Deconstructing the defiance of Yeddyurappa
The BJP’s poster boy holds access to the majority Lingayat votes in the state, and has the blessings of powerful mutts and spiritual leaders ideologically indifferent to the Sangh
Last week, the BJP finally gave in to former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa’s 10 month-long campaign to unseat Sadanada Gowda and installed Jagadish Shettar as Karnataka’s 27th chief minister. Catapulted to power in August 2011 by the very Yeddyurappa, who has now orchestrated his exit (to block then rival Shettar from getting the top post), Gowda dutifully carried out the difficult mandate that he was entrusted with by the party high command and the RSS. Tasked with running a corruption free administration to off-set the enormous damage caused to the party by Yeddyurappa and the Reddy brothers, Gowda managed to run his government for 11 months without causing any embarrassment to the party. And he kept Yeddyurappa’s attempts at further embarrassing the party at bay by forming an alliance with Yeddyurappa’s adversary in the party, state party president KS Eshwarappa, and by mobilsing the support of his fellow Vokkaligas MLAs and a motley group of anti-Yeddyurappa legislators. But the RSS and the national leaders, who had promised to support Gowda through a full-term as the chief minister in return, have now unceremoniously gone back on their promise.
Yeddyurappa had issued an ultimatum of two weeks to the party leaders in New Delhi, demanding Gowda’s ouster. A group of nine ministers headed by Shettar resigned citing loss of confidence in the CM. They played the caste card deftly, accusing Gowda of running the administration under JD(S) supremo Deva Gowda’s orders. The JD(S) draws its vote bank mainly from the Vokkaliga caste to which the CM belongs. It was a smart move—with a double advantage. First, of dressing caste rivalry in the respectable attire of party interests, and second, of putting Gowda and the party high command in an indefensible position. Gowda had secretly sought the support of the JD(S), in case Yeddyurappa carried out his threat of splitting the party.
Yeddyurappa and Shettar belong to the Lingayat community, which forms 17 to 18 per cent of the state’s population. The BJP wave in the state in 2008 rode on the Lingayat’s backing as they voted in large numbers for the BJP when the JD(S) pulled out of a coalition government with the BJP, denying Yeddyurappa his chance to become CM. This was seen as the Vokkaliga caste’s betrayal to prevent a Lingayat from assuming power. After assuming the charge of the first BJP government in southern India, Yeddyurappa started weeding out Vokkaligas from the party top rung and installing Lingayats instead. While the BJP increasingly became a Lingayat party, the process was kept in check by a parallel centre of power by the Reddy brothers. Janardhan Reddy’s arrest by the CBI in the illegal mining case removed the only challenge to Yeddyurappa’s dominance in the state BJP. But the illegal mining and land grabbing scandals also forced Yeddyurappa to relinquish the CM’s post in July 2011.
By forcing the BJP to appoint Gowda as his successor, Yeddyurappa hoped to prop a puppet through which he could continue to run the government. The deal was that Gowda would step down when the public anger over Yeddyurappa’s misdeeds blew over. This is where Yeddyurappa miscalculated. The anti-corruption campaign that the BJP had launched against the UPA government in the 2G scam case made it difficult for the party to make Yeddyurappa the CM again without losing all semblance of credibility. After four rebellions against the party high command to get back the CM’s chair, Yeddyurappa finally realised that he could not persuade the national leaders, unless he was cleared of the corruption charges against his name. And after the Supreme Court ordering a CBI probe against him, there was little chance of Yeddyurappa’s return to power in the near future. With Assembly elections due by May 2013 he was faced with the prospect of the BJP heading for polls under Gowda’s leadership. So he had to find a compromise candidate who would be acceptable to both the Lingayats and the other elements in the BJP. The choice was his old rival Shettar.
