The saffron party's old warhorse in Karnataka is on its last leg. Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa, 78, is likely to step down after he completes two years in office on July 26. The BJP is chalking out a smooth transition of power in the state and a graceful exit for one of its most popular mass leaders.
The saffron party's hints that it would replace Yediyurappa have unsettled the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, the BJP's core vote bank. For decades, Yediyurappa, the tallest Lingayat leader in Karnataka, has managed to hold the community together, giving the BJP a sound vote base on which BJP could build on by consolidating smaller communities. Today, if the pontiffs of the Lingayat mutts are rallying behind Yediyurappa demanding a "full term" for him, it is a show of gratitude not just for the benevolence shown by the veteran leader (by way of huge dole-outs to religious mutts) but also for helping the politically and numerically strong community continue to wield power in the state.
Replacing Yediyurappa's huge political capital—the unflinching support of a community that holds sway over at least 100 assembly constituencies in the north Karnataka region—is not easy. Yet, the undisputed leader has to step down as the party has waited long enough to pave the way for new leadership in the state.
In Karnataka, the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community which accounts for nearly 17 per cent of the state's population, has grown into a politically and socially strong group that has tasted political power and held high offices. The community is known to be staunch supporters of the BJP. The community is spread across the state and concentrated in Dharwad, Bijapur, Belagavi, Mysuru, Gulbarga, Chitradurga, Shimoga, Raichur, Haveri, Davangere and Tumkur districts. It holds sway in at least 100 Assembly seats.
Out of the 224 Assembly constituencies in Karnataka, at least 150 constituencies have sizeable Lingayat votes—10,000 to 50,000—that can impact the electoral outcome. Almost 80 seats are controlled by Lingayats.
The political dominance of the Lingayats was not restricted to Independent India. Kannada scholar late Dr M.M. Kalburgi identified 192 Veerashaiva royal and feudatory families (documented 25 families) including Kodagu and Vijayanagara empire rulers, according to S.H. Patil in his book Community Dominance and Political Modernisation: The Lingayats (2002).
The Lingayats, like the Vokkaligas, who account for 12 per cent of the population, were hereditary village heads too (with surnames such as Patil, Patel and Gouda). When D. Devaraj Urs became the chief minister, he abolished the hereditary offices to end the political dominance of Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Yet, the social and economic status of the community wielded enough influence in the villages.
Out of the 23 chief ministers of Karnataka, eight have been Lingayats—S. Nijalingappa (Nov 1, 1956 – May 16, 1958 and June 21, 1962 – May 29, 1968), B.D. Jatti (May 16, 1958 – March 9, 1962), S.R. Kanthi(March 14, 1962 – June 20, 1962), Veerendra Patil (May 29, 1968 – March 18, 1971 and November 30, 1989 – October 10, 1990), S.R. Bommai (August 13, 1988 – April 21, 1989), J.H. Patel (May 31, 1996 – October 07, 1999), B.S. Yeddyurappa (May 30, 2008 – July 31, 2011) and Jagadish Shivappa Shettar (July 12, 2012 – 8 May 2013).
A turning point for the BJP came when Veerendra Patil was unceremoniously removed by Rajiv Gandhi, and the community shifted its loyalty from Congress to the BJP. In 2008, Yediyurappa installed the first BJP government in Karnataka and has remained the most powerful Lingayat leader.
Changing equation between Yediyurappa and community
The last year has seen dissent and resentment brewing within the party’s rank and file. Poor governance and corruption charges are once again denting the party’s image, say BJP insiders. The first stint of Yediyurappa as the chief minister had ended up threatening the existence of the party. In 2011, Yediyurappa had been forced to step down after he was named an accused in the LokAyukta report on illegal mining. He spent 21 days in jail, and the incident dealt a body blow to the party.
This time, however, the BJP leadership is cautious to avoid such embarrassment to the party and its leader too. So, the party is hoping to save itself the blushes by initiating a change of guard much ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections.
