Bengaluru: “I am a fighter till my last breath,” declared B.S. Yediyurappa in his powerful speech on the floor of the Karnataka assembly in May 2018, as he announced he was stepping down as chief minister minutes before a trust vote.
Monday’s Karnataka bypoll results proved just that. Not only did Yediyurappa lead the BJP to victory in 12 of the 15 seats, his time-tested strategy to lure legislators, dubbed ‘Operation Kamala’, helped him further consolidate his position as chief minister in the only BJP-ruled state in the south.
Yediyurappa has proved again to the BJP’s central leadership that he is not just the strongest and most influential BJP leader in Karnataka, but one who also delivers on his promises.
Fighting many battles
Yediyurappa has fought many battles in the last year-and-a-half — from being unable to prove his majority despite the BJP being the single-largest party in the 2018 assembly polls, to defending himself when opponents leaked audio tapes that allegedly had him luring legislators, and even convincing the party high command of his influence.
The tussle between Yediyurappa and the central leadership was quite evident when he was made to wait nearly 72 hours before being sworn in as chief minister in July. Then, for the first 100 days, he ran the government single-handedly because the central leadership did not let him expand his cabinet.
He travelled to Delhi three times in August, seeking an audience with PM Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah on cabinet expansion, but on two of those occasions, he returned without a meeting. Eventually, he was joined by 17 MLAs in his cabinet, including three deputy CMs.
The delay in the central government releasing Rs 1,200 crore towards flood relief despite several requests by the chief minister’s office was portrayed as Yediyurappa’s waning power to convince Shah and Modi to release funds. The estimated damage caused by the floods was worth Rs 38,451 crore.
Senior leader B.L. Santhosh’s elevation as general secretary (organisation) in the party was also seen as a way of “cutting Yediyurappa to size”. Santhosh’s influence and role in the southern region expanded, and sources close to the national leadership confirmed that after Yediyurappa, Santhosh is being groomed to lead the BJP in Karnataka and the other southern states.
Political analyst Ramakrishna Upadhya feels the by-election results have eased the tension between Shah and Yediyurappa.
“The central leaders have realised that they will need regional leaders like Yediyurappa. The jolt that they got in Maharashtra where they thought Fadnavis would get a second term, and losing Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh only goes to show that Karnataka is crucial and so is Yediyurappa,” Upadhya said.
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Yediyurappa may be in the last leg of his political career, which has spanned over four decades. But for him, age is just a number — he possesses grit, determination, focus, passion and resilience in abundance.
According to BJP insiders, had the party not shown impressive results under his leadership, the 76-year-old Yediyurappa would have joined party elders like L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi in the ‘Margdarshak Mandal’ or as a state governor due to Modi and Shah’s informal 75-year age limit. But to this day, state BJP sources say there is no one else who can equal the Lingayat leader in popularity and acceptability among voters, within the party, and even with leaders of other parties.
“There was a time that the national leadership thought of Yediyurappa as a liability. However, the absence of senior leaders like Ananth Kumar have given Yediyurappa the space to prove his worth once again,” a senior party functionary told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
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Significance to the BJP
Yediyurappa’s significance in Karnataka can be best understood through the lens of the 2013 elections, when he had fallen out with the BJP and floated his own party, the KJP. Although the new party won just six seats, it ended up hurting the BJP in around 30 seats, and got a vote-share of 9.83 per cent overall. The KJP finished second in 36 constituencies and third in 35.
This taught the BJP central leadership that it should not take Yediyurappa lightly.
Fast forward six years, and the political atmosphere in Karnataka is very different from 2014, when the Modi wave began. It is clear from the results of the 2018 assembly polls and the bypolls now that Yediyurappa’s strategy and planning has paid off, and that his 2008 victory that gave the BJP its first foothold in the south was no fluke.
“The question we should ask now is if Yediyurappa is so crucial when the BJP already has Modi. Karnataka does need a strong leader other than Modi, as it was seen in the 2014 and 2018 elections that Modi could not garner as many seats in Karnataka as he should have during the wave,” said political analyst A. Narayana.
“That is why the BJP cannot easily do away with the Yediyurappa, unless it finds another leader who can match his persona and dependability.”
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