Fifty six-year-old Shettar is a former advocate from Hubli in north Karnataka, and comes from a family of Jan Sangh activists. Shettar was the revenue minister during JD(S)-BJP coalition in 2006 and became the Speaker when the BJP formed the government in 2008. When the Reddy brothers rebelled against Yeddyurappa, Shettar entered the Cabinet as the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj minister. He has been fairly untouched by the successive scams that rocked the party over the past four years. The BJP high command, which also wanted a Lingayat mascot for the 2013 assembly elections, agreed to Yeddyurappa’s demand this time. However, the news of Gowda being asked to resign did not go down well the powerful Vokkaliga community, who form close to 17 % of the state’s population. They are now lobbying for the party’s president post for Gowda.
Gowda too has not been averse to playing the caste card. When Gowda returned to Bengaluru after submitting his resignation to Nitin Gakari in Delhi, a crowd of around 1,000 Vokkaligas gathered in his house to show their support. He told the assembled crowd that he would talk to the BJP leaders to address the ‘injustice’ that has been done to them.
In a sense, the BJP is only harvesting what it has sown. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, the party steadily grew in the state because of Yeddyurappa’s charisma and his mass agitations centred on rural issues. The mass support extended to Yeddyurappa by the Lingayats formed the bedrock of the BJP’s vote bank. However, the leaders who built the party, including Yeddyurappa, Eshwarappa and the late VS Acharya were core RSS members willing to work within the larger ideology of the Sangh Parivar. But when the BJP came to power through operation Lotus, the mass poaching of Opposition MLAs, financed by the Reddy brothers in 2011, led to a split in the BJP. The new MLAs were less aligned to the ideology and hence less controllable by the RSS. Traditional caste loyalties were bound to play a stronger role in the long run.
After four years of ruling Karnataka and a slew of corruption scandals, the BJP still retains the Lingayat vote bank; but it works both ways. The BJP cannot hope to rule Karnataka if they ignore the sentiments of the community. When Yeddyurappa was holding the reins of the state; the community was patronised immensely; money and other benefits were doled out to powerful Lingayat mutts and institutions. Unsurprisingly, when Yeddyurappa found himself in the thick of corruption allegations, it was the mutts who rushed to his defence.
The Lingayats who enjoyed unparalleled dominance in government and administration under the BJP government, got their first jolt when Yeddyurappa was asked to step down by the party, after he was indicted in the Lokayukta report on the multi-crore mining scam. The second blow came when instead of a Lingayat, a Vokkaliga was made chief minister. Since Karnataka’s formation as a separate state, it has been a constant grouse of Lingayat leaders that Vokkaligas and other castes have managed to wrest important positions, including the CM’s post from them. The third blow was dealt when the Vokkliga community, which had so far identified itself with the Janata Dal (Secular), started rallying behind Gowda. In the year-long battle to ward of off Yeddyurappa’s rebellions, the RSS, the party high command and Vokkaliga MLAs extended increasing support to Gowda, raising alarm among the Lingayats.
When Gowda presented this year’s state financial budget, there were significant benefits doled out to mutts belonging to Vokkailgas and other castes. In reaction, the Lingayat mutts sent signals to the BJP national leadership of the community’s reservations if the party were to head for polls without a Lingayat at helm. To make sure that their message was received, the mutts even invited Sonia Gandhi for the 104th birthday celebration of the powerful Lingayat sect leader Sri Shivakumara Swami in April, indicating that the community was not averse to exploring other political options.
“We are quite happy with CM Sadanada Gowda’s performance. But keeping the Assembly elections in mind, we had to go in for a change of leadership,” a BJP national committee member said on condition of anonymity. The party is also banking heavily on Yeddyurappa for the general election in 2014, where the party thinks he can ensure more than 10 MPs for the BJP. But things may not work out as smoothly as the BJP anticipates.
“Caste polarisation in Karnataka is almost complete. And the winner would be one who can assiduously manage viable caste alliances with other castes of electoral importance. The outburst of the Vokkaligas would not hurt the political fortunes of the BJP since traditionally, the Vokkaligas have been voting for JD(S),” says Shiv Sunder, a political analyst. On a cautionary note, however, he says that the internal group fights will intensify. “In a possible four corner contest, such group fights will take a toll on the seats the BJP will get. But what could come to their rescue is the lethargy and unpreparedness of the Oposition and the infighting within the Congress. This may increase the number of photo finish constituencies and result in a hung assembly,” he concluded.
Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.