A sense of déjà vu marked the eve of the second anniversary of B.S. Yediyurappa’s tenure as Chief Minister, as he toured flood-hit Belagavi district on Sunday. Two years ago, soon after taking over, he had visited the North Karnataka districts that witnessed a deluge, even as he awaited clearance from the BJP high command to form a Cabinet.
To repeated questions on whether he was stepping down from the top post, his refrain on Sunday was that he was awaiting a “message” from the high command on his future. This uneasy relationship with the high command from day one continued has through the term.
Defectors and balancing game
“Even during efforts to topple the Janata Dal (S)-Congress coalition, the gap between the party high command and Mr. Yediyurappa was evident. This only grew once the defectors came into the Cabinet,” a senior Minister said. Amid constant speculation over “how long” he would survive as Chief Minister, Mr. Yediyurappa lurched from crisis to crisis — first the floods and then the COVID-19 pandemic spread over 15 months, besides constant jibes from his detractors within the party.
Floods and the pandemic put immense strain on the State’s financial situation, often creating political problems as well. The Chief Minister, who holds the Finance portfolio, received no special support from the Union government. The constant complaint was that the Chief Minister was “partial” in fund allocation, with focus on the 17 Legislative Assembly segments of defectors that saw bypolls. This was one of the first planks of dissidence against him, highlighted by Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, one of his most stringent critics.
Though Mr. Yediyurappa scored big, winning 12 of 15 seats of defectors that saw bypolls in December 2019, he had a tough time expanding his Cabinet to include the defectors. Several trips to Delhi were cancelled and there were times when he failed to even secure an appointment with the central leadership. He expanded his Cabinet twice — in February 2020 and in January 2021 — and both were preceded by speculation of leadership change and a months-long process to secure clearance.
As the Chief Minister celebrated his 78th birthday in February 2020, dissidence within the party peaked. Two unsigned letters, purportedly circulated by disgruntled MLAs, alleged interference and corruption by his son B.Y. Vijayendra and demanded leadership change. This was the first open articulation of the demand. With only defectors being inducted into the Cabinet, many seniors were left out and they began meeting in groups, leading to speculation about a revolt.
Before Mr. Yediyurappa could complete one year in office in July 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, pushing the leadership change question to the back burner. But it eventually re-emerged, after the first wave of infections peaked and dropped. This period was marked by several communities, especially the Panchamasali-Lingayat subsect, seeking a better deal in the reservation pie, for the first time creating a rift within the vote bank that remained the USP of Mr. Yediyurappa.
In fact, Mr. Yediyurappa’s tenure was marked by voices of dissent from within the community — Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, Umesh Katti, Murugesh Nirani, to name a few. Other voices that emerged over time were those of C.P. Yogeshwar and A. H. Vishwanath. After several months of lobbying with the high command, he again expanded his Cabinet in January 2021, accommodating some dissidents such as Mr. Katti, Mr. Nirani, and Mr. Yogeshwar, but failed to control the open dissidence, even from those within the Cabinet. Though the Chief Minister’s camp lodged complaints against the dissenters, the party high command did little.
Through the second wave of the pandemic that hit the State during April-June this year, speculation about leadership change again took a break, only to return with vengeance as the Yediyurappa government hurtled towards its second anniversary.
In not acting against dissidents and not clarifying on speculation about leadership change, the high command kept the State’s political cauldron constantly stirred for the past two years. The party did not clarify even when Mr. Yediyurappa said on June 7 that he would resign if the high command asked him to. Hours before his second anniversary, he was on a loop saying the same thing.