Karnataka

Battles within the BJP

Print edition : May 26, 2017

K.S. Eshwarappa, Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Council. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

B.S.Yeddyurappa, State BJP president. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

THE simmering rivalry in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) between B.S. Yeddyurappa, State president and former Chief Minister, and K.S. Eshwarappa, leader of the opposition in the Legislative Council, came into the open over the past few weeks. They have had an uneasy relationship since 2006 when the BJP first came to power in the State in an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular), but in recent times both leaders have made no pretence of hiding their animosity towards each other. The party’s loss in the recent byelections in Nanjangud and Gundlupet Assembly constituencies emboldened Eshwarappa to criticise Yeddyurappa openly.

The two constituencies, located in south-west Karnataka, have significant Lingayat and Dalit voters. Yeddyurappa, a popular leader of the Lingayats, left no stone unturned to ensure the BJP’s victory, even camping in both constituencies for a significant period of time, but the Congress, led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, won both seats with comfortable margins. This led to murmurs within the party, with Yeddyurappa being blamed for the defeats. Even party president Amit Shah’s intervention failed to rein in the bickering leaders and their followers. In a statement on May 1, Eshwarappa threatened to organise protests from May 20 against the high-handedness of Yeddyurappa and his style of functioning.

These developments have led to a sense of unease among the party’s rank and file as the State gears up for elections in 2018.

Both Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa hail from Shivamogga, a district that borders the Western Ghats, and have been crucial in the growth of the party in the State. It is also an undeniable fact that Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, is a far more popular leader among the two. When he was Chief Minister, Yeddyurappa’s largesse to several Lingayat mutts only added to his popularity in the community, which is politically powerful in north Karnataka. Eshwarappa is a Kuruba, but his influence in his own community is limited as Siddaramaiah remains the most popular leader among Kurubas and other backward castes, minorities and Dalits.

Veteran journalists in Shivamogga recall the deep friendship that Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa shared when they were younger. Both were active members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and began their political careers in the Jana Sangh and subsequently rose through the ranks in the BJP.

“Yeddyurappa was a writer [a keeper of accounts] in a rice mill in Shikaripura, while Eshwarappa’s family had a chocolate agency in Shivamogga,” one of the journalists said.

“Yeddyurappa would come from Shikaripura [which is around 50 km away] to Shivamogga town, and the two young men would ride around on Eshwarappa’s scooter as they dedicated themselves to party work,” the journalist added. Later, the two collaborated to develop residential layouts in Shivamogga. They were such good friends that they even started a company to manufacture cement pipes. The company, which no longer exists, was named after their respective wives.

The relationship started to sour when the BJP tasted power in 2006. Yeddyurappa was appointed Deputy Chief Minister in a power-sharing arrangement with H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD (S). Kumaraswamy subsequently reneged on the agreement and the government collapsed. In the elections of 2008, the BJP won 110 of the 224 Assembly seats and formed the government with the support of independents. Yeddyurappa was appointed Chief Minister. The relationship between Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa went downhill from that point.

When the Karnataka Development Programme meetings to monitor development works in Shivamogga were convened, Eshwarappa stayed away whenever Yeddyurappa was present. Eshwarappa was appointed Deputy Chief Minister in 2012, a year before the next Assembly elections. This happened well after Yeddyurappa resigned as Chief Minister in 2011 after his name had been linked to illegal mining in the Lokayukta’s report.

Late last year, Eshwarappa launched the Sangolli Rayanna Brigade (SRB), an organisation named after an 18th century warrior to mobilise the backward castes. The continuance of this organisation led to a conflict within the BJP, with the Yeddyurappa faction viewing it as an alternative party forum. Eshwarappa denied that the brigade was in any way political, but its intentions to woo the backward castes and emerge as an alternative power centre within the party were clear.

Muzaffar Assadi, professor of political science at the University of Mysore, viewed the infighting within the BJP as a conflict within two factions of Hindutva forces in the State. “The RSS is behind the formation of the SRB as it wants to counter the influence of Yeddyurappa within the party,” he said. Yeddyurappa also blamed B.L. Santosh, the party’s national joint general secretary in charge of Karnataka, an RSS appointee, for the turmoil within the party.

On May 1, when Muralidhar Rao, party in charge of the BJP in Karnataka, visited Bengaluru to take stock of the factional squabble, four leaders of the party were suspended. They included two from each camp, showing that even the central leadership was unsure whose side to take.

Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

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