There was a fortuitous coincidence on July 26. The second anniversary of the BJP government in Karnataka fell on the same day as the Kargil Diwas. Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, who was to quit immediately after the event, made use of the opportunity to subtly weave in the theme of martyrdom. He said we will overcome hurdles like those brave soldiers did on the battlefield. All through the address, in Bengaluru, he spoke in the royal plural to refer to himself.
BSY repeatedly reminded his audience as to how there was a time in the past for the BJP in Karnataka when it was difficult to assemble even “50 people” for its meetings. He had slogged to get the crowds to swell over the decades. He pointed out that even when stalwarts like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi arrived, they found it difficult to assemble “400 people” to listen to them. He also reminded that there were just two members in the legislative Assembly at one time and when his other legislative colleague deserted the party, he valiantly fought alone till they reached a triple-digit mark in 2008. Continuing his masked autobiographical strain, he said he was nearly killed as a municipal president in Shikaripur, his home taluk, and when the party offered no creature comforts or cars, he cycled around to make it stand on its two legs.
BSY’s focus was entirely on the physical energy that he had expended to build the party. There was no mention of intellectual or ideological issues that went into shaping it. He did not anyway subscribe to those pretensions, ever. There was no talk either of a big vision or innovative welfare ideas that he had passionately chased as a leader. He made the physical putting together of an organisation in Karnataka, his legacy. At least he made a strong claim to that inheritance, to which he is richly entitled. He is of course the only leader of the BJP, till date, in Karnataka with a deep grassroots connect.
There is no taking away from the fact that whoever has enjoyed power in the state BJP chiefly owes it to his grit, determination, perseverance, compromise and cunning. To that modest reckoning, perhaps we should add monumental levels of corruption that he allowed to make his party’s pursuit of power very real. People still shudder to think as to what happened when the mining Reddys had an iron grip over him and his administration. However, BSY’s contemporaries remember him as a lonely peripatetic ‘mad man’ who went round and round the state for years to create a semblance of a BJP organisation. In fact, he himself referred to this “mad man” imagery in his farewell speech. He said during the floods in 2019, when the central leadership had not allowed him to expand his Cabinet, he had gone around, alone, like a “mad man”, helping people cope with the calamity.
Now, with this enormous physical presence of BSY in the party clearly in the past, the BJP will face a vacuum that it will try to fill up by experimenting with many Lilliputians. Metaphorically speaking, how many of them will make one Gulliver is the question. Since 2019, they have tried to create alternatives to Yediyurappa with multiple deputy chief ministers, but they have all been lacklustre and safe in his shadow. Even in 2011, when BSY stepped down after corruption charges, he was replaced first by Sadananda Gowda and later by a fellow Lingayat, Jagadish Shettar. Both did not have it in them to stand up to BSY’s boundless energy and presence in the party. Shettar’s appointment made an additional point—just another Lingayat will not hold together the community’s vote for the party. In 2013, BSY, with his own party and a 10% vote share in the elections, demolished the BJP’s prospects. All these situations will be endlessly analysed now that the saffron party has chosen another status quoist and easy-going Lingayat, Basavaraj Bommai, as the new chief minister, who looks like a Shettar replica.
So far, BSY’s formula for the BJP has been to keep his community, the numerically dominant Lingayats, at the centre and weave a coalition of backwards, neglected sections of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes around it while remaining Hindutva neutral. This formula was an inverse of what Devaraj Urs had followed in the 1970s when he empowered the backwards and kept the rest in an orbit around them. The Janata Party and the Janata Dal social experiments conducted by Ramakrishna Hegde and Deve Gowda were the most inclusive. The trio of Urs, Hegde and Gowda empowered people through progressive legislations and massive development works, but BSY followed a shortcut. He empowered the various castes through their pontiffs and seminaries, which caused an incalculable regression in a state known for its high democratic quotient and progressiveness. In this regard, BSY will go down in history as a man who mindlessly applied the principles of social engineering to achieve terribly narrow outcomes.
The new BJP under Narendra Modi may not like the party to be perennially under the clutches of the Lingayats and the arbitrary leadership of its pontiffs. They have already created a consciousness in the community that the most populous sub-caste among them, the Panchamasalis, are the least empowered. They are likely to implant the internal reservation bug to reorganise the party and break the Lingayats as a homogenous voting bloc. In the process, they may club the Panchamasalis with other backward castes and Dalits, and offer an air cover of Brahmin leadership. Their deep desire may be to create a rootless wonder like Ramakrishna Hegde. Scaffolding Brahmins with backward castes and Dalits will fulfil their ideological project too. They are also looking askance at Vokkaligas, the dominant community in southern Karnataka. Whatever their circus in Karnataka, they will not find it easy after BSY.
Sugata Srinivasaraju, Senior journalist and author (email@example.com)