Not a Bluff This Time

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Yeddyurappa’s threat to break away from the BJP

BANGALORE ~ When BS Yeddyurappa was being replaced by the BJP as Karnataka’s Chief Minister in July 2011, after his probity came under the cloud of a Lokayukta report on mining, party legislators met to elect the next CM through a supposedly ‘secret’ ballot. When the turn of the man who had been asked to demit office came, he wrote his own name on his ballot sheet and handed it in. When told he had to write any name other than his own, he nodded vaguely, mumbled something, and then pointedly asked if this was really necessary.

That story, recalled by a witness on condition of anonymity, puts Yeddyurappa in a league of his own. In Karnataka, “he is larger than the party” as several senior BJP leaders are known to say. It is true to the extent that Yeddyurappa started from scratch in the state to take the saffron party to power in three decades.

Now that the BJP’s central leadership has ignored his repeated demands for reinstatement as CM, Yeddyurappa is actively toying with the idea of floating a new outfit, called the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP). He also intends to petition the Election Commission to allot him the bicycle as an electoral symbol.
Metaphorically speaking, the bicycle symbolises Yeddyurappa’s slow but steady detachment from the BJP. His close aides say that he chose the pedal-powered vehicle because he had gifted hundreds of thousands of them to students of economically backward classes (EBCs) when he was CM, and he hopes to encash this goodwill come election time.

At first, there was thought to be a slight hitch in his plan, as ‘Karnataka Janata Party’ had already been registered by someone else. But the ex-CM has reportedly bought the right to use that name for his political breakaway. The stage is now set for the launch of Yeddyurappa’s new party on 10 December in Haveri, a central Karnataka town 375 km from Bangalore.

Within the BJP, however, workers are still wondering whether the once ‘loyal’ party worker and dyed-in-the-wool RSS volunteer who rose to become Karnataka’s first ever BJP CM, will really leave the Sangh Parivar. But while Yeddyurappa is given to using threats to have his way, this move seems like no bluff. He has his reasons. Speaking with Open a few days ago, he complained that the BJP central leadership deals with its members on a “use and throw” basis. He had also said that, “Advani wanted [BJP National General Secretary] Ananth Kumar to take over after me. They brought him in through the back door, very secretly. They could have told me directly instead of beating around the bush.” Angered by such subterfuge, as he saw it, Yeddyurappa threw a plastic chair at Ananth Kumar even as mediapersons waited in an adjacent room. “They are waiting for me to leave on my own,” says the former CM, “They are aware that I have a lot of sympathy outside the party.”

But times have changed since then. Yeddyurappa can no longer sway mass sentiment by simply shedding tears, as he had done when Janata Dal-Secular (JDS) leader HD Kumaraswamy had refused to turn over the state’s chief ministership to the BJP, as the two parties had agreed upon while forming a mid-term alliance in 2006. The betrayal of this 20-20 month power-sharing formula paved the way for the BJP in Karnataka. In May 2008, it won power on its own, a victory that Yeddyurappa saw as his.

“But,” warns a minister in the state cabinet, “Yeddyurappa should not forget that people voted for the BJP and not for him alone. He was a personality in the BJP and he can never outgrow the party.” Nevertheless, the former CM’s move could cause the Karnataka BJP quite some harm. For this reason, the state’s senior BJP leaders, including a few MPs, were in Delhi recently to seek the central leadership’s intervention. The delegation included both the deputy CMs: R Ashoka and KS Eshwarappa, Yeddyurappa’s friend-turned-foe. Eshwarappa and Ashoka briefed the party’s central leadership, saying it is time to assuage Yeddyurappa, “otherwise, the party may see an exodus of its elected representatives to the KJP as polls near. We fear what happened to the Janata Dal in 1999 may happen to us.” 

This is what had happened to the undivided Janata Dal in 1999 when Deve Gowda left it. Even as the Janata Dal was in power under JH Patel, several ministers deserted the government and joined Gowda’s JDS. They became a separate force in state politics even though the JDS could not capture power that year (as a Congress government was elected with SM Krishna as CM). “We fear that Yeddyurappa will end up as a spoiler and help deliver a Congress government now,” says a minister who is trying to mediate a truce.

However, despite their best intentions, the delegation was rebuffed by Advani, who reportedly told them that such issues should be discussed with party president Nitin Gadkari. Recall, Advani’s position on the matter has always been that Yeddyurappa should not hold any post until his name is cleared of corruption charges.
As Gadkari was away, the delegation met Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Murali Manohar Joshi and Dharmendra Pradhan (who is in charge of Karnataka). Sources say that while they emphasised that Yeddyurappa should be given ‘some responsible position’, they did not discuss his specific demands—of being appointed either the state party president or the party’s CM candidate for the next Assembly polls (due next year). Eshwarappa later told reporters that the central leaders told them to inform Yeddyurappa that he should not take any hasty decision: “They have also accepted the fact that Yeddyurappa is important for the party and promised to look into the issues raised by us.”

It may be difficult to fathom why a tainted former CM—whose son and other family members are also similarly accused of corruption—should be so important to the BJP, especially after having ignored him for so long. “It’s because the party is in the grip of election fever,” says a party leader, “While the 2008 Karnataka Assembly polls were all about huge monies being spent by candidates and their ballooning assets as mining boomed, the 2013 election is expected to be fought bitterly on caste equations only, as money is one commodity [that] everyone has. A cauldron of caste and communal permutations and combinations are being worked out by all.”

Yeddyurappa’s new political manoeuvring is probably based on his calculations around Lingayat votes, which he is said to hold sway over. Perhaps he believes that all the money he sanctioned as CM to Lingayat-dominated religious muths (more than Rs 200 crore) will help him beat the BJP at its own game. However, there are indications that Lingayats, who constitute a vital 17 per cent of the state’s electorate, have already started shifting towards the Congress. Yeddyurappa’s control of Lingayat votes, therefore, is no longer a given.

For the moment, though, the former CM says that he will not bring down the state government. “I have told my supporters among MPs, MLAs and ministers not to leave till elections are called,” Yeddyurappa says, “When my party is inaugurated on 10 December, lakhs of people will be there. I under-stand that senior party leaders are trying to get in touch with me. But I have decided to leave.”