Politicians are not known to retire, but 2021 will go down in history for just that. A politician with a huge mass base decided to step down from Karnataka’s top post.
Of course, it wasn’t as if BS Yediyurappa, the party’s satrap in the South and its most known face, wasn’t under pressure to quit; but he made known that he did so on his own terms, at his choosing.
With barely 18 months to go for the next assembly polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party had been mulling for almost a year to look to a younger face to take it into the next election.
For a party that had long wrestled over the question of “If not Yediyurappa, then who?” it came as quite a surprise that the answer on his replacement was made at a legislature party meeting that lasted barely 15 minutes. To BSY himself, the writing on the wall had been quite clear from the time he became chief minister after an ‘Operation Kamala’ where the party wooed away MLAs from opposition parties to get the numbers needed for a majority — considering his age, his exit was inevitable. The party had also been making things hot under the collar for him from the time he took over — not giving him a free hand either in choosing his Cabinet, or in candidates to the Legislative Council and the Rajya Sabha.
“Increasingly I’m getting convinced that Yediyurappa’s successor Basavaraj Bommai was not Yediyurappa’s choice but a choice of the central leadership accepted by BSY,” says political analyst Prof Sandeep Shastri.
While many believe that BSY proposed his name, Shastri says the way things have panned out points to the opposite. “Since Bommai took over, he has not been saddled with deputy chief ministers, he doesn’t have the same pressure in the making of his ministry (as his predecessor). The central leaders have, over time, prepared the ground slowly. But have we heard the last of this? I’m not sure,” he says.
Two factors have stood out – one, that BSY was ousted but the party put the brakes on his plans to go on a state-wide tour that may have increased his individual popularity as against the party’s popularity; two, there is a definite attempt to get Bommai to distance himself from his mentor, BSY, and toe the party line.
As CM, Bommai has not found the going easy,” says Prof Chandan Gowda of the Institute for Social and Economic Change. “He is trying to be close to both the BSY camp and the RSS camp. He has been having a tough time. No doubt, the way issues like conversion have been handled, the hardline face of the party is being shown prominently now. But it also shows Bommai’s position is not secure since he has to keep all these people happy.”
In fact, observers feel that the last few months after Bommai was brought in as CM have also seen a rise in Hindutva-led politics in different districts.
“Maybe the party thinks it is a better option than being held hostage by one leader. And the more visible expression of Hindutva ideology could well be part of a strategy… when you have a new CM taking over, obviously that new leader will be tested on how he will respond to situations,” says Shastri.
Party insiders, however, say that the BJP’s power-change politics may have been smooth on the face of it, but it may show up differently before the elections. “Many MLAs had lost confidence in the former CM, now there is a resurgence,” insists an MLA from north Karnataka.
Then again, others point out that there seems to be something brewing against having the party identified solely with BSY – and to move away from identifying the party with just one individual to identifying it with an ideology.
BSY may have been led to believe that his son (BY Vijayendra, who is the state vice-president) would be looked after, after his own stepping down. But that doesn’t seem to be the case – look at the recent raid on their close aide,” Prof Gowda points out.
Prof Shastri agrees that while BSY may have tried his best to gain as much political currency for those close to him as possible, things that have unfolded since don’t indicate that it has actually happened.
BSY’s patience was chipped away bit by bit when the party forced him to accept three deputy CMs, did not give him a free hand in choosing his own ministers, did not let him have his way in many issues.
“If there was any commitment to make his son a minister, that hasn’t materialised. In fact, his involvement in the by-election campaign was an afterthought,” Shastri says.
A senior national functionary refuses to comment on whether any promises were made to BSY to exit the CM’s chair. “His son is a state vice president. He will be given the same role that other vice presidents get. Other things will be decided based on his hard work as a karyakarta (worker),” he says.
Asked about a statement by union home minister Amit Shah about Bommai leading the party’s campaign in the 2023 election, this national functionary said that is a decision for the BJP parliamentary board. “Sometimes we decide CM candidates before elections, like in UP. Sometimes we decide after, like in Assam. People can make general political statements, but it was not an official announcement; that is made only by the parliamentary board,” he says.
For young MLAs like Arvind Bellad who was once considered to be in the CM race himself, the change is refreshing. The party has long believed in its Lingayat vote base, and its stronghold in north Karnataka perhaps grew stronger with a CM from this region.
“BJP has seen new shoots, new face, new lif, in 2021,” Bellad says, but refuses to be drawn into any further comment on what the campaign plank for the next election will be, after the exit of the party’s most popular face.
At the back of everyone’s mind remains the question – what is the degree of ‘retirement’ that BSY has taken? How voluntary was the retirement? Were promises made in lieu? Were they kept?
“We don’t know if BSY has really retired – his recent statement that just because BJP did well doesn’t mean it will ignore JDS – shows he wants to be in the reckoning, say that he is important to keep that tie going and that he is a key decision-maker,” says Gowda.
Shastri also points out that BSY has made it clear that he will be a mentor for all time and again – that he will be in state politics and will bring the party to power.
Karnataka has also seen, its politicians admit, all too often, that they are not sanyasis (ascetics).
So the exit from a chair in 2021 may not entirely mean sanyas in 2022 – and it may well be BSY who calls the shots in 2023.
Because some old generals don’t fade away. The uncanny ones fight to stay relevant.