Yediyurappa did what Fadnavis couldn't

Topics BJP | Maharashtra | B S Yediyurappa

The critics are quiet, the challengers have sheathed their swords for the moment. With help from friends but much more, family, BS Yediyurappa has staged a comeback that is the envy of many in the party – including the golden boy of the BJP, Devendra Fadnavis, who is still coming to terms with political defeat in neighbouring Maharashtra. It must have stung Fadnavis to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking MPs at the BJP parliamentary party meeting to give a standing ovation to Yediyurappa for his victory in the by-election that has resulted in pulling the BJP government in Karnataka off the ventilator and propelling it towards sunshine and healthy growth.

It is true that Yediyurappa put everything he had to win the by elections. In the 2018 Assembly elections, the BJP won 105 MLAs; the Congress 78; the Janata Dal Secular 37 in a house of 224. Yediyurappa tried to form a government, failed and resigned. It was unparalleled humiliation for the BJP as a party as Congress and Janata Dal Secular (JDS) cobbled together a precarious majority. But for Yediyurappa it was a personal setback as well. In 2016, when he was made party president he had to manage enormous friction within his party. KS Eshwarappa, from the Kuruba (shepherd) caste went to great lengths to mobilise his caste, offering it as a social coalition to fight the might of both the Lingayats (Yediyurappa) and the Vokkaligas (HD Deve Gowda). Sadananda Gowda, a Vokkaliga and Jagadish Shettar, a fellow Lingayat, had many complaints. They found a sympathetic ear in BL Santhosh, the coordinator between the RSS and the BJP. To overcome all that was not easy. But then came the Assembly elections and Yediyurappa found himself clutching the consolation prize though he felt he had come first in the race.

Now the tables are turned. Till a few weeks ago, there was little difference between Karnataka and Maharashtra. Both states were hanging on to power by a slender thread. Except that while Fadnavis slipped and fell, Yediyurappa managed to pull himself up by the bootstraps and succeeded in convincing the voters of Karnataka that it was not the MLA they were voting for (they were MLAs who had quit the Congress/JDS and joined the BJP, effectively making them turncoats of the same variety that Fadnavis and the BJP managed to corral together from the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress in Maharashtra), it was the party. This is not to be sneered at.

What lay behind the Karnataka victory? To be sure, Yediyurappa’s own effort: Rarely do chief ministers work as hard as he did for a set of by-elections. He visited each constituency twice or three times, making a total of at least 50 visits, leaving nothing to chance. But the BJP won in Old Mysore, in the heart of Vokkaliga land, the bastion of Janata Dal (S) and Congress.

Consider what this means. The Krishnarajapet (KRPet) constituency is in Mandya district where the BJP has never polled more than 10,000 votes in total from the eight or so Assembly constituencies in the region. Former JD(S) MLA KC Narayana Gowda, who was one of the 17 MLAs of the erstwhile JD(S)-Congress ruling coalition and who resigned to make way for the BJP to form government in the state, contested from the seat and won by a 9,000-vote margin. In one seat alone. 

The importance of the KR Pet victory is two-fold. One, the management of the election was entrusted to Vijayendra, Yediyurappa’s younger son. In the 2018 Assembly elections, outgoing Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s constituency was Varuna, in this region. Vijayendra was keen on contesting against Siddaramaiah, but at the last moment, the party gave the seat to a BL Santhosh-backed candidate. The Congress fielded Siddaramiah’s son Yathindra, who won the seat. But the whole episode cut Vijayendra to the quick and he vowed to return to the region to post a victory. KR Pet was that victory.

Yediyurappa’s area of work and influence has been Shimoga. But he was born in KR Pet. Vijayendra incorporated this in his strategy. In a two lakh-strong constituency, around 93,000 voters are Vokkaliga. Logic dictated that it would be impossible to play the caste card by the BJP which is seen as a Lingayat party. Instead, Vijayendra campaigned on behalf of his father as a prodigal son who had returned home. People scoffed at him, predicting that the BJP could never win from old Mysore. His retort was: "If Amit Shah can make the BJP win in Bengal, it can win from Old Mysuru as well.”

In the by-elections, it is the BJP which has won, not the candidates: make no mistake. Yediyurappa’s critics will now focus on lapses in governance and administration. But politically, a window that was always closed to the BJP has been opened by Vijayendra. He, along with a flock of other young leaders in the party, will be a man to watch in the future politics of Karnataka.

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