BY Vijayendra with BJP workers celebrating a bypoll victory in Sira, Karnataka, November 2020
THERE IS NO room in BJP for a third family member, I know,” concedes BY Vijayendra, right off the bat. Yet, here we are, in the sitting room in his apartment furnished with modest velveteen teal couches, talking about his place in Karnataka politics. His father, four-time Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, is about to turn 78 amidst rumours of a change in leadership, and his brother BY Raghavendra is a Member of Parliament from Shivamogga. At 45, Vijayendra, Yediyurappa’s second son and the youngest of five sublings, is a state BJP vice president—an elevation from his last-held post of Yuva Morcha general secretary that came in July 2020 in recognition of his role in wresting KR Pet, a constituency in the Janata Dal-Secular [JD(S)] pocket borough of Mandya, in the December 2019 Assembly bypolls. In 2018, the party had, at the last hour, decided not to field Vijayendra in Varuna against then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s son Yathindra. His father was upset, but Vijayendra took the disappointment in his stride, settling for tilling the soil of the Old Mysore region to sow the seeds for BJP’s emergence. “Had I contested and lost in Varuna, I would have lost to a sitting CM in his home constituency. Had I won, I would have been a headline,” he says. Vijayendra liked a challenge and he wasn’t about to be interrupted. In KR Pet, asking 90,000-plus Vokkaligas to vote KC Narayana Gowda, the sitting JD(S) MLA who had defected to BJP, back to victory and repose their faith in a Lingayat chief minister seemed downright silly, but a young campaign squad led by Vijayendra, backed on the ground by BJP MLA from Hassan, 39-year-old Preetham Gowda, camped for nearly a month in the constituency, hoping to slowly win over women and young voters. It helped that BJP had been going all out to woo Vokkaligas, 11 per cent of the state’s population, for the first time in its history with help from Deputy Chief Minister CN Ashwath Narayan, other leaders from the community, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s rapport with the Adichunchanagiri pontiffs. But it was a fortuitous personal connect that allowed the team to get up close and personal with voters. The ‘B’ in BS Yediyurappa stands for Bookanakere, the town in KR Pet taluk where he was born, although his political karmabhoomi is Shivamogga in the state’s Malnad region. “We never took Old Mysore [comprising Greater Bengaluru, Mandya, Hassan, Mysore, Chamarajnagar, Ramanagar, Chikkaballapur, Kodagu and Chikkamagalur] seriously. We had gifted it away to JD(S) by not appointing booth agents and instilling confidence in our karyakartas. Campaigning in the region showed me that BSY is not just a Lingayat leader,” Vijayendra says. The day after the poll results came, leaving JD(S) leaders feeling as though they were descending the stairs in an MC Escher drawing, he received an unexpected call—it was Amit Shah, congratulating him on the victory and extending an invitation to Delhi. This was special, not only because Vijayendra looks up to the master strategist but also because it was a signal that the national leadership had taken note of him—not just as the son of the chief minister but as an urgent new leader emerging through the state unit.
Central to BJP’s winning streak in subsequent bypolls in the region is the party’s newfound confidence that besides exploiting JD(S)’ existential crisis and convincing leaders to switch sides, it could also break new ground on its own. “BJP can win on its own strength. We have good leadership, but we have to work on the ground,” says Vijayendra. The induction of four more Vokkaligas, including Narayana Gowda, into the cabinet and intensive booth-level work helped the ruling party secure RR Nagar in Bengaluru and Sira in Tumkur in bypolls held in November 2020—both victories that Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed “extremely special”, and both attributed by the party, at least in part, to Vijayendra’s strategy and mobilisation. The strategy, he says, was simply to camp for three-four weeks in the constituencies to build a rapport with people and to get young leaders from communities across the state to campaign together. “BJP cannot afford to win just 104 or 110 seats in the next Assembly polls. Winning Old Mysore is key to winning a comfortable majority. And I believe many seats are winnable if we apply ourselves to the task—we already won Gundlupet in Chamarajanagar district in 2018; we can also win Hanur, Kollegal and Chamarajanagar. In Mysore Rural, HD Kote and Hunsur are well within reach.” The 2018 election had thrown up a hung Assembly, with BJP emerging as the single largest party with 104 seats in a house of 224 and forming the government, only to be supplanted within days by a Congress-JD(S) coalition which had the requisite numbers. A shaky marriage to begin with, the coalition, however, collapsed in 14 months, in no small part due to BJP’s active interference. Yediyurappa was once again chief minister, thanks to 16 ruling-coalition MLAs who had been coaxed to switch sides. “It is well known that Vijayendra helps his father maintain the peace with many rebel MLAs. If Yediyurappaji is the architect of the government, Vijayendra is the engineer who goes around troubleshooting,” says B Sriramulu, Minister for Social Welfare. “What I can confirm is that he has never interfered in ministry affairs.”
The induction of more Vokkaligas into the cabinet and intensive booth-level work helped BJP win bypolls to Sira and RR Nagar in November 2020—both victories that Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed ‘extremely special’ and which the party attributed, at least in part, to by Vijayendra’s strategy
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Vijayendra studied at the Sri Jagadguru Renukacharya College of Law in Bengaluru, not far from the chief minister’s residence, and briefly practised law in Shivamogga before getting married and settling down in Bengaluru. “If I have one regret in life, it is that I didn’t practise criminal law.” A decade has passed since a Lokayukta report indicted his father in an illegal mining case, forcing him to resign as chief minister following a directive promptly issued by the party’s central leadership. The most serious charge was contained in Chapter 22 of the report, which held him a party to irregular financial transactions between South West Mining Company and Prerana Education Society, a trust owned and managed by his family in Shivamogga. Ahead of the 2018 Assembly election, a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation acquitted Yediyurappa of all charges of accepting kickbacks from mining companies when he was chief minister and gave a clean chit to 12 others in the case, including his two sons. Other cases against him, including a corruption case from the denotification of a housing project proposal for middle and low-income groups on 26 acres in Bengaluru, are still underway in courts. “No other sitting chief minister has been subjected to such humiliation, dragged behind bars and vilified by his own colleagues on baseless charges. We have been working away at the dozens of cases foisted on him. To come back from all that and become the chief minister again took a lot of inner strength,” says Vijayendra, who feels dutybound to clear his father’s name. At the same time, he wants to be known as more than the chief minister’s son. “You don’t just become a leader by virtue of a position, you have to win the acceptance of the people.” It is a statement he repeats over a phone call from Shivamogga a week later.
