The claim of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1990s that it was a “party with a difference” had long ago been thrown into the political dustbin. It was inevitable that as the party grew in size, it could not be kept in the creche as it were though the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh had tried very hard to keep it that way. Then for the last seven years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his chief lieutenant, Union home minister Amit Shah, also the BJP president from 2014 to 2019, have maintained an iron grip over the party and its organisation. But at some time or the other and in some place or the other the grip has to loosen. This has come into the open in the case of Karnataka strongman and BJP leader B.S. Yediyurappa, who had stepped down on Monday evening as the state’s chief minister after much melodrama. Last week, a large number of the religious heads of the Lingayat community — and Mr Yediyurappa belongs to this dominant community in Karnataka — had come out in open support of the chief minister, who was under considerable pressure to step down. The BJP leaders and Mr Yediyurappa played the usual political charade, with Mr Yediyurappa saying that he was under no pressure to step down even as he met Prime Minister Modi and Mr Shah, as well as BJP president J.P.Nadda. Mr Nadda declared with a straight face just a day before the CM stepped down that there was no “leadership crisis” in Karnataka. He might well point to the resignation of Mr Yediyurappa and claim that he had been proved right.
But the tension beneath the surface is too palpable to accept Mr Nadda’s statement at its face value. First, Mr Yediyurappa should not have been made the chief minister in 2019 after the defection game because he was past the BJP’s official retirement of 75. He was 76 when he became the chief minister this time round. So, it would be quite sheepish of the BJP leaders to claim that Mr Yediyurappa had to go because he has reached the age of superannuation. Mr Modi and Mr Shah and the non-existent central leadership of the party would have preferred to choose someone other than Mr Yediyurappa as chief minister. But he was very much in the way, and they could not push him aside. They had to concede the importance of the local strongman.
Mr Modi and Mr Shah were forced to take the difficult decision of asking him to go because the controversial legacy of Mr Yediyurappa is that of a popular leader tinged with allegations of corruption. He became the chief minister after the leading the party to a majority on its own in 2008, but he had to quit because the Lokayukta found him guilty of corruption in 2011. He was, however, acquitted in 2016. In the intervening period he left the party in a huff and formed his own party, Karnataka Janata Paksha. In the 2013 election, Mr Yeddyurappa did fare well. In 2014, he disbanded his party and rejoined the BJP. Mr Yediyurappa is not a gentle and obedient member of the BJP like Mr D.Y. Sadananda Gowda. He has clashed several times with the central leadership of the party. In his own way, he is a stormy petrel.
When the BJP wrested power in 2019 after losing the 2018 election quite narrowly, the BJP’s central leadership had no choice but to accept Mr Yediyurappa as the chief minister. If they had their way, they would have loved to choose someone else. And even at this stage, it was no easy thing to ease him out.
Mr Yediyurappa held out and the central leaders could not take the rash decision of replacing him. It would not have worked and there would have been a split in the party. The religious heads of the Lingayat community came out openly in his support. The BJP had to contend with both casteism and religious intervention. The BJP has always pretended that its Hindutva ideology has done away with the evil of casteism. But quite clearly, it has not. Second, the intervention of the pontiffs is a sign that it is indeed dangerous for the party to have flirted with religious identity. Much to the chagrin and discomfort of the BJP, religion is haunting the party like a nightmare because it has made a comeback as a sectarian force. Religion and caste remain the bugbears as they have always been. The BJP thought that it could use religion to its own advantage and shed casteism in the name of religion. The two have come to haunt the BJP in Karnataka politics.
Mr Yediyurappa is not a man to go gently away. He will continue to be a major problem if his successor is not acceptable to him. The troubles of Mr Modi and Mr Shah have not ended with Mr Yediyurappa’s departure as chief minister. There was a time when the BJP’s central leaders were happy that Mr Yediyurappa had brought the Lingayats into the BJP fold. But years later, it has turned into a burden, a liability.
The Lingayat religious pontiffs made the assertive statement through their presence in the political storm that they have a say in the matter. The BJP has been dreaming of moulding India in the shape of Hindutva. It is discovering that Hindutva is clashing with sectarian Hinduism, and that sectarian Hinduism is sometimes co-terminous with casteism, as in the present instance of Lingayat politics.
It might appear that two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, face the same challenge of internal feuds. There is, however, a difference. The Congress’ internal turmoil is rooted in power-hungry politicians and their followers. In the case of BJP, it takes on the more serious and the more sinister ideological turn, with religion and caste thrown into the witches’ brew. It is unlikely that the RSS and the BJP would learn any lesson from this ugly turn of events. They will not abandon religion as a political weapon even as they indulge in micro-management of caste equations in every state. They will have to deal with strong local leaders like Mr Yediyurappa with greater honesty.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst.