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The Trouble with Yeddyurappa

Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa has been seen by his own partymen in the Bharatiya Janata Party as authoritarian, divisive and incompetent. Yet, the fear of a split within the party and the prospective loss of power in the only state in the south where the BJP has a ruling party status has tied its hands.

COMMENTARY

At the time I thought that these men

The Trouble with Yeddyurappa

might be untypical malcontents, but over the last 15 years, I have heard similar views from many other BJP activists in the James Manor state, time and again. The loathing felt for

Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa has been seen by his own partymen in the Bharatiya Janata Party as authoritarian, divisive and incompetent. Yet, the fear of a split within the party and the prospective loss of power in the only state in the south where the BJP has a ruling party status has tied its hands.

James Manor (james.manor@sas.ac.uk) is with the School of Advanced Study, University of London, London, UK.

I
n late 1994, I interviewed two committed young Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists in Bangalore. The party had greatly increased its popular vote in the state election earlier that year and a ppeared poised to become a major force in Karnataka’s politics. I expected them to be brimming with optimism, but they were morose from the start, and they got progressively more despondent during our hour together.

They offered a long litany of complaints about the leader of the state unit of the BJP, B S Yeddyurappa. He was arrogant. He did not listen to anyone, or to reason. He ignored information about opportunities that the party might exploit, and about pitfalls to be avoided. So he missed chances to gain advantages, and wandered blindly into embarrassments and traps.

They had at first thought that he was an intelligent man with poor political judgment, but as the blunders mounted, they concluded that he was “not very bright”. He was also undemocratic, ignoring the views of party colleagues – a serious o ffence in their view, since they saw the BJP as a more democratic party than the Congress and Janata alternatives. He i gnored votes taken in party committees, and strategies that had been agreed upon. When others challenged him about this, he grew angry and respon ded with bluster rather than arguments, often shouting down questions.

He lacked standards and self-discipline – virtues that they expected from a leader of this “party with a difference”. He paid little attention to details, was unrealistic, and “ignored realities and complications”. He tried to achieve the impossible and when it proved unattainable, he blamed others and changed direction, erratically and without warning – often making things worse.

This was a dangerous combination – power was over-centralised in the hands of a “stupid” man. It was damaging the party. Near the end of our meeting, one of the young men broke down in tears. It was the only time on 40 years of studying K arnataka’s politics that I have seen someone weep in frustration with his own p arty’s leader.

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Yeddyurappa within the Karnataka BJP runs as deep as that expressed by people in rival parties. Shrewd tacticians in those parties have long regarded him as “our s ecret weapon”. In recent times, resentments within the state’s BJP have hardened against him (see, for example, Frontline, 5 November 2010). So why have the national leaders of the party stuck with him for so long?

The Dominant Caste Theory

Most BJP activists attribute this to a failure to create mechanisms that would u ncover the deep dismay in the state party, and to the huge cultural and cognitive d istance that separates New Delhi from Karnataka. The chief minister often tells national leaders that his fellow Lingayats give the party an unassailable base. Those leaders, from northern and western India, do not understand that this is untrue. L ingayats account for only 15.3% of the state’s population as a survey by Sandeep Shastri based on Reddy (1990) points out. And even in areas where they are concentrated, many years have passed since they could influence other groups’ voting decisions. Devaraj Urs brought the nondominant majority into play as a politically sophisticated force in the 1970s (Raghavan and Manor 2009: Chapters 1 and 2), and since then, caste hierarchies have lost much of their potency in rural areas.

The BJP’s national leaders fail to recognise that when Lingayat chief ministers like S R Bommai after 1988 and Veerendra Patil in the early 1990s favoured their caste fellows excessively, as Yeddyurappa has done, the other groups have combined against them. Inclusive, diverse social c oalitions have always been needed, since Urs, to win state elections. The national leaders also apparently fail to grasp that the BJP’s modest “successes” in the recent panchayat elections – which Yeddyurappa has used to justify his continuance in power – actually entailed significant declines in the party’s vote share in several key subregions since the 2008 state election (at which the BJP failed to win a majority of seats). Most of those lost votes occurred

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among non-Lingayats, despite the BJP spending on the panchayat elections being much greater than that by rival parties.1 Crudely speaking, non-Lingayats have tended to combine in support of the Congress in most of northern Karnataka, and in support of the Janata Dal-Secular in most of southern Karnataka.

