The Prodigal Son Returns

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It’s now Advani vs Modi in Karnataka too, as a section of the BJP wants Yeddyurappa to return to the party to lead the charge in 2014, while another section opposes the move

Weeks after its humiliating defeat in the Assembly polls, a section of the Karnataka Bharatiya Janata Party is working feverishly to build bridges with former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa who left to form his own outfit following the saffron party’s refusal to condone his corruption.

The urgency to bring Yeddyurappa back on board is due to the impending General Election, now less than 10 months away. Though the BJP bravely went about proclaiming that it could face the electorate without depending on the former CM, it slipped to third place in Karnataka in the state’s recent Assembly polls. And though the Karnataka Janata Paksha founded by Yeddyurappa won only six seats, it harmed the BJP’s chances in 29 constituencies. The BJP does not want a repeat.

Another factor is that the party’s |national election campaign chairman, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, also prefers Yeddyurappa to be onboard if the party is to retain the 19 Lok Sabha seats—of the total 28—that it currently holds.

But, the chorus to bring back Yeddyurappa has not gone down well with BJP patriarch LK Advani’s camp in the state, which includes former union minister and Bangalore South MP Ananth Kumar and state BJP President Prahlad Joshi, among others. “We will lose the moral high ground that the BJP currently enjoys vis-à-vis the Congress in relation to several scams the UPA-II is facing. All this will come crashing down if Yeddyurappa, who was forced to step down following corruption charges in 2011, is accepted back,” Kumar says.

Yeddyurappa was forced to step down after an adverse report by the state Lokayukta, which looked into the mining scam and alleged that he and his family members accepted favours in exchange for granting mining licences. He also has the dubious distinction of being the first former Karnataka CM to be jailed on charges of corruption. Any effort to bring him back into the party fold while the CBI is investigating his role will be doubly embarrassing for the BJP, says a source close to Ananth Kumar.

Members of the Advani camp also fear that the Congress may use the CBI as a handle to gain advantage. And although those leaders pitching for Yeddyurappa are doing so to retain numbers, others fear the former CM’s return may erode the BJP’s credibility further.

Yeddyurappa’s return is being orchestrated by another former Karnataka CM, Jagadish Shettar, under whose leadership the party contested the May polls, and by former Deputy CM KS Eshwarappa, among others. Sadananda Gowda, another former CM who was recommended by Yeddyurappa as his successor and later fell out of favour, admits the party is divided 50-50 when it comes to re-admitting his predecessor. “Yes, I am against his return. But even if the balance becomes 51-49 in favour of Yeddyurappa, we will go for it. We have to talk to the cadre and party leaders and elicit their views clearly,’’ he says, rather diplomatically.

The state BJP brass has met several times in the last few days to discuss this issue. Senior leaders feel that Yeddyurappa will help the party consolidate votes among Lingayats of Karnataka, of which he himself is one. In the most recent Assembly polls, the Lingayat vote was distributed broadly between the BJP, KJP and Congress.

Those in favour of Yeddyurappa merging his party with the BJP say it was he who first created an opportunity for the BJP in the south when he forged an alliance with the JDS to form a coalition. When the JDS’s HD Kumaraswamy reneged on his promise to hand over the CM-ship to Yeddyurappa, polls followed and he led the party to a near-working majority—110 seats—and formed a government with the help of six independents. It was the first government ever formed by the BJP in the south. Though the party lasted a full term despite being racked by infighting and rebellions, Yeddyurappa was replaced after three years in the saddle. At one time, this Lingayat leader had even boasted: “In Karnataka, Yeddyurappa is the BJP and BJP is Yeddyurappa.”

“Modiji clearly has a soft corner for Yeddyurappa. There is a perception that unless Yeddyurappa is brought back, the BJP will find it tough to retain the Lok Sabha seats it won in 2009,’’ says a former minister who is undecided about supporting the move.

Meanwhile, new BJP Karnataka in-charge Thawar Singh Gehlot created ripples of laughter when he told newsmen in Bangalore that he wants Yeddyurappa to formally apply for party membership to be readmitted to the BJP.

Yeddyurappa himself has been enjoying the debate within the BJP. He is believed to be making backroom manoeuvres to make sure he is in a strong position when he takes that all important decision.

Another reason some BJP leaders oppose his re-entry is a fear that they will lose their leverage, as the former CM is unlikely to come back without the incentive of an important post. One such leader is concerned that Yeddyurappa will be vengeful unless he is given the post of state party president and a say in election candidate selection.

That matters are gaining momentum can be gauged from the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, too, has jumped headlong into the debate by sending informal emissaries to get an understanding of the mood on both sides.