Indeed, there are many aspects of this victory that will cheer the BJP. First, the fact that the opposition parties will have to accept that the BJP will rule for the remaining three and a half years of the term of the Assembly, unless it implodes.
Second, the party has shown that its bet on the former dissidents was well placed — it had fielded the rebels in 13 seats and won 11. Third, as leaders of the BJP have argued, the results appear to show that voters condoned the method used to bring down the previous regime.
Fourth, the victory in the KR Pete Assembly seat in Mandya district was the first time the party won in the district, which is dominated by the landed Vokkaliga caste, which until recently was believed to have predominantly supported the JD(S).
The Mandya victory seems all the more impressive if one keeps in mind that the party supported Inde-pendent MP Sumalatha Ambareesh, who defeated former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil in a high-stakes battle in the Lok Sabha polls, which it swept in the state, winning 25 of the 28 seats.
The victory also bucked historical trends. For instance, it won 80 per cent of the seats in the by-polls. Between 2008 and 2013, the first time the party came to power independently in the state, it won only seven of the 13 by-elections or 54 per cent. In fact, 27 by-polls have been held in the past 20 years in Karnataka, and the ruling party has won 16 of these, or 59 per cent.
Crucially, for Yediyurappa, the victories appear to reiterate his continued dominance in the party’s state unit, freeing him from the central leadership’s hold. This was a perception the Opposition highlighted repeatedly in the run-up to the by-polls when they criticised the BJP central leadership for not granting Yediyurappa an audience.
And yet, even at this moment, challenges remain. For one, the threat of dissidence that racked his tenure between 2008 and 2011 remains. This was also on show in the by-elections.
Though the BJP was able to neutralise dissidence within its ranks when it decided to field the rebels, it failed to do so in the Hosakote seat. There its former candidate Sharath Bachegowda, son of BJP MP B N Bachegowda, contested as an Independent and defeated new-entrant MTB Nagaraj, the state’s richest candidate.
Even elsewhere, it was only able to prevent similar rebellions, thanks to Yediyurappa’s intervention. Added to this is the resentment arising from the chief minister’s assurance to the rebels of inducting the victors into the state Cabinet.
Second, the BJP’s campaign relied in part on highlighting this as Yediyurappa’s last tenure in power — it has already broken its 75-year retirement rule for him. Though the strategy worked this time, it has limited rewards, as former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda, who has banked on the “last election” bounce many times, can testify.
Third, the growing influence of Yediyurappa’s younger son, B Y Vijayendra, has remained a contentious issue. These issues have gone on the backburner after Vijayendra scripted the KR Pete victory, but can resurface.
A senior BJP leader, who is a Cabinet minister, said there was already resentment that Vijayendra was interfering in the functioning of various departments. “Obviously, this will increase now that he has managed a victory,” the leader said.
Finally, these victories need to be viewed from a historical perspective. Of the 23 by-polls held in the state between 2000 and 2017, a year before the last Assembly election, the ruling party won 13 seats. However, 11 of these seats were won by other parties in the subsequent Assembly elections, according to the Election Commission data.
Political analyst Narendar Pani, faculty at the Bengaluru-based National
Institute of Advanced Studies, cautioned against reading too much into the victory. “If the by-elections prove anything, it is that the individual trumps the party in Karnataka’s politics.
This is borne out by the fact that the majority of those who switched parties won.”
The other takeaway, Pani said, was Yediyurappa had stamped his authority in Karnataka, amid alleged attempts to sideline him. “The results show that he is the best person to manage individuals in the party,” he added.