BENGALURU: The BJP appears to be drawing on its veteran rower BS Yediyurappa, making him a key electoral mascot alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they shore up the campaign in poll-bound Karnataka.
The octogenarian, who has already announced his retirement from electoral politics, is to be put on the podium by the ruling party’s central leaders.
The reasons are not far to seek for why Yediyurappa was pushed to the top of the campaign board, the four-time prime minister who built the party from the bottom up, has a mass appeal and connection – particularly to the politically influential Lingayat community – that no other party leader has commanded in the state.
It is now fairly clear from the BJP’s campaign narrative that the party is banking on the “Yediyurappa factor” and portraying him as a “poster child”, using his influence to the max.
The BJP’s central leadership – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Interior Minister Amit Shah, Party President JP Nadda and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh – have lavished praise on Yediyurappa at their public meetings in the state in recent days.
It’s not often that someone else hogs the spotlight on PM’s program, but on one such occasion on February 27, at a public gathering in Shivamogga, it seemed Modi himself would unite the BJP strongman from Karnataka “honorable place” in his “Karma Bhoomi”.
At the recent public gathering to mark the inauguration of Shivamogga Airport, which coincided with Yediyurappa’s 80th birthday, Modi called his contributions to public life “inspirational.”
The Prime Minister congratulated him on stage as he asked those in attendance at the public assembly to flash their mobile phones as a gesture of honor to Yediyurappa, and the large assembly responded enthusiastically.
Then, as the Lingayat strongman finished his speech, Modi stood up and applauded him. The Prime Minister has also repeatedly taken it upon himself to highlight Yediyurappa’s last speech at the recent Karnataka gathering, saying it is an inspiration to every public figure.
At a recent public meeting, Amit Shah also called on the people to lose their trust in Modi and Yediyurappa and to elect the BJP back to power in the state.
Similar comments were made by Nadda and Rajnath Singh, who were recently campaigning in the state.
According to some political observers and BJP insiders, the party’s move to project Yediyurappa appears aimed at blunting anti-incumbents, keeping the Lingayat vote base intact and counteracting the opposition Congress, which has leveled allegations of corruption against the government.
Azim Premji University political scientist A Narayana said the BJP was initially preparing for elections without Yediyurappa in an active role, but “as there wasn’t much the party could count on on the ground, it was inevitable for them to repackage and present it”.
That’s why they’re doing their best to prove they haven’t offended him by asking to step down as chief minister in 2021, he said.
“They (BJP) have tried their best to secure the support of Lingayat without Yediyurappa but they are not very confident, that is why they are doing it. They could have afforded to lose some support from Lingayat provided they felt confident in cultivating support from some other communities that they also don’t seem very confident about,” Narayana said.
Yediyurappa resigned as CM on July 26, 2021. Age was seen as a major factor in his exit from the top job, with an unwritten rule in the BJP to keep those over 75 out of elected office. In addition, the central leadership of the BJP wanted to make way for a new leadership ahead of the general election.
Unlike the 2018 election campaign, when Yediyurappa was the CM candidate and the face of the party, this time the BJP has opted for a collective approach, although it initially tried to project the leadership of Prime Minister Basavaraj Bommai.
Narayana said: “BJP have been trying to win over lingayats through Bommai, but they don’t seem confident they have achieved this given all the discontent brewing over issues like reservations.”
“As long as Yediyurappa is there and as long as he is an unhappy man, it is not possible for another Lingayat leader to cultivate the support of the Lingayat,” he said, adding that this is obviously one of the reasons why the BJP is staying want Yediyrappa in good spirits.
With the party now putting Yediyurappa at the forefront of the campaign, Bommai’s stake appears to have weakened, according to poll watchers and some within the BJP, although part of the party credits him with pro-popular plans, raising SC/ST reservations and presenting an all- Inclusive budgets.
According to another party official, while Yediyurappa is not their CM face, retaining Lingayat’s vote base is crucial for the BJP to win the election with an absolute majority and that is why the party wants to reassure the dominant community that that he is still relevant to it.
He also noted the resentment of some of the Lingayat community, particularly the Panchamasali Lingayats, over the reservation issue, saying it could pose a threat and must be mitigated immediately.
“It needs to be communicated effectively that, apart from being the BJP’s highest parliamentary board member, Yediyurappa is still the face or mascot of the party in Karnataka,” he said.
BJP state secretary N. Ravi Kumar said Yediyurappa is a great mass leader in Karnataka and he is someone who built and nurtured the party in the state.
“He’s a four-time CM and two-time opposition leader, he knows nooks and crannies of the state, he’s the leader of all communities, including lingayats, and people from all sections respect him. He’s projected as one of the faces, of course, What’s wrong?” asked Ravi Kumar.
“There may be some level of anti-seat, I’m not entirely opposed to it, all governments will have it, but Bommai provided a good budget and provided good programs … it’s the founding of Congress, why? “You don’t speak positively about Yediyurappa before and you do now? It is because the strategy of the Congress is to win a positive public opinion about Yediyurappa in its favor,” he said.
For his part, Yediyurappa recently appealed to the dominant Veerashaiva Lingayat community, to which he belongs, to continue their support for the ruling BJP in the upcoming general elections and ensure their victory in the state.
That statement came amid attempts by the opposition Congress and the JD(S) to project that Yediyurappa will be marginalized by the BJP as they seek to woo the numerically and politically dominant community.
Veerashaiva lingayats make up an estimated 17 percent of the state’s population and form the BJP’s strong voting base. Yediyurappa is considered the “supreme” leader of the Veerashaiva-Lingayat and continues to rule the community.
In return, the ex-CM apparently tries to secure the political future of his sons.
While Yediyurappa announced that he would not participate in elections, he said in the same breath that he would vacate his seat in the Shikaripura Assembly, from which his younger son and the party’s vice president, BY Vijayendra, will stand if the High Command agrees.
Yediyurappa wanted to make Vijayendra a minister via the MLC route shortly after his retirement as CM in 2021, but was unsuccessful with his attempts. His elder son, BY Raghavendra, is a Shivamogga MP. PTI KSU RS