Yediyurappa is feeling the heat. He suddenly finds himself isolated within the party as his close coterie too seems alienated with his overdependence on his family members. It is also alleged that the Lingayat strongman has been sidelining his community leaders too, with his younger son Vijayendra's growing clout within the party and also the government.
Last year, two anonymous letters seeking a change in leadership exposed the silent brewing of factions within the BJP. The letter heaped praises on Yediyurappa as “the man who built the party” in the state, but also expressed concern over his "old age" and "health" and sought his "honourable exit" from politics. The letter also mentioned that the CM’s family was interfering in the affairs of the government.
The party leadership acknowledges him as a mass leader who changed the saffron party’s political fortunes in a Congress-ruled state. It is aware that there is a dearth of second-rung leadership in the state and can ill afford to lose the support of the Lingayat community, its core vote bank by sidelining Yediyurappa. The BJP wants to avoid antagonising the community by sidelining a popular leader.
Yediyurappa has manoeuvred through difficult situations to have a stranglehold on the community. In October 2018, when the JDS-Congress coalition government sent a proposal demanding minority status for the Lingayats, the Centre rejected it. The proposal resulted in a political face-off between the Congress and BJP, with the latter accusing Siddaramaiah of trying to divide the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community for electoral gains ahead of the crucial Assembly election. The Lingayat movement that was led by Congress minister M.B. Patil ahead of the May 2018 Assembly polls backfired and sitting ministers from the Lingayat belt lost the election.
The community firmly backed Yediyurappa, and the BJP won 104 seats in the 2018 Assembly polls and 25 out of the 28 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls too.
A major challenge to Yediyurappa's leadership came from within his party in February this year. The Panchamasalis, a dominant subsect of the Lingayat community that is engaged in farming, took out a 450-km-long padayatra from Kudalasangama (Bagalkote) to the state capital, demanding a change in reservation quota—a shift from the 3B (5 per cent quota) to the 2A category (15 per cent quota) in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation category. Interestingly, Yediyurappa's cabinet colleagues C.C. Patil, Murugesh Nirani and Vijayapura MP Basanagouda Patil Yatnal (a bitter critic of Yediyurappa) all backed the movement. For the first time, many Lingayat leaders and the pontiffs started demanding better political representation for all sects of Lingayats, including the chief minister's post. Yediyurappa belongs to the Ganiga subsect.
Knowing Yediyurappa's political astuteness and popularity, it came as no surprise to see the party forgive his rebellion and welcome him back into its fold in 2014, after he had quit the BJP to float a new party, the KJP, in 2011. The KJP had ripped away 10 per cent of BJP’s vote share, mainly of the dominant Lingayat community, reducing the national party to 40 seats in 2013. Yediyurappa was made the party president and BJP’s CM candidate for the 2018 Assembly elections. The party once again made an exception for Yediyurappa and allowed him to occupy the CM’s chair at 76, despite the unspoken rule against those above 75 being made heads of states.
In its bid to change the rules of engagement with state leaders and wean the party off its dependency on any one community or leader, the BJP looks to replace Yediyurappa.
The process of broad-basing the party began two years ago with the appointment of three deputies—Govind Karjol (Dalit), Laxman Savadi (Lingayat), and Dr C.N. Ashwathnarayan (Vokkaliga).
This was part of the altered strategy to shift its Lingayat-centric politics to one that assimilates all castes and communities in order to achieve a pan-Karnataka party image.
The party today certainly has a long line-up of CM aspirants: Former chief minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda, ministers R. Ashok and Dr Ashwath Narayan and BJP national general secretary C.T. Ravi are possible candidates from among the Vokkaligas; other candidates include K.S Eshwarappa (Kuruba), Govind Karjol and Union Minister Prahlad Joshi (Brahmin). Among the Lingayat leaders are Jagadish Shettar, Murugesh Nirani, Arvind Bellad, Basavaraj Bommai, Lakshman Savadi and Basanagouda Patil Yatnal. However, the chances of a dark horse emerging from the fray cannot be ruled out in the BJP.
The big question is whether the BJP will choose another Lingayat leader as the next chief minister—or risk projecting a non-Lingayat face to lead the party in the state.