Why Yediyurappa is still BJP's best bet in Karnataka polls

BJP has brought on the retired leader to placate Lingayats in a bid to retain power

20-Yediyurappa-with-Ravi Mass appeal: Yediyurappa with C.T. Ravi (waving) and other BJP leaders at an election rally in Chitradurga | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Wearing a spotless white safari suit and a dot of vermillion on his forehead, B.S. Yediyurappa walked out of the puja room and through the corridor of his Bengaluru home. He glanced at the verandah and the meeting rooms full of people, but headed straight to the cowshed in the backyard to pet the new calf before heading back in.

Come election season, and ‘Cauvery’―the official residence of the former chief minister in the capital―is once again at the centre of all the action. The BJP has pulled Yediyurappa out of a near two-year hiatus to lead its campaign alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Just last month, Modi had walked hand in hand with Yediyurappa after inaugurating the new airport in Shivamogga, the veteran’s home turf, on his 80th birthday. It was a rare spectacle that pointed to Yediyurappa’s relevance in state politics; he is still synonymous with the BJP in Karnataka. The airport, under the Centre’s UDAN scheme, is expected to boost tourism in the Malnad region. Yediyurappa’s return is expected to boost the BJP’s chances in the elections.

On the dais, Modi asked the audience to switch on their phone lights to show their appreciation for Yediyurappa’s contributions to the state. The camaraderie between the two leaders was, as BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya tweeted, “An acknowledgement of BSY’s seminal role in opening the gates of south India for the BJP.”

The gesture reasserted the Lingayat strongman’s uncontested stature as a mass leader who, like Modi, is a vote catcher. The old war horse continues to have a stranglehold on the party’s core vote bank, the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, which makes up 17 per cent of the state’s population and holds sway in at least 100 of the 224 assembly seats. It has given Karnataka nine of its 23 chief ministers.

It was in 2008 that Yediyurappa installed the first BJP government in south India. Now, a decade and a half later, he is trying to do it again, though this time not as a candidate (he has retired from electoral politics). Karnataka will go to the polls on May 10.

The BJP’s desperation to hold on to the Lingayat support is obvious; the community is still miffed with the party for removing its tallest leader from the chief minister’s post.

The situation is reminiscent of 1990, when the Congress, led by Rajiv Gandhi, removed an ailing Veerendra Patil as chief minister. Gandhi had announced the decision to replace Patil with S. Bangarappa, a backward class leader, at the Bengaluru airport. The Lingayat community immediately switched to the BJP.

And after it found a strong leader who could “protect their interests”―Yediyurappa―the community never left his side.

After the 2008 victory, Yediyurappa became so popular that he overshadowed the BJP in Karnataka. He was a moderate in a party that preached hindutva, and had the courage to take decisions independent of the national leadership.

But his tenure was marked by charges of corruption and he had to, reluctantly, step down as chief minister after the Lokayukta indicted him in an illegal mining case. After spending time in jail, a bitter Yediyurappa left the BJP to form the Karnataka Janata Paksha; he took with him several BJP leaders. The party contested the 2013 assembly elections and cornered 10 per cent of the votes. The BJP, reduced to 40 from 110, realised it needed him back.

Yediyurappa merged the KJP with the BJP in 2014; the BJP made him state president in 2016. Under his leadership, the party won 104 seats in the 2018 assembly elections, but could not form the government―the Congress and the JD(S) formed a coalition government, but it fell in 2019, thanks to the BJP’s machinations. Earlier in the year, Yediyurappa had led the BJP to wins in 25 of 28 Lok Sabha seats.

Two years down the line, though, there was speculation that there would be a change in leadership. Yediyurappa has crossed 75 (the BJP’s cut-off age for those in office) and he still carried the scars of the corruption scandal. Basavaraj Bommai was named his successor.

Modi walked hand in hand with Yediyurappa after inaugurating the new airport in Shivamogga. It was a rare spectacle that pointed to Yediyurappa’s relevance in state politics | PTI Modi walked hand in hand with Yediyurappa after inaugurating the new airport in Shivamogga. It was a rare spectacle that pointed to Yediyurappa’s relevance in state politics | PTI

A few days before Yediyurappa stepped down as chief minister (July 2021), pontiffs of the various Veerashaiva-Lingayat mutts landed at ‘Cauvery’ to express their solidarity. They warned the BJP leadership against the decision and demanded a full term for their man.

A few days later, Yediyurappa broke down during his farewell speech in the assembly and said that his tenure had been a “trial by fire”. The ensuing resentment forced the BJP top brass to go into a huddle.

Though Bommai was also a Lingayat, he has not been able to fill the vacuum Yediyurappa left behind. He has only been an administrator and his government, too, has been fighting corruption charges and possible anti-incumbency.

Despite broad-basing the party and grooming new leadership―both Lingayat and non-Lingayat―the BJP has still not weaned itself off its dependence on one community (Lingayats) and one leader (Yediyurappa).

