ON December 5, even as pro-Kannada organisations decided to observe a State-wide bandh against the formation of the Maratha Development Board, Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa held a meeting in Belagavi with Arun Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national general secretary in charge of Karnataka, and senior party leaders. Some of the crucial decisions taken at the meeting included introducing laws banning cow slaughter and ‘love jehad’. On December 9, the State Assembly passed the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, 2020. (Yediyurappa said on December 7 that the ‘love jehad’ Bill would be taken up in the next session.)
According to informed sources, Arun Singh told Yediyurappa that “some government decisions need to be made after consulting party leaders”. The veiled reference was to the unilateral manner in which Yediyurappa went ahead with the formation of three caste-based development boards and appointed his loyalists as chairpersons of 53 boards and corporations, and his plan to recommend the inclusion of Lingayats in the central Other Backward Classes (OBC) list making them eligible for 27 per cent reservation given to OBCs nationally. Union Home Minister Amit Shah reportedly called Yediyurappa on November 28 and advised him to discuss issues such as inclusion of the Lingayat community in the OBC list with the central leadership before announcing them in public.
For any close observer of Karnataka politics, it is clear that Yediyurappa’s flurry of decisions are linked to his increasingly tenuous hold on the Chief Minister’s chair which he occupied in July 2019 after luring 17 rebel Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) legislators. The disqualification of the 17 MLAs by the Assembly Speaker reduced the strength of the House to 208 enabling Yediyurappa to win the vote of confidence with the support of 106 BJP MLAs.
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Yediyurappa presents a strange problem for the BJP leadership. Unlike other BJP Chief Ministers who owe their elevation to the coveted post to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, in Karnataka the situation is anomalous as the BJP owes its position in power to Yediyurappa. He is the only mass leader of the party in the State with this claim fortified by his long-time leadership of the dominant Lingayat community.
Considering that Karnataka is the only southern State where the BJP is in power, the party leadership is wary of Yediyurappa, who has a reputation of not giving up without a fight if pushed to the wall. The memory of the 2013 Assembly elections is still fresh. Yediyurappa, who had broken away from the BJP and formed the Karnataka Janata Paksha, stymied the chances of the BJP’s return to power in the State in that election. As a result, the BJP has been forced to ignore its own guideline, that those above the age of 75 should not hold ministerial positions, in the case of Yediyurappa. He is 78.
Power centres in party
The political scientist Muzaffar Assadi of the University of Mysore feels the“unease” of the BJP leadership with Yediyurappa is because “the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and Yeddyurappa share a difficult relationship as the latter believes in taking independent decisions and carving out his personal space. He does not toe the RSS line easily. This conflict is now being played out via the Central government.” But this does not mean that Yediyurappa’s reign is unchallenged. With the tacit approval of the central leadership, other power centres have been created in the State party leadership resulting in a constant tug of war. (B.L. Santosh, BJP national general secretary, heads the anti- Yediyurappa camp in the State.)
This “uneasy” relationship between the Chief Minister and the central leadership has manifested itself in ways that have caused humiliation to Yediyurappa. In 2019, the Chief Minister was saddled with three deputies although he had made it clear that he was not in favour of them. In early 2020, the central leadership rejected his choice of two Rajya Sabha candidates sent its own candidates.
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In the latest instance of putting Yediyurappa in his place, the party has not approved his plan of expanding the Cabinet, which has been pending since the Legislative Council elections in July. Yediyurappa visited New Delhi in mid November, but his meeting with the party national president J.P. Nadda did not bear fruit and he returned empty-handed. M.P. Appachu Ranjan, Madikeri MLA, told the media: “The list of the State’s leader has not been considered by the BJP high command.”
In this high-stakes game of brinkmanship, Yediyurappa has managed to stay one step ahead so far, and his recent decisions must be seen in this context.
Yediyurappa’s decision to form three caste-specific development authorities in November without any budgetary allotments, Cabinet discussion and scientific studies has been the most egregious of his recent decisions. He tested the waters with the establishment of the Kadu-Golla Development Corporation before the byelection to the Sira Assembly constituency (Tumakuru district), which was held on November 4. Yediyurappa’s electoral strategy, with his son, B.Y. Vijendra, at the helm, was to breach the Vokkaliga bastion by wooing the significant population of the Golla community in Sira. The move paid off and the BJP won the seat for the first time. The victory was attributed to Vijendra’s shrewd electoral management.
The success of this strategy and the soon-to-be-held byelections to three north Karnataka constituencies—Basavakalyan and Maski Assembly constituencies and Belagavi parliamentary constituency—emboldened Yediyurappa to announce the formation of the Maratha Development Board on November 13 to woo voters belonging to that community. Basavakalyan and Belagavi have a significant proportion of Maratha voters. The creation of the board provides an early boost to the BJP’s campaign.
The announcement was met with an uproar,with pro-Kannada groups staging protests in various parts of the State. But Yediyurappa stuck to his guns, stating that there was “no connection between the Maratha population and Marathi language”.