Rumoured to be fielded from Basavakalyan in north Karnataka, one of two Assembly constituencies where bypolls are due, Vijayendra has just been made incharge of the campaign in Maski instead. If he feels thwarted, he doesn’t show it. “I am in no hurry to be elected MLA. I am not interested in becoming an MLC. I am enjoying this phase of working for the party,” he says. He pauses before addressing the elephant in the room: “There is a big leadership vacuum across all three parties in Karnataka.” The BJP high command in Delhi is casting about for a successor to Yediyurappa. “The party needs an organisation man, not an individualistic leader,” says a senior party functionary from Karnataka, on condition of anonymity. With many seniors regarding Vijayendra with open hostility, he finds his privilege to be a double-edged sword: “As much as being the CM’s son is an advantage when I campaign, it poses a hurdle to my relationship with a few leaders within the party.” “A few” doesn’t begin to describe the challenges Vijayendra faces—from veteran leaders who are hoping the baton will be passed to them; from contemporaries who have come up through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP and are still waiting for ministerial berths, in short supply due to promises made to rebel MLAs from Congress and JD(S); and from ministers who fear he may undercut their authority. “Without holding a position in state government, Vijayendra has become a power centre,” says a Lingayat MLA, accusing him of “filtering” information that reaches the chief minister. He also alleges interference by Vijayendra in allocating funds for constituencies, and in transfers and appointments of government officers. “Yediyurappa is grooming him as his prodigal son, and this does not sit well with party loyalists,” says the leader. “There is no denying he is a charismatic and shrewd young leader with a bright future ahead of him. But neither the BJP national leadership nor state leaders will promote a dynasty, especially not at a time when core BJP workers hold very few posts in government.”
Vijayendra vehemently denies these charges and says he is a soft target for anyone looking for chinks in Yediyurappa’s armour. “I am a party worker, and I help the CM coordinate with other party workers. To say that I interfere in government matters is transparently false.” Though widely considered his father’s political successor, Vijayendra has not betrayed an intention to make power play for the top post. He is a pragmatist who sees a future harnessed to the success of BJP in Karnataka—and this, he says, is contingent on returning grassroots work to the heart of politics. He also knows the party cannot risk unseating a Lingayat chief minister—a lesson the Congress learnt after Rajiv Gandhi’s dismissal of Veerendra Patil cost the party a 17 per cent loss of vote share in the 1994 elections, reducing its tally from 179 to 36. “Besides being a popular leader, the CM’s biggest strength is his accessibility to all legislators. So even though we don’t agree with every decision, we reconcile because of the effort he puts in to accommodate everyone. Some of us are unhappy with the bifurcation of Ballari district to carve out Vijayanagara, but he said to me, we have to accommodate the demands of defectors [in this case, Anand Singh, Minister for Forest & Environment, Ecology and Tourism],” says G Somasekhara Reddy, MLA from Ballari City. “Whoever succeeds him may not succeed in keeping all sections of the party together.”
Vijayendra faces challenges from veteran leaders; from contemporaries who have come up through the RSS-BJP ranks; and from ministers who fear he may undercut their authority
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To be sure, Vijayendra is not his father. He remembers growing up in Shikaripura under the watchful eye of Yediyurappa, who, he says, was a disciplinarian with his children. “He would make surprise visits to the school on his way to the farm and beat me if I bunked classes, but when it came to making a career decision, he left it entirely up to me,” he says, adding that he “stumbled into politics by chance and became hooked”. Though not as religious as his father—after three daughters, Yediyurappa had asked Raghavendra swami to pray that he begat a son, whom he then named after the guru—he enjoys his visits to the Manjunatha Swamy temple in Dharmasthala. Does he consult astrologers? “I certainly can’t remember consulting one in the past two years—there hasn’t been a need to,” he says, laughing. Vijayendra takes long careening trips across the state—“I am away for three days in a week”—and plays golf to relax when he is not working.
His sharp memory, organising skills and personable demeanour have made him popular with young leaders in the party. “He is the sort of leader who nurtures young MLAs and second-rung leaders in the party. He has given first-time MLAs like me both the responsibility and the credit for by-elections,” says
The by-elections have helped Vijayendra construct an identity in party circles of a strategist who can accurately predict electoral outcomes and venture into uncharted territory. “He is one of many young leaders the party has been encouraging,” says KS Eshwarappa, Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj. “In BJP, it is PM Modi’s image and the principles of the organisation that count, not whether you are a Lingayat or a backward caste representative.” But if 29-year-old Tejasvi Surya became BJP’s favourite youth leader from Karnataka by winning Bangalore South, a true-blue party bastion if there ever was one, after being handpicked by the national leadership, Vijayendra, despite coming from privilege and partly because of it, has had to prove his worth to the party. Amidst agitations by Kurubas, Panchamasali Lingayats and Valmikis demanding enhanced quotas and special status, BJP would do well to back leaders who have their ears close to the ground.