Autocratic Leader

The BJP’s senior-most figures may understand that Yeddyurappa’s autocratic style has prevented the party in Karnataka from developing a group of younger leaders for the future to match that of the Congress. They surely see that power has been grossly over-centralised in the hands of a chief minister who lacks the political skills to wield it adroitly. They know that he was so inept in concealing dubious actions that he now faces serious charges in court which, as one national leader of his party told him in November, could land him in jail. This has of course undermined the BJP’s campaign against corruption in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the centre. They see that he lacks the wit to keep moneyed mining interests under control, as chief ministers in states like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh have done.2 They see that raucous dissidence within the state party, which once reduced Yeddyurappa to tears on television, will not die away.

They also see a man who has become more erratic and aggressive as pressure has mounted against him in recent months. Verbal abuse that he dished out to senior colleagues in the state was reported to the national leadership. When four n ational party leaders advised him “to treat party workers with respect”, he said that “It will not be repeated” (Sandeep Shastri in Deccan Herald, 12 February 2011). But then at a subsequent meeting, the chief minister had to be restrained from hurling a chair at a prominent rival in the state BJP leadership.

They understand enough to want to get rid of him. So how does he manage to cling on to power? He has increasingly relied on threats. That is “bad form” in BJP culture, but national leaders take two threats seriously. The first lacks substance: his claim that if he is deposed, the Lingayats will abandon the party. Another Linga- yat minister and former state assembly

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march 26, 2011

speaker, Jagadish Shettar, is available and could keep most of them on board. Yeddyurappa’s second threat is more genuine: if he were deposed, he would take enough legislators with him to deprive the party of its slim majority. A state election would almost certainly be necessary, perhaps a fter a spell of President’s rule. The BJP would almost certainly fare badly because voters would react against Yeddyurappa’s bungling,3 and because after 23 years of his leadership of the party, it has few credible non-Lingayat leaders. The BJP would lose its only state in the south.

Mismanagement

The chief minister has recently stressed two themes: helping farmers and “development, development, development”. If he encounters trouble in the courts, he will present himself as “a martyr in pursuit of his development agenda” (DNA, Bangalore, 17 February 2011). But he is crippled on both fronts by fiscal constraints of his own making. This is astonishing because since 2003, the state and central government revenues have surged. In fiscal year 2011-12, they are expected to rise by a further, spectacular 25% (Aiyar 2011). To slip into fiscal crisis now requires monumental ineptitude.

Upon taking office in 2008, Yeddyurappa (who holds the finance portfolio) immediately brought in expensive subsidies on power to small and marginal farmers, and on foodgrains – and smaller subsidies in four other areas – which have bled the e xchequer of a state that has long been a model of fiscal rectitude. Since subsidies quickly get taken for granted, a shrewd leader would at least have postponed their introduction until popular discontent arose, so that his generosity would ease his plight. He might also have created a mechanism to check the now widespread misuse of cheap power by prosperous farmers, but this did not happen. To make matters worse, the government distributed 30 lakh new below poverty line ration cards in 2009, so that there are 1.07 crore cardholders when the Planning Commission reckons less than one-third that number genuinely qualify (Deccan Herald, 17 February 2011). These actions have placed the state exchequer in dire straits.

And yet the day after the points just above appeared in the press, we find the

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chief minister “Patting his own back for maintaining fiscal discipline...” (Deccan Herald, 18 February 2011). The gap between his public statements (which he may actually believe) and grim realities is enormous.

