The ‘resignation’ of four-time Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, nearly two years before his term was set to end, marks the end of an era not just in Karnataka politics but in the history of the Bharatiya Janata Party. At 78, Yediyurappa has had over half-a-century of association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He has been a veteran who not only witnessed the transformation of the erstwhile Jana Sangh into the BJP but has played a key part in ensuring that the BJP was transformed into a meaningful political force in Karnataka, capable of winning elections and coming into power on its own.
First elected to the Karnataka legislative assembly back in 1983, he has been a key figure in state politics, either as chief minister or leader of the opposition, a post he has held three times. Other than a short stint in Delhi as a member of Parliament in 2014, when Narendra Modi swept the BJP to power at the Centre, he has been at the centre of political calculations, often proving to be as much of a thorn in the BJP’s flesh as the opposition’s.
Despite many ups and downs, and frequent rebellions within the ranks, Yediyurappa had managed to out-manoeuvre his opponents and force a comeback. The last time he was eased out, in 2012, he had defiantly launched his own party and staged a ‘ghar wapsi’ on his own terms. In fact, the BJP would not be ruling Karnataka – its only bastion in the south – today, if it hadn’t been for his skill in engineering defections from the Congress.
By making Yediyurappa leave quietly – he even ‘thanked’ the BJP high command for letting him work for two years, the party has sent two important messages, not just to its workers and supporters in Karnataka but to the entire party organisation around the country, particularly its regional leaders. That message is that it is now the central leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah who will be calling all the shots and deciding who gets to play what kind of role, whether at the state or the Centre.
In many ways, Yediyurappa’s exit marks the end of the end of the Vajpayee-Advani era in the BJP. Apart from Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Yediyurappa was the only other BJP chief minister with a strong personal following in his own state, who was capable of winning elections on his own power without depending on Narendra Modi’s vote-pulling power.
Although a lifelong member of the RSS, Yediyurappa was a consummate player of political calculus, leveraging his position as the tallest leader of the politically powerful Lingayat community and its network of religious institutions, to build an alliance with other communities, particularly Dalits and OBCs. In fact, religious leaders of the Lingayat community had made clear their displeasure to the BJP high command at the attempts to dislodge Yediyurappa.
That the BJP has gone ahead with this risky bet – Yediyurappa may have gone quietly but not willingly, and despite his age, is still active in politics – shows the Modi-Shah duo’s urgency in reshaping the party at the state-level before the next Lok Sabha elections in 2024. The BJP clearly wants a new face to lead it in the next state and Parliament elections.
Yediyurappa’s exit marks the end of the powerful regional leader in BJP, to be replaced by other leaders who will be beholden to the central command for their position in office. But finding someone with Yediyurappa’s political cunning and ability to shrug off setbacks – he even managed a triumphant comeback after being jailed on corruption charges – will be tough for the BJP. Choosing a leader outside the powerful Lingayat community may also erode its political currency in the state, although the other dominant caste, the Vokkaligas, have been chafing under the dominion of the Lingayats.
It remains to be seen what kind of price the outgoing chief minister has managed to extract from the party leadership for his ‘quiet’ exit. He has, of course, been pushing the cause of his son B Y Vijayendra. In fact, it was Vijayendra’s rise as the power behind the throne which led to the current revolt by the anti-Yediyurappa faction in the BJP. In fact, the induction of his close associate Shobha Karandlaje into the Union council of ministers was widely seen as a measure to appease him.
It may be too early to write Yediyurappa’s political obituary but the legacy he leaves behind is at best mixed. Corruption allegations have dogged his four stints in office, not even one of which he managed to complete. His closeness to the notorious Reddy brothers of Bellary, and his alleged involvement in land and mining deals have been a black mark against a party which has tried to project the image of being a corruption fighter. On the other hand, Yediyurappa can be credited with the invention of ‘Operation Lotus’, engineering defections and toppling opposition governments, which the BJP has used to good effect elsewhere.
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