Nobody asked Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa if he thought there was no alternative leader for the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre.
Yet, that’s the answer he gave, taking the media by surprise on a lazy Sunday morning at a public event. “I won’t accept that there is no alternative. Whether in the state or at the Centre, there will always be alternatives. So I don’t believe it is right to say there is no alternative (leader)… but for however long the party high command vests confidence in me, I will continue as CM," Yediyurappa said in a rare candid admission.
Just before this, he had also said he would be willing to step down (from the CM’s post) the day the high command says they’ve had enough of his services. Both comments caught his partymen — supporters and rebels alike — off guard.
There has been speculation for over six months now on the party being inclined to replace him — even though it was also widely believed that he was irreplaceable.
But cushioned in his comments was the unsaid equivalence that he tried to draw between his situation and that at the Centre — for, if he is replaceable, then so could be many others.
For the past few weeks, the rhetoric of “If not Modi, then who" has been doing the rounds on social media yet again. For the BJP, that has long been battling from within on “If not Yediyurappa, then who", this is a question that hits close to the heart. For, if they can answer the question “If not Yediyurappa, then who", then doubtless, there will emerge answers for the other one.
Political analyst Prof Sandeep Shastri says BSY’s comments could be a sign of political exhaustion. But at the same time, they could be a veiled hint.
“No doubt that’s a veiled hint (the talk of alternatives). At one level, it’s a veiled hint at the Centre. It is also another veiled hint that destabilising at one level can also lead to destabilising at another level. But I also think the point he is trying to make is not to take on the central leadership of the party directly. However, he is setting the cat among the pigeons to create a flutter," says political analyst Prof Sandeep Shastri.
The cat did its work, and it ruffled the feathers of many pigeons.
The comments have set off a flurry of activity since Sunday in Karnataka — BSY’s political secretary MP Renukacharya brandished a bunch of papers to the media the next day, saying he has the signature of 65 MLAs who have all vested their support for Yediyurappa to continue as CM. Other MLAs have spoken out about how BSY is the unquestioned leader of the party and the government.
But the biggest surprise came perhaps from the party’s chief whip in the assembly, Sunil Kumar Karkala, on Tuesday: “Results coming in the media in the last three days are not good in the interest of the party. Few comments of few people is not the same as all MLAs and party workers. We can’t tell our opinion to the media, we request party leaders to provide us a platform to hear us," he tweeted, tagging party state president Nalin Kumar Kateel, state incharge Arun Singh and national general secretary CT Ravi.
Asked whether he meant that the BJP did not have a platform for the MLAs to express their grievances, Kumar only said that party legislators haven’t had a forum to discuss issues because of Covid in the past few months.
“I’m not saying there is no platform, I’m saying create a platform. Because of Covid, we have not been able to talk for long. I never talked about any change in leadership, I merely want the party to hear us out. The opinion of one or a few MLAs (the ones who signed the ‘signature campaign’) is not the opinion of all MLAs. One MLA is not the party," he told News18.
Pressed on whether he thought it a fit time for leadership change, he refused to comment, merely saying that all 117 MLAs and thousands of workers make the party, not a few MLAs who speak out in public.
Whether he is of the school that MLAs must not air their grievances in public or not, the Karkala MLA whose task it is to get the party flocking together in the assembly debates still took to social media to draw attention to the fact that “one MLA is not the party".
Not all is well, it seems, when BSY himself talks of stepping down or whispers abound of how his son Vijayendra is increasingly given responsibilities by the CM and this has irked the thickest of loyal ministers.
“My own reading of the situation is that ever since he started this particular tenure of chief ministership, his whole approach has been very different. I don’t see that belligerence, I don’t see that thirst for power. There seems to be just that ‘want to go through the motions’," says Prof Shastri.
It’s not just about his age (78 years), a certain political exhaustion has set in, Prof Shastri feels.
“I think somewhere he must be asking himself, why should I fight these multiple battles — battle with the Centre, with the state leadership, battle with supporters, battle among those he brings into the party. He is making all these efforts but he still does not get the unstinted support within. How many battles to fight, how long to keep fighting, when you don’t see support emerging for you at the end of the tunnel?" he points out.
A senior national functionary of the party who tracks Karnataka, though, says he doesn’t make much of BSY’s comments.
“It may merely be a reconciliation to realities or an off-the-cuff remark," he told News18 on condition of anonymity.
