats an automatic fallback for the BJP.

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Fortifying Support Among the Lingayats

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has successfully stamped the mark of the arrival of other backward castes (OBCs) in the state's politics at higher levels.

He is a member of the backward Kuruba community who also has a penchant for aggregating Dalit and minority Muslim voters who form a traditional support base for the Congress. As a 'social third force', OBCs form a 'new normal' for the state long used to the Tweedledum-Tweedledee dynamics of the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas.

The arrival of the shrewd, wealthy, and politically savvy strategist D K Shivakumar as both a key party organiser as well as a member of the Vokkaliga community with strong interests in farming and the southern Mysore belt has meant a lot for the Congress party. It has more or less thrown its weight behind the V factor.

It is natural, therefore, for the BJP to fortify its support among the rival Lingayats.

The Lingayats do not fit easily into any ideological matrix and have ambition written all over their moves. They have organised religious mutts with pontiffs who form a parallel political system akin to the fan clubs of politically active movie stars in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

They are also said to have more than 1,000 active mutts in Karnataka. Think of them as distribution centres for political power and recruitment centres for voters.

For the BJP, if there is one southern state where it has a fair chance of winning power on its own, it is Karnataka. For Modi to retain the claim that the BJP is not a north-centric or north-focused party, the state is crucial, and the Lingayats constitute an easy logistical domain.

Inviting drawing room murmurs that it is not walking its talk on dynastic politics is a small price to pay for the BJP in regaining a large footprint in Karnataka, especially because Modi faces an increasingly challenging situation in northern states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Bihar.

It helps that though the Lingayats are counted as devotees of Lord Shiva in the Hindu pantheon, the cultural history and philosophy they espouse go against the conservative ethos of the northern Hindutva traditions.

With a strong presence in northern Karnataka's arid zones, the Lingayats also provide a wider geographical reach for the BJP's state-level ambitions.

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JD (S) to the Left, Lingayats to the Right

The Lingayats, who are often highly educated and wield influence in professions like medicine and engineering, follow Basava, a 12th-century poet who challenged caste discrimination and orthodox worship.

Their heterodox cult officially preaches equality among faiths and genders. Many lower or backward caste members of the Hindu society had converted to become Lingayats in order to escape rigid casteism.

While Lingayats form a key trump card for the BJP, it must be added that the saffron party is also trying to pull the rug from under the feet of the Congress through its recent born-again alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) led by former PM H D Deve Gowda.

The JD (S), which formally joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance two months ago, is for all practical purposes a Vokkaliga/farmer grouping. Its rout in the state elections in the Mysore belt this year and the rise of Shivakumar has made it go towards the BJP.

It may only be a minor Jack in the BJP's shiny deck of electoral cards, which is a steep fall from its own kingmaker image. But every bit counts now for the BJP in the fluid politics of the state.

With the JD(S) to its left (ideologically speaking) and the Lingayats to its right, Modi's shaky juggernaut gets oiled wheels to run as the BJP faces general elections in 2024.

The Congress has already successfully perfected a populist "guarantee" schemes strategy in the state. The BJP is matching its every move.

Having powerful community leaders and its old Hindutva plank that appeals to voters a lot in the coastal districts of the state gives the party a go-to ballast that it badly needs.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  BJP   KARNATAKA   Yeddyurappa 

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