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Eshwarappa, who quit as Karnataka minister over contractor death, is key BJP architect in state

BJP's tallest backward classes leader in Karnataka, K.S. Eshwarappa has held various posts, including deputy chief minister and state party president.

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Bengaluru: Karnataka Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister K.S. Eshwarappa, caught in a controversy following allegations of corruption and his alleged role in the suicide of a contractor, announced his resignation from the cabinet Thursday.

“I have decided to tender my resignation as minister for rural development and panchayat raj on Friday evening. This is only to prevent any embarrassment to the BJP government led by Basavaraj Bommai. I am confident of emerging clean from this allegation,” Eshwarappa told reporters at a press conference Thursday.

The decision came barely 24 hours after Eshwarappa appeared adamant about not stepping down.

The Udupi police have filed an FIR against the 73-year-old BJP leader for alleged abetment. The controversy has given the state’s Opposition Congress a strong handle against the ruling BJP ahead of the 2023 assembly elections. The Congress has demanded not only Eshwarappa’s resignation but also his arrest over the allegations of corruption and those relating to the death of Santosh Patil.

Eshwarappa’s decision came after BJP national General Secretary C.T. Ravi said heads must roll to counter the public perception. “Sometimes, in public life, there arise situations when heads must roll — even if it is senior leaders — to assuage public perception,” Ravi had told reporters Wednesday.

Santosh Patil — a contractor who was found dead at a lodge in Udupi earlier this week — had for weeks been accusing Eshwarappa and his associates of demanding 40 per cent commission on works worth Rs 40 crore that he had undertaken in Belagavi.

In multiple statements to the media as well as letters to the BJP central leadership, Santosh alleged that he had proceeded with the road works on oral assurance of Eshwarappa, without a formal work order.

On several occasions, Eshwarappa had referred to the lack of an official work order to reject Santosh’s allegations of corruption and dues owed, he alleged.

Eshwarappa distanced himself from the alleged suicide. “I filed a suit against him because he made baseless allegations and defamed me. He should have responded in court. I have nothing to do with this suicide,” the minister told reporters Tuesday.


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Pressure from Opposition

The BJP found itself in a fix under the relentless pressure from the Opposition over Patil’s death. Congress, JD(S), AAP, and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) leaders had hit the streets demanding the arrest of Eshwarappa.

“This is the most corrupt government ever in Karnataka. We will expose the ministers demanding huge commissions. We are being harassed for bribes. The health ministry is the most corrupt. So are water resources and PWD,” alleged D. Kempanna, president of the Karnataka contractors’ association Wednesday.

The association has set a deadline for the Bommai government to address their concerns and has warned of stalling all government works for a month starting 25 May.


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Eshwarappa’s rise from RSS worker to Deputy CM

From his humble beginnings as the son of two farmworkers to declaring assets worth Rs 10.31 crore in 2018, Eshwarappa’s political journey began with student activism.

The veteran has often been in the eye of the storm for his “crass” language, and questionable choice of words. However, those in the BJP saw it as his “inimitable rustic quality”.

“He doesn’t mince words. He is very straightforward. This often lands him in trouble but one can never question his loyalty to the party. Unlike [former CM] B.S. Yediyurappa, he never walked out of the party. He has shown unparalleled sincerity to the Sangh and ideology,” said a BJP office-bearer who didn’t wish to be named.

Eshwarappa, who joined the RSS student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) as a teen, worked as a karyakarta in the RSS, climbing up the ranks of Bharatiya Jana Sangh and eventually the BJP.

Counted among the pioneers of the BJP in Karnataka, Eshwarappa — a Kuruba leader — is a contemporary of Yediyurappa and the late Ananth Kumar, who laid the foundation for the party in the state.


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Bittersweet ties with Yediyurappa  

From pedalling cycles alongside Yediyurappa on membership drives to sharing prison time during the Emergency, Eshwarappa soon pitted himself as the former CM’s rival. He is also believed to have forged alliances with other BJP leaders to “tame” the Lingayat strongman.

Eshwarappa is considered the tallest backward classes leader in the BJP. Outside the party, he has wrestled with Congress leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah to position himself as the tallest Kuruba leader.

A former deputy chief minister and former president of the BJP state unit, Eshwarappa always remained a step behind Yediyurappa.

If Yediyurappa won an assembly seat for the first time in 1983 from Shikharipura, Eshwarappa won his in 1989 from neighbouring Shivamogga. He won the post of BJP state president in 1992 after Yediyurappa held the position in 1988.

“Irrespective of whether he was a karyakarta, a minister, an MLA, or state BJP president, in power or out of power, Eshwarappa has remained the same — approachable, helpful, and an easy-to-work-with leader. He has no airs,” said S. Prakash, spokesperson for BJP Karnataka.

Unfinished ambition

When Yediyurappa quit the BJP in 2013 and formed the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP), Eshwarappa’s hopes to emerge as a bigger leader were cut short — first by his defeat in the assembly polls that year and second when Yediyurappa returned to the party and eventually became the CM candidate.

Even after Yediyurappa returned to the BJP in 2013, Eshwarappa — with speculated backing from B.L. Santhosh, then the secretary (organisation) for Karnataka and now the BJP’s national general secretary — raised a rebellion from within called ‘Sangolli Rayanna Brigade’. It was considered an attempt to consolidate backward classes to break Yediyurappa’s clout in the party due to his Lingayat backing.

The rift between the two leaders reached new heights when their respective personal assistants clashed over a supposed controversial CD. In 2017, Yediyurappa’s grandnephew and secretary N.R. Santosh was booked for an alleged attempt to abduct Eshwarappa’s PA Vinay to get back the CD.

On multiple occasions, the BJP’s central leadership has had to intervene to restore peace between the leaders.

In 2021, Eshwarappa shot off a letter to the then Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala, accusing Yediyurappa of “interfering” in his cabinet. Already on a weak wicket over alleged differences with the party’s central leadership, Yediyurappa could do little other than fume over Eshwarappa’s letter.

In July that year, Yediyurappa was replaced as chief minister. In less than a year after Yediyurappa’s exit as chief minister, Eshwarappa has announced his resignation from the cabinet.

(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)


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