How BS Yeddyurappa has Survived 11 Attempts to Remove Him (so far) – Part III

Written by  //  May 30, 2011  //  National Politics  //  5 Comments

Part I | Part II | Part III

Almost as I write this, another Karnataka-related crisis turns up out of nowhere to torment the BJP.

In this case, Sushma Swaraj couldn’t be more wrong about who’s responsible for the rise of the Reddy Brothers. We have pictorial evidence as well.

(c) Outlook Magazine

The story goes something like this.

Circa 1999, in a moment of empty bravado, Sushma Swaraj decided to challenge Sonia Gandhi in the Lok Sabha elections when the latter contested from the hitherto Congress safe seat, Bellary. While the announcement sounded grand and daring, it slowly dawned on the BJP that they risked humiliation for one of their national leaders by letting her contest elections in what was essentially a Congress family fiefdom. She couldn’t obviously back out from this, so a solution had to be found.

Around the same time, the Reddy Brothers (G. Janardhana Reddy and G. Karunakara Reddy) were looking to enter politics in Karnataka, to help expand their growing iron ore mining business. They had been rebuffed by the Congress already, and the Janata Dal really did not have a significant presence in North Karnataka. So, they went for the next best thing. The BJP.

The Reddy Brothers bankrolled Sushma Swaraj’s 1999 election campaign against Sonia Gandhi. It was a losing cause, but the 50,000 vote margin was actually considered respectable given that it was Bellary, Sushma Swaraj was a nobody in Karnataka, and one of the Gandhi family were standing elections. More importantly, the Reddy Brothers had found a way into State politics in Karnataka and they’ve never looked back since. Nor has the BJP. It has since won every election in Bellary, Lok Sabha and State Assembly.

It was no surprise that when the Reddy Brothers sought to rid themselves of BS Yeddyurappa, they went to the friendliest face in Delhi: Sushma Swaraj.

So why did this “crisis” suddenly crop up in the middle of May, with no apparent trigger?

The “trigger” as it were, was actually pushed sometime back, by the Supreme Court of India. This was in fact a delayed reaction, an attempt to minimize losses and a damage-containment exercise on the part of someone who’s being spoken of the next Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP.

This “crisis” is just another instance of the truism that in politics, success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.

Contrast this though, with something quite the opposite when Yeddyurappa faced a grave threat to his position. As he was summoned to Delhi, ostensibly to be removed as Karnataka’s CM for the corruption charges levelled at him, Yeddyurappa received staunch support, from what would, to the untrained observer, seem like an unlikely quarter; the heads of the Lingayat mathas (pronounced muTT-HA in the singular) or monasteries who came out expressing total confidence in his leadership. Even when it seemed that the RSS itself had washed its hands off one of its own, the Lingayat mathas came out in full strength to back Yeddyurappa.

The message was clear. And it worked.

It is important to understand that the gesture was more than just a symbolic show of support. It was rather, a show of strength and commitment that could not be taken lightly by the mandarins in Delhi. The reasons why lie in the nature of the Lingayat community and the manner in which they have been courted by Yeddyruppa.

Strictly speaking, Lingayats are not a “caste”. They do not fall under any of the four varnas, and are more properly a sect, started by the 12th century socio-religious reformer, Basaveshwara. Veerashaivism (which is the correct technical name for the set of precepts he preached) emerged in opposition to the caste system and was part of the larger Bhakti movement active in various parts of the country then, challenging the rigid, Brahminical view of Hinduism. Basaveshwara’s teachings sought to impress upon his followers the importance of worshipping one God and the equality of all before the one God. His idea of the one God was the ishtalinga or the linga of one’s choice which everyone was free to wear as a mark of devotion, irrespective of caste or for that matter, religion. Mathas were started by his followers across the length and breadth of India to spread the teachings of Veerashaivism and a lot of them grew into influential bodies in their local communities. In that sense, Lingayats tend to belong to a matha, in somewhat the same sense as Christians can be said to belong to a certain parish or diocese.

Part of Yeddyruppa’s strategy in consolidating the Lingayat vote in North Karnataka has been the consistent courting of the Lingayat mathas. Himself a Lingayat, he has also assiduously kept the Mathas happy with generous grants from the coffers of the State and elsewhere. The flow of money from the State Government to the mathas started when Yeddyurappa, as Finance Minister in the ill-fated coalition with the JD(S) in 2007-08, increased the grants made to the mathas manifold. 130 crore rupees was earmarked for the mutts, from the State Government budget last year itself.

Aha! So Yeddyurappa worked his way up by bribing the swamijis of the mathas!

Not quite.

Mathas are not just centres for religious learning and spiritual education but also the providers of vital social needs in communities forgotten by the State. Mathas run schools, colleges, hospitals and nursing homes in the most backward of areas in North Karanataka and the swamijis wield enormous power and influence in the lives of people, not just as religious or spiritual potentates. The mathas are, in effect, a tool to distribute patronage on behalf of the State.

