Bengaluru: The coronavirus crisis has brought out the best of Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa, forcing his detractors in the party, including those in New Delhi, to back off.
The BJP high command had been pushing for a change of guard in Karnataka as it had reservations against the 78-year-old chief minister, the party’s tallest leader in the state who is known to be independent-minded and even defiant of the powers that be when it came to protecting his loyalists.
But his efficient Covid management has stumped many in the BJP, not just in terms of his administration’s response to the health crisis but also his initiatives to engage business and industries to mitigate the economic fallout.
He has been leading the state’s Covid fight from the front, directly taking charge of the crisis management through the bureaucracy and reining in ambitious ministers.
As on Wednesday, Karnataka has a total of 1,397 cases and 40 deaths. This number is way below other such states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Delhi.
A man for the crisis
Leading up to the Covid-19 crisis, the chief minister had been under fire from various quarters after toppling the previous Congress government, in the infamous ‘Operation Kamala’, and taking charge on 26 July last year.
He has had to handle an internal rebellion led by senior BJP leaders who were not appointed as ministers, placate the 22 Congress and JD(S) MLAs who switched sides and has also had to fend off allegations of his family running the government.
Yediyurappa also faced a few embarrassing situations as the central BJP leadership took its time to give him the green signal to expand his cabinet. As a result, the chief minister ran the government with a “one-man cabinet” for over 20 days, during which time he had to single-handedly battle the flood crisis in North Karnataka.
But since the Covid-19 crisis struck, the chief minister has taken some swift and concrete decisions, which has also helped his image.
When Karnataka reported the first coronavirus death in the country at Kalaburagi, Yediyurappa swiftly ordered a complete shutdown of the district on 15 March and issued directions to trace and test all those who may have come in contact with the 76-year-old patient.
“The first thing that our administration was told to ensure was that every single person who spoke to the deceased was contacted and tested. This kind of vigorous contact-tracing also helped contain the further spread of the virus in the district,” said a district official working in the Kalaburagi deputy commissioner’s office.
“The curfew was first met with resistance but later people saw the benefits when they found that there were fewer positive cases being reported.”
Karnataka also locked down nine districts — Bengaluru, Bengaluru Rural, Mysuru, Kodagu, Dakshina Kannada (Mangaluru), Dharwad, Belagavi, Kalaburgi and Chikkaballapur — on 22 March, days before the national lockdown kicked in on 25 March.
The state government also sealed its borders, including, controversially, with Kerala, which prevented patients from the state seeking treatment in Karnataka towns of Manipal and Mangaluru. The decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court, which directed Karnataka to allow non-Covid patients needing emergency care.
“The Kerala-Karnataka border was sealed for a reason. It was to ensure that there would be no opportunity for community transfer,” Karnataka Deputy Chief minister Ashwath Narayan told ThePrint. “The CM’s decision was done for the benefit of the people. It may have been perceived wrongly by others, but it helped us save so many lives.”
In the midst of the pandemic, Yediyurappa also sent a strong message, saying action would be taken against those speaking ill of the Muslim community and connecting them to the spread of the virus during the Tablighi Jamaat issue.
While his statement won him applause from several quarters, even from the opposition Congress and JD(S), several upset BJP supporters started a social media campaign against him with the hashtag called #WeLostHopeBSY.
But the chief minister refused to back down. “I stand by my words. Rather a lot of people, 99 out of 100 people approved the stand I took on the issue,” he had told ThePrint back then. “A few people may have had issues. Even my party members made damaging statements. I have given them a strict warning and will also initiate action against them.
Handling internal squabbles
Throughout the crisis, Yediyurappa has also deftly handled internal squabbling in his own cabinet.
Constant infighting and one-upmanship between his cabinet colleagues — Health Minister B. Sreeramulu and Medical Education Minister Dr K. Sudhakar — gave critics the ammunition to state that Yediyurappa was not in control.
The two ministers were constantly at loggerheads and would use social media to update the number of Covid-19 cases, sometimes contradicting each other.
Yediyurappa was quick to realise that it was damaging his image with the central leadership and immediately cracked the whip. He appointed another trusted BJP loyalist and Education Minister Suresh Kumar as the Covid-19 spokesperson.
He then directed Sudhakar to coordinate coronavirus operations in Bengaluru while Sreeramulu was given the task of touring the state and assessing the situation. The roles ensured that the duo never crossed paths again.
The chief minister has also been quick to stamp his authority. When Deputy Chief Minister Ashwath Narayan, after a meeting with IT industry heads on April 17, announced that 50 per cent of employees could return to work, Yediyurappa, within a matter of hours, revoked the order and announced that only 33 per cent would be allowed to function.
Political analyst Sandeep Shastri told ThePrint that the Covid-19 situation has strengthened Yediyurappa’s position.
“By and large, there is an impression in Karnataka that the crisis has been handled well. Yediyurappa has also allowed the bureaucracy a free hand to handle it,” Shastri said. “On the whole. Karnataka has come out as a state that has handled the crisis better than many other states, and credit goes to Yediyurappa.”
Shastri also believes that the Covid-19 crisis helped the chief minister politically.
“The Covid situation did not give rebel groups and dissidents a chance to create problems for the CM. This also worked to his advantage. The surprisingly firm stand he took on the Tablighi Jamaat issue also defanged the Opposition,” he said.
Economics in a pandemic
Where Yediyurappa has stood out has been in his efforts to revive the state’s economy during the pandemic. The state is heavily cash-strapped and the chief minister had appealed several times to the Centre to allow economic activities in the green zones.
Yediyurappa was among the first CMs to allow economic activities such as construction and industries to resume and he also opened liquor outlets as excise duty is one of the state’s biggest revenue sources.
The chief minister also set up a task force consisting of representatives from countries such Japan, Korea, France, Germany US and Taiwan to attract investments to Karnataka especially at a time several companies are looking at pulling out of China.
But his handling of the crisis has not been without criticism. The chief minister faced massive flak after he stopped migrant trains on 6 May, a day after he met representatives of CREDAI, a real estate developers association.
Following a massive furore, however, the chief minister revoked his decision, and allowed the migrant trains to run.
Critics have also accused Yediyurappa of many flip-flops.
But the chief minister has indicated that the flip-flops are a part of his governance style. “I am here to serve people. If a decision I take begins to hurt them, as a leader I should take it back to make life easier for them,” he had told ThePrint earlier.
But by and large, the chief minister has received praise, including from opposition leaders such as former Congress CM Siddaramaiah.
“Yediyurappa is one of the few leaders in Karnataka who understands the state well,” Siddaramaiah told ThePrint. “He has been facing a lot of pressure, but I also wish him the strength to withstand all of it.”