“He is the only person in the country that the party has relaxed its criteria for. For one, his age — no one above 75 gets such executive roles, not Lal Krishna Advani, not Murali Manohar Joshi. He got it. Secondly, someone who crossed over from the party (to start his own party before the 2013 elections) and came back and still getting a position? Kalyan Singh didn’t get this lenience, Uma Bharti didn’t. So whatever he has got after 2018 is a bonus," he says.
He asks this: if any MLA is brandishing a signature campaign with 65 signatures, that also means there are 51 other MLAs who are not signatories to this.
Challenging the narrative
For long, the image projected about Yediyurappa has been that he is the mass leader who has brought the party to power after many years of grassroots-level mobilisation. But this theory isn’t palatable to some insiders.
The BJP has fought six elections under BSY, from 1989. That year, the party got just four seats, while in 1994, when he was projected as the CM face, the party got 40 seats (out of 224). In 1999, the party did a ‘sankalp yatra’ to make him the CM; there was Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Centre as PM. The party got just 44 seats, and even BSY lost.
It was in 2004, when Ananth Kumar was the party president in Karnataka, that it got its maximum of 84 seats (including 5 of the JDU in a pre-poll alliance). But this was not enough either, though it was the single-largest party, an insider points out. The party did wrest its way to power in 2006 with BSY as deputy CM in a coalition with the JDS, but that adjustment soon fell apart.
“In 2008, we had a good opportunity to get 150 seats because of a sympathy wave after the fall of the coalition government, but even then the BJP was restricted to 110 because of BSY not strategising right on the caste combination," he says, adding that this also affected the party’s wins in the 2018 elections when the party was restricted to 104 (a party needs 113 seats in the Karnataka assembly for a simple majority).
In the 2013 assembly polls, Yediyurappa had parted ways with the BJP, floating his own Karnataka Janata Party. The party won six seats, and none of the ministers who had gone with him were able to win.
The BJP insider, who is also a core committee member, says there was no need to bring him back into the party before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but they decided to “forgive BSY his all" just so the party would stay focused on maximising wins for the Parliament elections.
“They all hail from our (party’s) ‘production unit,’ Modi or BSY. Forty years back, they had no background, they were not born rich or born popular or born leaders. It is the party that made them so, that gave them the opportunity. If there had even been one voice that spoke out asking why the party was encouraging a high post for someone who had ditched the party a few years back, he would not be in this position today," says the insider.
If the talk of BSY becoming replaceable has suddenly come up today, he attributes it to BY Vijayendra’s role in the party.
Besides, the party’s recent performance in bypolls has been a matter of concern. Last month, a core committee meeting specifically focussed on this, because the party lost one of the two assembly by-elections held in April, barely scraped through a win in a Lok Sabha bypoll, and came third place in elections in ten zilla panchayats (the Congress won three, the JDS two, and BJP just one).
For a ruling party to win in any bypoll or local elections is not special, but losing these will have to be looked upon gravely. An in-detail study is being taken up on the reasons — political, organisational or social — that may have led to the defeats. The bypoll loss in Maski assembly segment was also one for which Vijayendra was made incharge, and reflects on the state leadership.
Prof Shastri points out that, given his past record, the party realises Yediyurappa has to be dealt with differently as compared with other leaders, considering his propensity to rebel and the control he still exercises over the cadre.
Neither does the high command want to disturb the party’s internal dynamics— the balance between loyalists and the ‘newcomers or those who recently defected from other parties— nor does it want to allow any dynastic politics. Because that would blow away its ‘naamdaar-kaamdaar’ narrative. Dynastic politics is something the party would vigorously avoid.
“I would say they are trying to weaken, or allow time to pass to weaken, the capacity of the current leadership to dictate terms with regard to succession, and with regard to places and positions that his close family members would get. This is the manoeuvring that is probably going on. The CM may also not publicly concede this but leadership change is a matter of time. The timing of it, what role does he play in choosing the successor, what benefits his family would get," Prof Shastri says.
Over the past six months, rebels like BP Yatnal have been allowed to make comments about leadership change without being shut down; others are not chastised for talking about BSY not being able to manage the Covid second wave.
“The Covid management (or mismanagement) narrative is being built by both sides. Those against him talk of it in a bid to unseat him. Those in favour of BSY say he has lost his way because people are not supporting him, how much can he do alone? Everybody is pulling him in different directions. These are all indications of how to weaken him," says Prof Shastri.