On Sunday evening, the Karnataka BJP unit concluded a two-day state executive meeting in Mysuru without fisticuffs. That was an achievement in a party which has its state unit president BS Yeddyurappa and former president KS Eshwarappa and their supporters going for each other’s throats at the drop of a handkerchief.
The two leaders didn’t shake hands and acknowledge each other’s presence at the meeting, but that was fine: they, at least, didn’t fling veiled barbs against each other either.
This apparent peace, even if tense, was followed by some tough action by party president Amit Shah earlier in the week. He sacked two office-bearers each of both factions. This was accompanied by some tough words as well, which Shah conveyed through party’s national general secretary in charge of Karnataka, Muralidhar Rao. He told them to shut up and get ready for elections next year.
Yeddyurappa is guilty of having sidelined Eshwarappa and his supporters in a mean fashion with scant respect for his seniority. In reaction, Eshwarappa has resorted to dubious activities that clearly amount to indiscipline.
It’s not clear how long their current ceasefire will last. But Shah is expected to visit Karnataka sometime in August both for a pre-election recce and to bring about a permanent solution to the party’s factional feud.
Amit Shah’s patience is running out
Shah called the two leaders to Delhi in January to make peace but without result. He has exhausted his awesome repertoire of diplomatic and persuasive skills in dealing with the mess in Karnataka, which reached a peak in the last few days.
There are now unmistakable signs that Shah is losing patience with the open war within the BJP in a state where the party wants to win the Assembly elections in 2018 and bag most of the Lok Sabha seats a year later. He knows that he must end the raging war between Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa for the BJP to be able to exploit to the hilt the anti-incumbency against the scandal-ridden and non-performing Congress government and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Yeddyurappa, 74, is the BJP’s chief-minister-in-waiting in Karnataka. Eshwarappa, 68, appears to have reconciled to the party projecting his rival as the chief minister candidate. His grouse is that after Yeddyurappa became the state BJP chief in April 2016, he became "arrogant" and ignored his supporters while filling up party posts. Eshwarappa has enough reasons to say what he is saying.
Yeddyurappa is much like Karnataka’s Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in many ways. Both leaders are distrustful of their party colleagues — well, most of them. Both are considered “outsiders” by their rivals in their respective parties. Siddaramaiah switched from the Janata Dal (Secular) to the Congress in 2006. And Yeddyurappa left the BJP in 2012, launched his own political outfit and returned to the party in 2014. Both are haughty, or at least, they appear to be, and both believe they are indispensable to their parties and invincible in elections.
Yeddyurappa was Karnataka chief minister earlier over two truncated terms. The first was when he was the chief minister for seven days in November 2007 as part of a coalition between BJP and Janata Dal (Secular). And then for a little over three years when he led the BJP to victory in 2008 elections after which he had quit the post and the party following his indictment in mining scandals. He now wants nothing short of his chief minister’s job back.
As things appear now, Eshwarappa will agree to make peace if he is made the state party president on the ground that he has no problem with Yeddyurappa being made the chief minister if the party wins the next year’s Assembly election. But Shah will have a problem with that. Clearly, he can’t have a chief ministerial candidate and the party chief at loggerheads. He may need to persuade Eshwarappa to accept another party responsibility, though that won’t be easy.
The Yeddyurappa vs Eshwarappa war isn’t anything new. It has been simmering for longer than both can remember. Both come from the same picturesque district of Shivamogga. Their turf war was made worse by the fact that Yeddyurappa belongs to the dominant upper caste of Lingayats, while Eshwarappa is a backward Kuruba (like Siddaramaiah).
The rift between the two turned worse after Eshwarappa was made a minister in the Yeddyurappa cabinet in 2008. When Yeddyurappa successfully lobbied for a ticket for his son BY Raghavendra in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Eshwarappa kicked up a controversy, objecting to "dynastic politics". This hit Yeddyurappa where it hurts the most.
From then on one thing led to another. Things once again came to a head after Yeddyurappa’s unilateral decisions as the new party president provoked Eshwarappa to float, in August 2016, "Sangolli Rayanna Brigade", an outfit named after the brave Kuruba warrior who fought the British in the nineteenth century.
Eshwarappa claims the brigade is an innocent venture to bring together Dalits and the backward classes to support the BJP. But Yeddyurappa thinks that the brigade is the very epitome of political evil, aimed at furthering his rival’s own interests. So, he promptly banned the BJP members from having anything to do with the brigade, but it didn’t stop Eshwarappa’s supporters and all those inimical to Yeddyurappa from making a beeline for the "rallies" held under the banner of the new outfit.
Eshwarappa topped up all this with a "save BJP" rally in Bengaluru on 27 April that was attended by hundreds of his supporters who tore into Yeddyurappa’s "style of functioning" and demanded his removal as the state president by 10 May.
The deadline will pass with no change in the state leadership, but Shah has to end this war sooner than later. What adds to Shah’s difficulty is the fact that national joint general secretary (organisation) BL Santhosh, an RSS veteran who is close to him, has sided with Eshwarappa.
But winning Karnataka is at the top of Shah’s priorities. The party’s workers and leaders who are in neither camp expect him to crack the whip on either or both the warring leaders if it becomes necessary to save the party.
And Shah knows that continuing to walk the political tightrope is not always a useful activity. You can easily slip and fall.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
Updated Date: May 08, 2017 22:32 PM