Yediyurappa: A doughty fighter with a weakness for Parivar
In April this year, ground reports began to trickle in that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was trailing badly in the by-elections to Belagavi Lok Sabha seat. The bypolls were necessitated after the death of Union minister Suresh Angadi due to Covid-19. A popular MP, he had won the seat in 2019 for the fourth consecutive time with a margin of nearly four lakh votes. Taking into consideration the large margin of victory earlier, as well as to encash on the sympathy factor, the BJP had fielded Mangala Angadi, his wife, for the polls. But closer to voting day, internal party reports indicated that party was trailing as the Congress with a formidable candidate was giving it a tough fight.
That is when the party sent an SOS to its most dependable vote-catcher in the state, chief minister B S Yediyurappa (BSY). The 78-year-old was down with a 102-degree fever and had gradually turned physically weak, having just recovered from a bout of Covid-19. But despite that and amid protests from family members, Yediyurappa flew to Belagavi to hold meetings and roadshows for two days, thus ensuring BJP’s victory, albeit with a small margin.
It is this doughtiness and never say die attitude that has served Yediyurappa well over the last five decades of his political career. Born in Bookankere of Mandya district in southern Karnataka, it was however, Shivamogga in the Malnad region of the state - where he moved to become a clerk in a rice mill and eventually marry the daughter of the mill owner - that gave him a political career. He was elected eight times from Shikaripura (literally the ‘land of hunters’) constituency, served as leader of opposition thrice, deputy chief minister once and the chief minister of Karnataka four times.
Yediyurappa tasted electoral defeat only once in 1999 when against his advice, the Sangh as a part of its longer-term plan, forced the BJP to enter into an alliance with the unpopular incumbent government of Janata Dal (United) led by J H Patel. BJP lost the battle but managed to win the war when large parts of the Ramakrishna Hegde-J H Patel-led Janata faction later merged into the BJP, enabling the saffron party under BSY to cement its position in the state.
For the legions of his admirers, he is known as ‘Raja Huli’ (King Tiger, a reference to a popular Kannada movie), who built the saffron party in Karnataka when it was an unknown entity.
Yediyurappa was already criss-crossing Karnataka on a bicycle to hear the woes of people, in 1987, a year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally joined the BJP. BSY helped build the party brick-by-brick, undertaking agitations on behalf of landless and bonded labourers.
While other BJP leaders like Anant Kumar, Rama Bhat, B B Shivappa, K S Eshwarappa and V S Acharya too played an important role in building the party, two things helped BSY: loyalty and caste. He has been loyal to the Sangh Parivar, if not always to the BJP. In 1985, when BJP won only two seats - Yediyurappa himself and Vasant Bangera from Belthangady - both were offered incentives to move over to either the then ruling Janata Party or Congress. While Bangera crossed over, Yediyurappa stood steadfast.
Even in 2012, when he got angry by the treatment meted out to him by the BJP high command and left to form the Karnataka Janata Paksha, he maintained cordial relations with the larger Sangh Parivar. The second key reason for his rise was that the Sangh - which was till then dominated by Brahmins and Vysyas (Banias) - quickly identified that Yediyurappa, a Lingayat whose fellow community members are nearly 17 per cent of the state population, would be a good asset in its social engineering outreach.
With his overt religiosity and ability to network amongst the numerous Lingayat swamis and mutts, he helped the Sangh get an entry into numerous cooperative networks like regional banks, milk unions, farmer associations, sugar and rice mills, educational enterprises, apart from others. These institutions exert tremendous influence at a local district level by offering patronage and these networks, till then, were largely dominated by the Congress party.
BSY also groomed a generation of young leaders and today, several of his proteges are in senior positions both in the party and the government. However, Yediyurappa’s rise as the ‘tallest’ Lingayat as well as BJP leader in the state has not always been benign. While senior BJP leaders like Anant Kumar or Sadananda Gowda who did not see eye-to-eye with him were forced to ‘exile’ themselves to national politics, even other Lingayat leaders like B B Shivappa and more recently, Basangouda Patil Yatnal or Jagadish Shettar, were cut to size in the party if they tried to overshadow him.
While allegiance to the larger Sangh has been his strength, Parivar (family) has been his weakness. Even as the BJP accused Congress and others of corruption and promoting dynasties, Yediyurappa ensured that his elder son Raghavendra became the Shivamogga MP and the younger son Vijayendra was made a vice president of the state unit. His son-in-law and grandson have been accused of corruption while other members of his family allegedly interfered in the state administration. Yediyurappa also carries the opprobrium of being the only chief minister of the state who was arrested and jailed in a corruption case. Several other cases are pending investigation.
Irrespective of the taints, Yediyurappa’s departure as chief minister and the BJP face in the state marks the beginning of a new political chapter in Karnataka’s politics. The BJP may struggle to find somebody whose name has the same brand cachet and recognition, both by its supporters and opponents, as Yediyurappa’s did. Also, like his peer, Deve Gowda, who is still active in politics at the age of 88, Yediyurappa is a round the clock politician who will find it hard to retire. It remains to be seen whether he accepts a rumored gubernatorial role and gracefully walks into the political sunset or has some other things planned for the future.