By Rohini Mohan
FORTY YEARS ago, in Shikaripura village in central Karnataka’s Shimoga district, Padmanabha Bhat and BS Yeddyurappa sat in a barber shop with towels around their necks and white foam around their 20-something faces. “Why don’t you grow a moustache?” asked Bhat, who himself sported a glorious handlebar. Yeddyurappa, then 27, looked sharply at Bhat in the mirror. “You have one,” he said. “Everyone around us has one. Let me be known as the one man in our village who doesn’t have a moustache.”
The man without a moustache is now known for much more. He is the chief minister of the first and also the shakiest BJP government in Karnataka’s history. He has had to play escape artist four times as CM, emerging hurt, but safe. His youngest son, Vijendra, first credits it to Yeddyurappa’s faith in god, but then corrects himself. “He is a Houdini,” he says, “because he knows his political ropes well. It’s helped him come a long way.”
The journey started with drawing debits and credits amid flying rice flour. By day, the always check-shirted pure vegetarian Yeddyurappa was a clerk in a Shimoga mill. By night, the fast-car-loving, English-learning Yeddyurappa dreamt of bigger things. “We would read the newspaper in the temple compound and talk of dedicating our lives to fighting injustice,” says childhood friend Bhat.
First as RSS workers and then as peasants’ rights activists, they roamed from village to village on second-hand cycles. During the Emergency in 1975, both spent a month in the Shimoga jail. “We were so proud!” laughs Bhat, twisting the end of his now fully white moustache. “Even in jail, he staged a dharna saying the food was horrible.”
When Yeddyurappa fell in love with his employer’s daughter, Bhat remembers him fighting a two-year-long battle with his mother-in-law before she relented. “Come to think of it,” says Bhat, “he seems to have spent all his life fighting one battle or another.”
The battle that catapulted Yeddyurappa into politics, however, is one that created his most indelible image as a grassroots leader. Even today, Sangh Parivar members talk of his 1982 long march, when he paraded bonded labourers from Shikaripura to Bengaluru. AK Subbaiah, who was the then state BJP president, says this was the first time he noticed this reed-thin man. “He was so impatient,” says Subbaiah. “We could have done with an angry young man like him in our party, which was sinking at the time.” The next year, the BJP gave Yeddyurappa a ticket. He went on to contest seven elections, losing only in 1999, when his party managed to grow from four to 44 seats.
His mentor and inspiration in those days was MC Jayadev, now RSS national executive member and the most influential Sangh man in the state, who had spotted a young Yeddyurappa for his motivation and groomed him. He still supports his ward, although the actual spadework for Yeddyurappa this time came from other RSS seniors.
As he stuck around, Yeddyurappa became known as the arrogant man with the short temper, easy to dislike and but impossible to ignore. With his perpetually furrowed brow, moodiness and rare smile, he confused his peers. “One never knew much about him,” says a former MLC and one-time friend. “I could never trust him.”
The heart attacks of Yeddyurappa’s in-laws on the same day, and his wife’s fatal fall into a tank in 2004 are all still called ‘mysterious deaths’ by his own associates. A Shimoga-based journalist filed a petition in court accusing Yeddyurappa of murder. A few months ago, the petition was dismissed as baseless.
Vijendra says that these events have made a deep impression on Yeddyurappa. “He has become far more patient over the years,” he says. “At least he now pretends to listen to people!” Yeddyurappa also began to believe he was ridden with bad luck. He turned more and more to astrology. Even today, his elephant donations and helicopter visits to ‘powerful temples’ across the country, are thanks to a pantheon of swamijis. He changed the spelling of his name, and occasionally shut specific ill-will bringing gates of the Vidhan Soudha.
Even a fortnight before the 2008 election, Power Minister and confidant Shobha Karandlaje approached astrologer S Chockalingam for a victory formula. “I performed a 11-day ashwamegha yagna for him in Hosur,” admits Chockalingam, who also advised Yeddyurappa to visit the Taliparamba temple in Kerala ahead of the recent first trust vote.
The waiting and praying has paid off, but the political climb seems to be fraught with difficulties. As if he had foreseen it, just a few hours before he was sworn in as CM, he asked his family to gather in the puja room of his house. “This is the best thing that has happened to me,” he apparently said to his two sons and three daughters. “Let us pray that none of us acts in a way that will take this gift away from us.”
Just three years ago, Yeddyurappa threatened to join the Congress, forcing the RSS to intervene
This from a man who was the BJP’s sole MLA in the Assembly from 1985 to 1989, after the other party MLA, Vasant Bangera, left to join Ramakrishna Hegde. Still, earlier in 1978, he had been denied a ticket in the post-Emergency alliances. This is also from a man who, in 2007, had threatened to join the Congress. Then, he was annoyed at getting sidelined in the BJP. After this threat, it was Jayadev who represented Yeddyurappa’s case to the RSS. Both personal and political reasons have led him to gasp repeatedly for his last chief ministerial breath. But each time, the Houdini reaches for a three-part survival kit: the RSS, caste and the bottomless pit of the mining lobby.
YEDDYURAPPA ALSO belongs to the politically crucial Lingayat community, which constitutes 17 percent of the state’s five crore voting population, and dominates 80 of the 224 Assembly setas. It was not enough, however, to simply field him as a Lingayat candidate. He had to become a Lingayat mascot. The BJP spent around Rs. 500 crore in donations to Lingayat mutts that have a wide network of disciples and hence, captive vote banks.Although he came under flak from the backward caste members, Yeddyurappa still made sure 51 of the 136 candidates in the BJP first list were Lingayats. He also managed to portray the 2007 drama (when JD(S) senior HD Kumaraswamy denied him his first shot as CM) as a betrayal to a Lingayat by a Vokkaliga, invoking an ancient caste rivalry. Perhaps for the first time since 1956, Lingayats voted for Yeddyurappa, and hence the BJP, virtually as a block in 2008.
Till today, Yeddyurappa continues to lovingly nurture what he knows has brought him to the other side of the Assembly. He regularly donates massive sums, often Rs. 15 crore apiece allegedly from the state exchequer, to temples. He still turns to the RSS for blessings during crises, even if he has been known to sometimes ignore their word. Thanks to their moneybags, the Reddy brothers are also summoned when love, in the absence of religious seductions, needs to be bought.
Another fallback, especially after he became chief minister, is his family. His elder son Raghavendra is a Lok Sabha MP from Shimoga, and his youngest daughter, Umadevi, who ran the household after his wife died accidentally in 2004, was known to ask bureaucrats to send files home to grant favours. While this didn’t turn into a major money-making enterprise, there was resentment. Yeddyurappa heeded it and asked her to move back to her house. Now, his older daughter, Padmavati, manages the household and looks after her diabetic father. She is known to have no political interests, and Yeddyurappa’s image seems to have improved after this change.
With inputs from Sopan Joshi