Is BJP going to replace Yediyurappa as Karnataka chief minister?

It would be a politically sensible move, but risky.

ByM Gautham Machaiah
Is BJP going to replace Yediyurappa as Karnataka chief minister?

Speculation about the replacement of Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa has been rife for the past few months and the BJP leadership’s refusal to issue a categorical denial has only fuelled the rumour. This has led to slackness in administration, which is under pressure owing to the pandemic and the recent flooding.

Bureaucrats are known to withdraw into a shell whenever they sniff a change in leadership. This, the state cannot afford now, given the multiple challenges it faces, not least an acute financial crisis. It is, therefore, imperative that the BJP’s leadership either make it clear that there is no question of replacing Yediyurappa or appoint a new chief minister without delay, instead of allowing the confusion to fester.

One of the prime factors working against Yediyurappa is his age. Now 78, he is unlikely to be projected as the chief ministerial candidate when Karnataka goes to polls in 2023, as he would have turned 80 by then. While one section of the BJP feels he should not be disturbed until the election, another is of the view that a new face should be firmly in the chief minister’s saddle by then.

The alleged corruption in Covid-related procurement has also cast a shadow on the chief minister, with the BJP brass fearing that this could become an election issue. As it is, Yediyurappa does not enjoy a clean image, having gone to jail on corruption charges during his previous term in 2011, though he was acquitted in some of the cases.

Complaints of his family’s interference in the administration have also been a sore point. The opposition has branded Yediyurappa’s son BY Vijayendra as the “super CM”, accusing him of virtually running the government on behalf of his father. Vijayendra denies this. Similar meddling by his family had accelerated Yediyurappa’s fall during his earlier term.

However, the party cannot merely wish away Yediyurappa. He’s not one to fade away without a trace and would most certainly demand his pound of flesh.

The first challenge for the BJP, were it to replace Yediyurappa, would be to find a successor. That would be no easy task since there’s no leader with Yediyurappa’s mass appeal in the state BJP. While Yediyurappa has over the years ensured that his leadership is unchallenged, the party too has failed to groom a second rung. To make matters worse, there are several claimants to the post. The influence of most of them is confined to their constituencies or districts, however, and many do not hold sway even over their own communities.

The next challenge would be to ensure that the dominant Lingayat community, to which Yediyurappa belongs, is not antagonised by his removal. Yediyurappa is undoubtedly the tallest leader of the community, cutting across party lines. While some BJP leaders opine that the Lingayats need to be placated, others argue that Yediyurappa’s exit would have no significant impact as the party’s supporters these days anyway vote for prime minister Modi and not for local satraps.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that the party has to handle the chief minister with kid gloves given his stature, temperament and potential to create trouble. In 2012, having been sidelined within the party, Yediyurappa formed the Karnataka Janata Party which dented the saffron party’s prospects in the 2013 Assembly election and helped the Congress to form the government.

Given his advanced age, he may no longer have the wherewithal to launch a new party, but he will certainly not go down without a fight unless he is mollycoddled. He has already held a closed-door meeting with Janata Dal Secular leader HD Kumaraswamy, fuelling speculation of an alignment between them although such an eventuality appears remote. Another grapevine has it that the BJP’s central leadership has parallelly reached out to Kumaraswamy for support in case Yediyurappa splits the party. This is all conjecture, though, as the situation is still fluid.

But what is clear is that Yediyurappa would definitely want a say in the selection of his successor. It was thought that his confidant Shobha Kharandlaje would be picked to replace him but the MP has been kept at bay by the chief minister’s family and has little or no access to him now.

Vijayendra, who constantly trails his father and even accompanies him to meetings with central ministers despite not holding an official position, is said to be Yediyurappa’s favourite. But the mantle is unlikely to fall to him or his brother BY Raghavendra, MP from Shivamogga, as the party would not like to lend itself to criticism of promoting dynastic politics.

In a surprise move, Vijayendra was recently appointed the vice president of the state BJP and it remains to be seen if the party has bigger plans for him in the organisation in case Yediyurappa is replaced.

Amid all this, Yediyurappa’s future itself comes into question. Will he be made governor, like Anandiben Patel, who was replaced as Gujarat’s chief minister midway through her tenure and appointed governor? Will he be made a Union Minister until 2023? Will one of his sons be made chief minister or a central minister? Will he simply be discarded like LK Advani? Will he prove everybody wrong and continue as the chief minister?

Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. It’s where even the impossible is possible.

M Gautham Machaiah is a journalist and political commentator.

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