Despite the fiscal crisis, Yeddyurappa was determined to introduce the state’s first one lakh crore budget – an increase of 30,000 crore over 2010-2011 at a time when even maintaining the status quo was going to be difficult. His habit – when his grand promises become wildly unrealistic and civil servants explain that he is asking the impossible – is to lose patience and order them to get it done anyway. This appears to have happened with the 2011 budget.4 When asked where the a dditional funds would be found, the chief minister said that they would come from the recovery of encroached government and benami lands (The Week, 27 February 2011) – which cannot possibly yield Rs 30,000 crore.

If we consider his efforts for farmers, a similar story emerges. Yeddyurappa often stresses that he is the son of a farmer, and he took his oath of office wearing a green scarf, to show solidarity with them. He r ecently became the first chief minister to introduce a separate budget for farmers. But analysts have found that his government has provided “abysmally low expenditure on agriculture...The farmer is not being pampered.” Agricultural growth over the last decade has been “a dismal 0.5%” (Deccan Herald, 16 December 2010).

In reply, Yeddyurappa has said, “We have decided to create a revolution in the sector” (Times of India, Bangalore, 18 February 2011). “We will address all the problems of farmers... The state has already declared 2011-20 as the ‘decade of irrigation’” (DNA, Bangalore, 18 February 2011). But in the teeth of excruciating fiscal constraints, how can this be achieved? His a nswer is a “global summit” on agriculture in June which he expects to yield Rs 52,000 crore in investment (Times of India, Bangalore, 18 February 2011).

Unkept Promises

In the real world, Karnataka is likely to see broken promises, as the government fails to obtain such massive investments and extends its current practice of not a ctually spending what budgets propose. Consider three politically sensitive examples. The

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chief minister has not fulfilled his commitment to provide houses for victims of the 2009 floods, and many of those which have been built were funded by private donations. The “free” treatment for the poor in government hospitals actually costs patients around Rs 2,610 per admission, according to the government’s own Karnataka Knowledge Commission (Karnataka Jnana Aayoga 2010: 31 and Deccan Herald, 17 February 2011). And officials note that the widely popular scheme to provide 8th Standard girl students with bicycles has been cut back.5 These are things that voters will remember when they enter the polling stations.

We should bear this in mind when we read claims by the chief minister that his enemies are practising “black magic” against him, counterclaims by his opponents that he himself has resorted to sorcery, and reports that the state Congress Committee is renovating its building on the advice of a “vaastu expert” – a g eomancer (Indian Express, Bangalore, 31 January 2011 and Bangalore Mirror, 19 February 2011). It is the tangible impact of this government on hospital patients, girl students and others that will decide its fate.

Notes

1 I am grateful to E Raghavan for stressing these points. See also, Deccan Herald, 4 January 2011.

2 Yeddyurappa has in recent months found it possible to gain some leverage over mining interests, especially the Reddy brothers. But ironically, this owes much to a decision by Congress leaders at the national level to encourage the CBI to go after the Reddys – because they have supported Jaganmohan Reddy’s challenge to the Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

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3 Sandeep Shastri has evidence which indicates that popular perceptions of chief ministers tend strongly to determine whether ruling parties are returned to power in state elections.

4 Another possible reason for this was suggested by a distinguished former civil servant. Yeddyurappa may reckon that he will not last five years and that his preferred successor will not be selected, so he has decided to spend lavishly (indeed, recklessly) so that he will be remembered as a great benefactor. Interview, Bangalore, 19 February 2011.

5 Interviews with two senior civil servants, Bangalore, 18 February 2011.

References

Aiyar, Swaminathan A (2011): “Swaminomics”, Economic Times, 3 March.

Karnataka Jnana Aayoga (2010): Status Report by Study Group of Delivery of Health Services (Bangalore: Government of Karnataka).

Raghavan, E and J Manor (2009): Broadening and Deepening Democracy: Political Innovation in K arnataka (New Delhi and London: Routledge).

Reddy, Chinnappa (1990): Report of the Karnataka Third Backward Classes Commission, two volumes (Bangalore: Government of Karnataka).

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