The BJP in Karnataka is going back to consolidating its Lingayat vote bank in preparation for the Lok Sabha elections next year by appeasing former chief minister BS Yediyurappa and stitching an alliance with the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) that can sway voters in the Vokkaliga heartland.
The party’s hold over the Lingayat vote bank in the May assembly elections had been considerably disturbed and the attempts to side-line leaders Jagadish Shettar and Laxman Savadi led to the community votes giving a boost to the Congress to come to power.
By appointing BY Vijayendra, a first-time MLA and son of BS Yediyurappa, former chief minister, who single-handedly led the party to power in 2008, the BJP has clearly sent a signal to the Lingayat vote bank that it still trusts the old warhorse.
The latest move is a complete reversal of the stand the party had taken when it had even declined permission to Yediyurappa to go on a campaign tour a few months before the assembly elections. The open effort to ignore Yediyurappa had come soon after the central leadership forced him to step down as chief minister in 2019. Even before the assembly elections, Yediyurappa had returned from Delhi to Bengaluru as he was unhappy with the list of candidates chosen.
“Not just Yediyurappa, the denial of tickets to senior Lingayat leaders such as Jagadish Shettar and Laxman Savadi had a ripple effect on the community with the voters showing their disapproval by not voting in favour of us,” said a senior BJP leader.
Political analyst Prof Muzaffar Assadi agrees that BJP’s tactic is to woo back its lost vote bank, but he stresses that, unlike Yediyurappa, Vijayendra does not have a mass appeal.
“The BJP will have to depend on BSY again to regain their votes. The BJP is also fighting a battle within as there are many dissatisfied Vokkaliga leaders who are upset with Vijayendra’s emergence. It is said there are nearly 40 groups within the party itself, and there may be an effort to pull the rug from within and not let Vijayendra to continue for more than three years,” Assadi said.
But party insiders have clearly indicated that with Vijayendra as party chief, Yediyurappa will not have any problems accompanying him on the campaign trail now that the central leadership had accepted his supremacy as a mass leader of the party in the state.
To make a major breakthrough in Southern Karnataka, where the other major caste group of Vokkaligas are a dominant community, the central leadership of the party has got into an alliance with the JDS, headed by the father-son duo of HD Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy. The JDS had also suffered in the May assembly elections when its tally fell by half to 19 seats in its stronghold districts as the Vokkaliga community had tilted towards the Congress with present Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar leading the charge.
The results of the May 2023 elections brought about a humiliating defeat to the ruling BJP in Karnataka as the voters favoured the Congress and reduced the saffron party’s representation in the Karnataka legislative assembly from 119 to 65.
In the 2023 Assembly elections, the party experienced a significant decline in voter support in major pockets, including the Kittur Karnataka, Kalyana Karnataka, and Central Karnataka region, and is now hopeful that through its two-pronged strategy of wooing both the major communities, it will be able to win maximum parliamentary seats (Karnataka has 28 Lok Sabha seats).
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP had scored a remarkable 25 out of 28 seats in the state with the Congress securing just one seat, the JDS one and an Independent getting the prestigious Mandya constituency.
On a question of whether the BJP is consolidating its position amongst the upper caste in the state, political commentator Sandeep Shastri feels that “the BJP had taken the upper caste vote for granted as they are firmly supporting them,” and agrees that bringing in Vijayendra was a step to consolidate the Lingayat votes, which had partially swayed to the Congress in the assembly elections.
“Having chosen a Lingayat as the BJP state party president, many say it will be a Vokkaliga who will be chosen for the post of Leader of Opposition in the assembly. I think it will be an OBC leader. My view is that the BJP central leadership would want an LoP who had nothing to do in a major way, with the previous government and leadership just like Karkala MLA Sunil Kumar. By stitching an alliance with the JDS, having Vijayendra as the party president and possibly an OBC as the LoP, the party hopes to consolidate its support base,” the analyst said.
Shastri also observes that the BJP’s central leadership appears to be side-lining those who led the assembly campaign and making way for younger leaders to take charge.
“Some of the decisions taken are, in a way, that the BJP’s way of disassociating itself from those linked with the defeat of the party. A strong message that they are setting the house in order after the state leaders failed,” he adds.