Even as Karnataka BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel’s purported audio conversation, hinting at a possible leadership change in the state, fuelled more speculation on B S Yediyurappa’s exit as Chief Minister, senior BJP leader Basavaraj Patil Yatnal on Monday said that the party’s central leadership will soon pick a new CM, someone who is “honest, pro Hindu, and capable of bringing the BJP back to power”.
The leaked audio, which has a voice resembling that of Kateel — he has denied any links to the audio and dismissed it as fake — hints at one of three Karnataka leaders currently based in Delhi being sent as CM to replace Yediyurappa, 78.
Yatnal, a former Union minister, MLA from Bijapur in north Karnataka, and seen as one of the most prominent Yediyurappa baiters in recent days, said on Monday: “I am not in any race. The PM will pick a leader who is honest, pro-Hindu and capable of bringing the party to power in the next polls as CM.”
Karnataka is due for Assembly polls in 2023.
Yatnal has been considered as having an outside chance of being the next CM, as he comes from the Lingayat community — like Yediyurappa — but from a larger and backward sub-caste, Panchamsali. He was at the forefront of an agitation earlier this year by the Panchamsali Lingayats, seeking recognition as a backward caste group.
The Delhi-based leaders whose names have been in circulation as frontrunners for the CM post are Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi, BJP national organising secretary B L Santhosh — both are Brahmins — and party national general secretary C T Ravi, who comes from the Vokkaliga community.
But if BJP opts to go with a leader from the Lingayat community — as a replacement for Lingayat strongman Yediyurappa — then businessman-politician and state Mining Minister Murugesh Nirani; young MLA Arvind Bellad (son of a veteran RSS and BJP leader); and Yatnal are considered to be in the reckoning.
“It is said that Arvind Bellad was very close to becoming the CM until a few weeks ago,” a source in BJP said. Bellad, 51, had alleged a few weeks ago that his phone was being tapped by the state government. A police inquiry was held but the allegations were not established.
Nirani runs sugar and ethanol factories in north Karnataka. Union Home minister Amit Shah had visited his sugar factory earlier this year during a tour of the state. On Monday, Nirani visited Varanasi amid rumors of a change in leadership in the state.
He has denied being an aspirant for the CM’s post.
On Monday, Yatnal also said: “Yediyurappa should have taken with him to Delhi someone whom he sees as his replacement. His close associate Basvaraj Bommai was there, the noble Govind Karjol was there, the effective speaker R Ashok (state Revenue Minister) was there…but none of them were taken along.”
Among the present crop of ministers in the Yediyurappa government, several were considered close to clinching the post but do not seem to have found favour as yet.
Bommai — who comes from the Lingayat community, is son of former chief minister S R Bommai, and is a close associate of Yediyurappa — was considered mostly likely to replace the CM in March this year but does seem to have got Yediyurappa’s approval. State Transport Minister and Deputy CM Laxman Savadi, also from the Lingayat community, was seen as a frontrunner for a while in the early days of the BJP government as a substitute for Yediyurappa.
Revenue Minister R Ashok, who comes from the Vokkaliga community, and Deputy CM Govind Karjol, who is from a Dalit community, were also considered likely contenders.
Other state leaders considered to be in the race are Karnataka’s third Deputy CM, Dr C N Ashwathnarayan, who comes from the Vokkaliga community; former CM and Industries Minister Jagadish Shettar; minister Arvind Limbavalli; Assembly Speaker Vishweshwara Hegde Kaggeri; BJP chief whip Sunil Kumar (among those who have rebelled against Yediyurappa); state minister V Somanna; and former Union minister D V Sadananda Gowda.
“Lok Sabha MP Anant Kumar Hegde was also seen as a favorite of the Centre who was being groomed for bigger responsibilities, but he has now fallen out of favor due to his tendency to make controversial statements,” a source in BJP said.
Meanwhile, the move to replace Yediyurappa as chief minister has been criticised by a leader from Lingayat community in opposition Congress. “The BJP may face the wrath of Lingayats if they ill-treat a tall leader like the Chief Minister. BJP should value Yediyurappa’s contribution and treat him with dignity. This is my personal opinion…” former state minister and Congress M B Patil said.
Former CM and Congress leader Siddaramaiah, however, said, “It is good that a corrupt government and corrupt CM is going away. We are ready for polls any time, but we do not feel elections are close at hand. They will make someone else the CM if they remove Yediyurappa.”
Meanwhile, Yediyurappa on Monday ordered release of Rs 1,277 crore funds to MLA constituencies through the rural development department in what is seen as an effort to appease BJP MLAs ahead of a legislature party meeting on July 26. The MLAs have been demanding release of the funds for a while.
Yediyurappa has been accused by some BJP legislators of releasing funds only to constituencies of Congress and JD(S) leaders while holding back funds for BJP MLAs. “This is a three party-government, and not a BJP government,” state Tourism Minister C P Yogeshwar — one of the rebels — had alleged a few weeks ago.