Prime Minister Narendra Modi hands over a model of polugh to Karnataka BJP President and chief ministerial candidate B S Yeddyurappa during the party's 'Farmers Convention' at Davanagere
File image of Narendra Modi at the BJP's 'Farmers Convention' at Davanagere, Karnataka | PTI
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Yeddyurappa has been tainted by allegations of corruption and doesn’t have a flattering record. But the BJP remains dependent on the Lingayat leader to reclaim power in Karnataka. 

Bengaluru: Karnataka BJP chief B.S. Yeddyurappa turned 75 Tuesday and no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned up to make a public show of his backing for the party’s chief ministerial candidate in assembly elections due this summer.

It was as much a sign of desperation as it was a clear indication that the BJP is overwhelmingly dependent on the veteran Lingayat leader to oust the Congress and reclaim power in the southern state. So what if he’s touched the informal retirement age ceiling in the party, has been tainted by corruption allegations during his previous term as chief minister and does not have a flattering governance record.

“I am happy to be amongst you ‘anna datas’ and also on the 75th birthday of our tallest leader B.S. Yeddyurappa ji who has been anointed as ‘Raitha Bandhu’ (farmers’ friends) by you,” Modi said addressing a farmers’ rally in Davanagere.

“We all will work for our farmers,” the PM added.

The rally was, in fact, organised to mark Yeddyurappa’s 75th birthday. And along with PM Modi’s speech it put to rest doubts, if there were any, about how much the BJP will depend on Yeddyurappa to deliver Karnataka.

According to party sources, the BJP’s central leadership has no doubts that Yeddyurappa is still the BJP’s most popular local mass leader who has the support of the upper caste Lingayats who are the largest community in the state at 17 per cent of the population and have traditionally backed the BJP.

Besides, he has also fought corruption charges, gone to jail, formed a regional party which damaged the BJP and helped the Congress return to power in 2013 – political attributes that showcase his ability to make or break an organisation.

“He (Yeddyurappa) is a leader of the masses, but internally within the party he is not much loved,” said a senior party leader speaking on condition of anonymity.

“But he is the only hope as leaders like Jagdish Shettar and Sadanand Gowda, both of whom succeeded him as chief ministers between 2008 and 2013, cannot build the party cadre the way he has,” the party leader added.

‘Age no bar’

While the BJP’s central leadership has denied tickets to many 75-year-olds in the past with the only exception of P.K. Dhumal — who was BJP’s CM face in the Himachal election but lost his seat — the party seems to overlook this unwritten rule in the case of Yeddyurappa.

Senior leaders like Union ministers Prakash Javadekar and Ananth Kumar have reiterated time and again that BJP will contest the Karnataka assembly election under the leadership of Yeddyurappa.

The internal feedback from Parivarthan Yatras conducted under the supervision of Yeddyurappa too projected him as the tallest leader in the state.

“There is no alternative to him in the state,” said one union minister.

However, there is some speculation in one section of the party that Yeddyurappa will be used to try and win the elections, be allowed to rule the state for a year or two before being moved to the Centre.

Rising through the ranks

Born in Mandya in 1943, Yeddyurappa did not have any prior political exposure. He started his career as a clerk in the social welfare department in Shivamogga. A year later he took up a job in a rice mill. This is where he met his wife Mythra Devi, the daughter of the mill owner.

During this time his affiliation to the RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation, grew stronger. Later, he became secretary of the Shikaripura branch of RSS before becoming the BJP’s state president in 1988.

A man who worked from the grassroots level, Yeddyurappa emerged as a Lingayat leader by chance. The community had adopted Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Dal as its leader. The BJP formed an alliance with him in the Lok Sabha elections and soon after Hegde’s passing away, Yeddyurappa was able to take control of the transferred votes of the community for the BJP.

His perseverance paid dividend when the Congress party formed an alliance with the Janata Dal (S) to run a coalition government in 2004.

Yeddyurappa and H.D. Kumaraswamy, the Janata Dal (S) leader, got together to form the JDS-BJP coalition government in 2006. Yeddyurappa became the deputy chief minister then.

The Lingayat factor

With the ruling Congress government in Karnataka backing the demand of Lingayats for a separate religion, Yeddyurappa seems to be facing his biggest challenge to retain his vote bank this time.

According Karnataka BJP spokesperson Malavika Avinash, what makes Yeddyurappa so acceptable is that he does not involve himself in petty politics. “Yeddyurappa as a CM would not have launched a Shaadi Bhagya scheme (a Siddaramaiah government scheme providing financial assistance to backward minority women).”

“It is very divisive. His scheme Bhagyalakshmi for children from BPL families was so much more inclusive, that’s what sets him apart,” she said.

But a section of party workers finds him “authoritarian”. “He has always been authoritarian in his approach and there is no doubt that the party has remained a cohesive unit because the efforts of senior leaders like Ananth Kumar,” said a BJP functionary.

With inputs from Pragya Kaushika in Delhi

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