Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa is pragmatic enough to know that there is too much at stake for him and he has little choice but to make a quiet exit. He is aware that his vulnerabilities far outweigh his strengths. But there is a voice within him, which will taunt him if he meekly surrendered and retreated.
Hence, when his vulnerabilities summon him, he appears obedient before the media, but when the taunt takes over, he dials numbers that will handle the ridicule. Yediyurappa is faithful to both voices inside him. He is genuinely conflicted and there are many reasons for that.
The biggest reason is that he made the BJP an electoral success in Karnataka in an era of Vajpayee and Advani, but without much of their input or intervention. After their era ended, he didn’t need either Modi or Shah to strategise, pool resources or post election victories. He owed next to nothing to his national leadership. In 2008 and 2018, twice when Yediyurappa fell slenderly short of a clear majority, he arranged it himself, albeit through devious means. The formula he created for the party in the state was indigenously developed. It was quite independent of the RSS’s Hindutva. In fact, it was more an extension of caste identity politics that Karnataka had witnessed for decades, under chief ministers like S Nijalingappa, D Devaraj Urs and H D Deve Gowda.
The fact that Yediyurappa belonged to the dominant Lingayat community helped, but he was shrewd enough to realise that if he did not build a broad coalition with sections of backward classes and Dalits, there was little chance of coming to power. He stitched a coalition patiently, and got a number of backward communities, and also a neglected section of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on his side. He snatched these communities from under the nose of an arrogant Siddaramaiah, who claimed to be the leader of all backwards, and an indifferent Mallikarjuna Kharge who presided over the Dalit constituency. He started working on this when he first became a deputy chief minister in 2006 and sort of perfected it by the time he became chief minister in 2008.
While Yediyurappa was busy with Mandal politics, H N Ananth Kumar tried to become the voice of Hindutva in the state. Yediyurappa looked askance at the RSS agenda that Ananth Kumar was promoting. He allowed it to be a thin air cover at best but never allowed it a grassroots existence. He also looked away from the toxic Hindutva experiments in the coastal districts by presenting them as an aberration. Yediyurappa is not perceived as communal in Karnataka but is thought of as a caste leader. He is essentially a Mandal politician with a Hindutva air cover. The pontiffs who have been crowding Bengaluru in his support in the last few days are those who wear the saffron of caste and not the saffron of religion.
In Karnataka, the backward castes and sub-castes, Dalit communities included, have imitated the organisational structure of the Lingayats — they all have independent seminaries and pontiffs, and have devised political play around them. Yediyurappa’s cleverest act was to empower them with land and largesse, and put them in an orbit of worldly pursuits. He deepened the existing caste identity politics with a distinct shade of saffron. It was debauchery of democracy. Nevertheless, he pursued it unabashedly.
Therefore, when the BJP national leadership decided to nudge this Lingayat stalwart to step down, they strategised a systematic attack over the last few months by deploying legislators from his own community against him. They created fiery debates of victimhood and inadequate representation of populous sub-castes inside the community. However, the legislators who were dressed up as challengers to the Lingayat throne commanded very little inside the community and among the larger electorate. But still, they were given the liberty to abuse their leader without the liability of disciplinary action. Yediyurappa indirectly portrayed them as traitors of the Lingayat community acting at the instance of B L Santosh, a Brahmin without a base. He would have easily survived the attack of the legislators but there were other vulnerabilities, including allegations of corruption and nepotism that progressively weakened him.
Even before Pegasus made headlines, there were thick rumours of electronic espionage in Karnataka and it went by an interesting epithet: “CD politics”. The pun is unintended. In his first term, Yediyurappa had to step down because he had to go to jail on corruption charges. He had then collaborated with the notorious Bellary miners who permanently dented the political culture of the state. In a party with definite ideological moorings, Yediyurappa had choreographed a vulgar dance of mammon to survive. This time around, though, he’ll be stepping down because he never learnt lessons from his first debacle. Apparently, in 2010, when Modi had run into Yediyurappa at the party’s national executive, he had offered some unsolicited advice: “God will not always save you, correct yourself”. That correction never happened and it has mired his legacy.
It is natural to ask where the RSS, the BJP’s chief mentor, was when all this mess was being heaped? Santosh, who is now the national organising secretary of the BJP, was attached to the state unit when Yediyurappa had begun his consolidation. He was tasked with developing a long-term vision and grooming an alternative leadership to Yediyurappa. Instead of fulfilling this mandate, he anointed himself for the future. He cultivated weaklings who could never step out of his shadow. He became a part of the problem and never the solution, and that problem persists to this day.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 24, 2021 under the title ‘The difficulty of being Yediyurappa’. The writer is a senior journalist and author.