Such caste/religion based distribution is, of course, hugely problematic, but in the context of South India, not unprecedented. Renowned South Indian historian Burton Stein has shown how rulers of all religious persuasions, from Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara to Tipu Sultan of Mysore, routinely donated money to temples and mathas to achieve two goals; firstly to enhance their prestige as rulers who command great wealth, and secondly, to give a boost to the local economy around the temple. (for more details and instances, see Burton Stein’s excellent book on Vijayanagara)

It is important to understand that mathas and temples in South India served many vital secular functions, apart from their religious and spiritual roles, as Burton Stein points out in his work. They were of course, centres of learning and preserving knowledge, but they also functioned as strongholds to keep the treasury in, markets for the exchange of goods over a large area, and as important landlords providing employment, food, and economic security to thousands. Donations to temples were not necessarily in cash, but also included grants of lands that only increased the role of the temple in the local economy. It is not surprising therefore, that the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in Tirupathi in existence and receiving grants for centuries now, is one of the richest religious bodies in the world.

[An aside: Regulation of the administration of temples by South Indian state Governments (i.e., Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) has been the subject of litigation and challenge in Constitutional courts and an interesting jurisprudence, Constitutional and statutory, has evolved out of the same. It is a fit subject for a lengthy piece in the Law and Judiciary section, but alas, not in this series.]

To conclude the point, BS Yeddyurappa has followed the path that rulers of South Indian states have done over the last few centuries to build up their strength and consolidate their position; donate to the temples and spruce up the local economy. His strategy has also been to tie up the Lingayat mathas in a network of patronage to consolidate the Lingayat vote in North Karnataka. His support among the community, is not just based on pure identity and socio-economic factors, but a combination of the two that have been adroitly exploited to attain the top post in the State.


Bookanakere Siddalingaiah Yeddyurappa has come to the Chief Minister’s post in Karnataka after twenty years of painstaking effort, make no mistake about it. His path has been anything but smooth, but the progress has been steady. Along the way, he’s picked up friends, enemies and frenemies galore.

I remember distinctly, a few days after he was sworn in as Chief Minister in 2008, a family friend and someone with his ear to the ground on political developments, confidently predicted that Yeddyurappa will not last six months in office as Chief Minister. I disagreed, eyeing BJP’s success in the polls and the disarray in which the opposition Congress and JD(S) found themselves in at that moment. We were both partly right and partly wrong. Yeddyruppa has survived, so far, but not without an attempt being made to remove him from office, every three months or so.

While his weaknesses, namely the Reddy Brothers, corruption allegations, a terrible temper and a poor track record of administration are quite evident for all to see, the sources of his strength, as I’ve tried to make clear in this series of posts, have not always been so obvious, at least to those outside Karnataka.

As of now, the momentum is with BS Yeddyurappa, and by extension, the BJP. Election results at every level from Taluk Panchayat upwards have been good for the BJP and from the looks of it, despite himself, BS Yeddyurappa will complete his first term of five years. If the disarray in the Congress ranks continues, expect a second term as well.

What does this mean for national politics? or, why is an ostensibly regional issue finding so much space in the “National Politics” section of Critical Twenties?

Strong regional leaders are the order of the day in India’s bigger States. Yeddyurappa is just one example. To him, one can add J Jayalalithaa, Mamata Bannerjee, Tarun Gogoi, Narendra Modi, Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Raman Singh, Naveen Patnaik, SS Chouhan, Sheila Dixit, and till recently, the Late YS Rajashekhara Reddy. The only exception to this seems to be in Maharashtra (I’m not sure either way about Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan.) A different combination of factors have contributed in each of their ascents to power. They are not just leaders of regional parties, but also regional leaders of national parties. Their appeal is non-transferable to any other State. Their success or failure is not determined solely by their relations with Delhi (party High Command or Central Government). In many instances, Delhi’s success depends on their success and support. And not just in the narrow coalition-politics sense. Yeddyurappa is one example of that.

“National politics” (and not just the C20s category!) maybe becoming a bit of a misnomer. We are moving towards a phase in India’s political history when political power at the national level is wielded by those who enjoy the favour of regional satraps, and not the other way around. It is likely that in the next stage in coalition politics, the coalitions are within parties and bottom up, and not just those outside parties and top down, as they are now.

Will it be a good thing or a bad thing?

I could tell you, but my palantir just ran out of battery power, so I guess I’ll have to do what everyone else is going to do:

Wait and see.

Part I | Part II | Part III

5 Comments on "How BS Yeddyurappa has Survived 11 Attempts to Remove Him (so far) – Part III"

  1. Arghya June 1, 2011 at 8:29 am ·

    Alok, super set of posts! I enjoyed reading it thoroughly. My only question was: do you think caste politics will be a constant feature in Karnataka politics in the years to come or do you see its value receding as caste generally recedes in importance?

  2. Alok June 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm ·

    Thanks Arghya!

    I think the caste factor won’t go away any time soon because it cuts both ways. People know that voting as a caste (as opposed to voting as discrete individuals) will mean that their vote automatically has more value and therefore attract more attention from politicians courting favour. The “Lingayat Vote” or the “Vokkaliga vote” or the “Kuruba vote” as the case may be, will continue to be a factor, but not the sole one in Karnataka politics.

    That said, caste politics seem to have played itself out in South Karnataka as can be seen from the demise of the Janata Dal (Secular). The “pro-farmer” tilt the party claimed was always a sly way of saying “for, by and of Vokkaligas”. But caste identity alone got them nowhere as they were unable to deliver on real development or a corruption free government, and like the DMK, made the party and the family one. This could happen in North Karnataka with the BJP as well if they are unable to deliver “tangibles” (as they say in the software world) to their Lingayat base.

  3. Arghya June 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm ·

    Another trust vote survived today, I see!

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