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The speculation that Yediyurappa would be replaced was at fever pitch following this with many senior party leaders telling mediapersons that a decision on the matter was impending. Yediyurappa responded by proclaiming the formation of a Veerashaiva-Lingayat Development Corporation (VLDC) four days later, further fortifying his position among his Lingayat supporters. Influential Lingayat mutt heads, many of whom are strong supporters of Yediyurappa and have a large public following, were quick to welcome the decision. Many of them have not forgotten the largesse he bestowed on them in his earlier tenure as Chief Minister.
Siddaramaiah, Leader of the Opposition and former Congress Chief Minister, and H.D. Kumaraswamy, former Chief Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader,among other opposition leaders, criticised the formation of the VLDC. Siddaramaiah called the move “an electoral gimmick”. Kumaraswamy said “the formation of development authorities was not a permanent solution to the problem of backwardness”.
The formation of caste-specific development authorities has a long history in Karnataka dating back to the 1970s when Chief Minister Devraj Urs formed development boards for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Backward Classes. Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswamy had formed such authorities during their respective tenures. While Siddaramaiah approved the formation of development authorities for the Uppara, Bhovi, Kabbaliga and other backward castes, Kumaraswamy, in a decision that was widely criticised, approved the establishment of the Brahmin Development Board.
20 caste-specific bodies
Karnataka has 20 caste-specific development authorities now. Through these bodies, members of the specific castes are provided benefits, which include interest-free loans to purchase a vehicle or start a small business, and education scholarships. The agenda of these bodies is to prioritise the development of socially, economically and educationally backward castes through specific schemes.
The quantum of funds provided to a caste-specific development authority is often a reflection of its closeness to the ruling party, which creates a symbiotic patron-client relationship. As such, there has been a serious reduction in the funds given to the Karnataka Minorities Development Corporation since the BJP came to power in the State.
While other Chief Ministers have formed caste-specific development boards, what sets Yediyurappa apart is that he has done away with the rhetoric of “backwardness” that justified the formation of such authorities. By doing away with the pretence of creating such authorities after adequate budgetary allocations and public feedback, Yediyurappa is blatantly trying to appease certain communities with the aim of winning byelections and his own Lingayat community, which he is known to pamper.
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S.M. Jamadar of the Jagatika Lingayat Mahasabha wrote recently: “Caste authorities have been formed by politicians in the past for the purpose of luring voters, but the open manner in which Yediyurappa is doing gives the phenomenon a new dimension.”
While some sub-castes among the two dominant castes are included in the State’s Backward Castes list, the decision to consider the whole community as “backward” has drawn criticism.
B. Peer Basha, a Koppal-based social activist, said: “The idea behind setting up caste-specific boards and corporations is to develop backward sections of society by prioritising their access to specific schemes, but the establishment of development bodies for dominant castes such as Marathas and Lingayats is an abuse of power.”
Predictably, Vokkaligas, the other dominant community in the State, have demanded the creation of a Vokkaliga Development Corporation. Other communities, too, have made similar demands.
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Dr D.C. Nanjunda, an anthropologist associated with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the University of Mysore, disagreed with Yediyurappa’s decision. He said, “Unless we have proper socio-economic and ethnographic data as per the 2011 Census, it is not proper to constitute caste-specific development boards and to demand inclusion in the OBC list. Lingayats are a dominant community. There are many communities that are backward and truly deserving of inclusion in the OBC list. If we go by this logic, we may have to form 4,000 caste development boards in the State as there are almost that many recognised castes.”
The decision to allot Rs.500 crore for the VLDC and Rs.50 crore for the Maratha Board when the government had to borrow Rs.33,000 crores for development works to bridge the revenue deficit arising out of the COVID-19 situation has come under criticism.
Yediyurappa’s decisions are clearly aimed at prolonging his term as Chief Minister. With every byelection that the BJP under him wins, he gains a reprieve of a few months until the next chapter of the sordid intra-party game is played out. “He is motivated only by two goals,” said a senior journalist. “One, Yediyurappa feels that since he has the mandate he should be allowed to complete his term. Two, if he is removed from his position now, his son’s growth as a leader will come to an end as well. It is clear that Vijendra cannot be considered a chief ministerial candidate now, but Yediyurappa hopes that his son will emerge as a strong Lingayat leader by the end of his term and, considering that he is only 44 years old, will be a serious contender for chief ministership in the future.”
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While this may be true, there is a flaw in this line of thinking, according to Assadi. “Yediyurappa is becoming myopic. In his support for caste authorities, he is not thinking beyond consolidating his Lingayat vote bank in an effort to stay relevant.”
Assadi said there was another factor at work that would make Yediyurappa irrelevant. “The BJP is trying to expand its social base in the State aggressively. If it succeeds, the party will not need Yediyurappa’s hold over the Lingayat community. Once the BJP feels its political base has expanded, it will ease Yediyurappa out.”