And so, despite the baggage he carries, the BJP feels that it needs the veteran. For he, the party expects, will also carry it to victory. “It was my personal decision to step down as chief minister and to also announce retirement from electoral politics,” he told THE WEEK.

Once back in action, his first task was to assure the Lingayat community that it would not be neglected. The Congress has alleged that the BJP has ignored the Lingayats and the JD(S) claims that Bommai will be replaced by a Brahmin chief minister soon. Yediyurappa is fighting these claims as he travels across the state, and has told the community to not fall prey to the opposition’s traps. BJP insiders said the Lingayat votebank is volatile; Yediyurappa is on the job.

His role, however, is apparently not restricted to Karnataka. At least that is what the BJP wants to convey. Last August, gauging Yediyurappa’s importance, the BJP inducted him into its top decision-making bodies―the parliamentary board and the central election committee. Giving Yediyurappa a more proactive role, said party insiders, would help the BJP counter the opposition’s claims that he had been sidelined and that he was only being resurrected to avoid an electoral disaster.

“The popularity of BSY has not just remained intact, but has increased after he stepped down,” said his son, B.Y. Vijayendra. “Usually, when a person resigns as chief minister, people tend to forget him within no time. But the people of Karnataka have loved him irrespective of what position he holds. He has a great connect with people of all communities, and not just the Veerashaiva-Lingayats. He charted his own path in politics by fighting for the rights of every community. If his popularity can benefit the party in elections, why not [have him campaign]?”

Not everyone is as chuffed as Vijayendra. Along with the allegations of corruption, nepotism is also a charge levelled against Yediyurappa. In fact, when he announced his retirement from electoral politics, Yediyurappa had declared Vijayendra the party candidate from his pocket borough Shikaripura.

This desire to see Vijayendra as his political successor has miffed many senior state leaders in the party. “No decision in our party is taken in the kitchen,” said BJP national general secretary C.T. Ravi. “The decision to give a ticket to Vijayendra will be taken by the parliamentary board based on the survey and winnability [factor].”

25-Yediyurappa-interacts Centre of action: Yediyurappa interacts with visitors at his official residence in Bengaluru | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

The BJP had denied Vijayendra a ticket from the Varuna constituency in the 2018 assembly elections. But things have changed. The party’s central leadership elevated him to the post of state vice-president and also gave him the key responsibility of ensuring the party’s win in the byelections to KR Pet (Mandya) and Sira (Tumkur) in 2019 and 2020. The central BJP also made Vijayendra the head of morcha conventions, signalling his growing importance within the party. “I was appointed the convener of morchas―yuva, mahila, SC, ST, OBC and minorities―and I am holding morcha samavesh (conventions) in each district to reach out to all the communities and inform them about the various benefits (schemes) the Centre and state governments have given them,” said Vijayendra. “We will be covering more than 200 assembly constituencies.”

Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s surprise breakfast meeting with Yediyurappa at his official residence in late March was a reminder to the latter’s detractors that he was still crucial to the BJP’s plans. Shah also acknowledged Vijayendra’s role when he asked Yediyurappa to hand over the bouquet―which Yediyurappa was to present Shah―to his son. Shah posed for a picture with them as father handed over the bouquet to the son, much to the father’s amusement. Yediyurappa then handed over another bouquet to Shah.

THE WEEK met Yediyurappa at his home on March 20 for an exclusive interview ahead of the elections (page 26). The walls of his study had photographs of him with Modi, Shah, Arun Jaitley and other senior BJP leaders, and also with former prime minister Manmohan Singh. At the dining hall, his staff was waiting to serve him hot paddus (a steamed rice and lentil snack) with coconut chutney and potato gravy, upma, and a bowl of dry fruits and nuts. He ate with an eye on the television, monitoring the news developments of the day. The meal done, he popped half a dozen pills―for various age-related illnesses―and signalled that he was ready to hit the road. “My favourite hobby is reading newspapers for an hour every morning,” said the early riser. He rarely misses his morning walks and enjoys watching Kannada movies as much as reading books.

During the conversation, the veteran recalled his long career while frequently reiterating his commitment to ensure “Modi’s victory” in 2024.

After wrapping up the interview, Yediyurappa got into a chopper to Chitradurga to lead two road shows and a public meeting. Once there, he seemed suddenly energised at the sight of the cheering crowd. Bhagyamma, a housewife, rushed to the street in her nightie to catch a glimpse of the leader. “I had no time to change into a sari,” she said. “The BJP exists in Karnataka because of Yediyurappa ji. The local MLA (Poornima Srinivas) has done good work. For the first time in many years, the Vani Vilas Sagar dam is full and every house is getting drinking water. There were rumours of her joining the Congress, but after seeing Yediyurappa ji campaigning for her, I am relieved.”

The BJP hopes to feel the same sense of relief come May 13.