Having learnt a bitter lesson in the Delhi and Bihar assembly elections last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party is gradually realising that it cannot rely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone to win votes.

The appointment on Friday of former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa as president of the BJP’s state unit is a tacit admission by the party leadership that giving prominence to strong local satraps in the states is a must.

The BJP’s presidents for Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Arunachal Pradesh and Telangana were also named in a long-awaited organisational reshuffle, but Yeddyurappa was unquestionably the standout appointment on Friday.

Making a statement

Not only has Yeddyurappa been associated with the BJP for nearly four decades, he is undoubtedly the party’s tallest leader in Karnataka with a huge mass following, especially among his powerful Lingayat community. The Karnataka strongman had a bitter falling out with the party four years ago when he was asked to step down as chief minister after being indicted on charges of corruption.

The 73-year-old leader then floated his own party – the Karnataka Janata Party – on the eve of the state assembly elections in 2013. Although the new outfit did not go very far in the elections, an angry Yeddyurappa ensured that the BJP was relegated to the third position while the Congress went on to form the government.

“Yeddyurappa basically wanted to tell the BJP that it could not hope to win Karnataka without him at the helm… he wanted to underline that he is indispensable,” said a senior BJP leader. “He left the party to make this limited point.”

Realising that it could not afford to keep him out any longer, the BJP invited Yeddyurappa to rejoin the party ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, subsequently appointing him as its national vice-president. In the process, it was also forced to ignore the fact that Yeddyurappa had been embroiled in corruption cases. The party went ahead and gave him a Lok Sabha ticket in the 2014 elections, despite its all-out offensive against the Congress on the issue of corruption.

Given his popularity and mass base, the party will also have no choice but to project Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate in the next assembly polls, scheduled for 2018.

'Dead issue'

Even Narendra Modi was forced to acknowledge that Yeddyurappa was one of the few BJP leaders whose popularity surpassed his own, and who did not need the prime minister to win an election. A senior BJP minister recounted that Modi found this out on his election tours to the state in the run-up to the last Lok Sabha polls.

“Back from one such trip, Modi admitted that Karnataka was one state where the crowds cheered more enthusiastically for Yeddyurappa and not him,” the minister recalled.

While the Congress was quick to dub Yeddyurappa’s appointment as a “glorification of corruption", the BJP was not of the opinion that the old graft cases would haunt the party since the charges against him have not yet been proved. In addition, the Supreme Court had declined last year to set aside a Karnataka High Court order putting Yeddyurappa’s prosecution on hold. And in a further boost for Yeddyurappa, the Karnataka High Court in January this year quashed all the FIRs against him for alleged denotification of land in and around Bengaluru.

“This is a dead issue now….nothing has been proved against Yeddyurappa and, in any case, the Congress will first have to defend the functioning of its government when the next assembly elections are held,” said a senior BJP leader.

Dark horse

If the BJP opted for an old warhorse in Karnataka, it chose a virtual newcomer in Uttar Pradesh. The party named a first-time MP, Keshav Prasad Maurya from Phulpur, as the new state unit president ahead of next year’s assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Maurya proved to be the proverbial dark horse as his name never figured in the list of contenders doing the rounds for the past several months. Party president Amit Shah was keen on handing over the responsibility to the fiery and controversial Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath, while Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh was pushing for state party leader Dharampal Singh, who belongs to the Lodh community. Others in the fray included Union Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha and Lucknow Mayor Dinesh Sharma.

Unable to forge a consensus on these candidates, Shah zeroed in on Maurya. Although he lacks political seniority and stature, the new UP party chief is said to be energetic, enthusiastic and an aggressive orator. He spent his formative years in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and has campaigned extensively against cow slaughter. But above all, he is a Kushwaha, a numerically strong backward class, second only to the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh.

“His appointment will send out a strong message to the Kushwaha community and help consolidate the non-Yadav backward classes in our favour,” said a senior BJP leader. On the flip side, however, newcomer Maurya may find it difficult to handle a complex state like Uttar Pradesh, which is dominated by veteran party leaders with strong vested interests.

In poll-bound Punjab, meanwhile, the BJP has decided to hand over the party reins to experienced leader Vijay Sampla while K Laxman was named president of the Telangana unit.