At a rally in Ballari in Karnataka in late February, Home Minister Amit Shah appealed to people to vote for the BJP in the upcoming polls, asking them to place their trust in Prime Minister Modi and former Chief Minister and Lingayat strongman, BS Yediyurappa.
In a snub to the current Chief Minister BS Bommai, Shah did not mention his name at all in the rally and even seemed to admit that Bommai’s government faces a series of corruption allegations.
“Please trust Modiji once more, please trust Yediyurappa once more, we will provide governance that will liberate Karnataka from corruption in five years and will make Karnataka the number one state in South India,” Shah said.
His comments reflect a complete u-turn within the leadership’s thinking on Yediyurappa. Things had become so frosty between both sides, that Yediyurappa even skipped a number of rallies held by Amit Shah and BJP President JP Nadda last year. But the BJP knows it faces a stiff challenge in Karnataka in the May election.
It is a crucial state for the party, the only state in the south where the party is in power. So despite leaving him out in the cold for two years, even removing him as Chief Minister in the middle of his 4th term in July 2021, the BJP has had no choice but to turn to Yediyurappa again.
A few days after Shah’s Ballari rally, Prime Minister Modi heaped huge praise on Yediyurappa on his 80th birthday at a state government event for the opening of the Shivamogga airport.
Ironically, Yediyurappa had announced his retirement from electoral politics only recently. He was asked to leave the Chief Minister’s post by the BJP central leadership over corruption allegations and charges that he was promoting his family.
His replacement, BS Bommai is however faring worse, having been pulled up several times by Amit Shah in recent months, especially on the corruption front and a deep concern in the party that this may hit their prospects in a significant number of urban seats. The recent recovery of crores in cash from a BJP MLA’s son has only added to their problems.
The caste factor
The caste factor is crucial here as well. Yediyurappa belongs to the dominant Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, who are estimated to form about 17 per cent of the State’s population and are a decisive factor for in at least 100 of the 224 constituencies in the state, especially in north Karnataka.
The Lingayats have been the BJP’s core vote base. in 2018, the BJP won 104 seats in the assembly and 81 of these were from north Karnataka. Chief Minister Bommai is also a Lingayat, but it is Yediyurappa who is considered the tallest leader.
The BJP also knows from history that Yediyurappa can’t be ignored. After a corruption scandal in 2011, the BJP had asked Yediyurappa to resign. He went on to form his own party, the KJP, which badly cut into the BJP’s votes in the 2013 assembly polls, leading to the BJP’s worst performance since 1994.
As the BJP banks on Yediyurappa, there are reports that the veteran leader is pushing for his son, Vijayendra to be accommodated in the cabinet. This actually goes against everything the BJP says on dynasty, but winning Karnataka is a bigger issue for them right now.
The BJP’s embrace of Yediyurappa also shows that it is not sure how far hardline Hindutva politics will help it win the election.
Yediyurappa’s politics is different. He has openly criticised state BJP state president Nalin Kateel’s attempts to polarise voters by pitting 18th-century Mysuru ruler Tipu Sultan and Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar.
Apart from some parts of coastal Karnataka, religious polarisation alone can’t won polls in the state. Caste is a much bigger factor.
The BJP’s task is cut out in Karnataka this time but they hope Yediyurappa will deliver again.