From London, Narendra Modi to pursue Lingayat votes back home: Decoding PM's UK visit ahead of Karnataka polls

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be paying tribute to 12th Century Lingayat philosopher and social reformer Basaveshwara at his statue on the banks of the river Thames during his visit to the United Kingdom this week.

Basaveshwara (1134-1168) was an Indian philosopher, social reformer and statesman who attempted to create a casteless society and fought against caste and religious discrimination.

Organised by The Basaveshwara Foundation, a non-profit based in the UK that installed the statue, the event received the official confirmation from the Prime Minister’s Office about Modi's visit on Wednesday.

 From London, Narendra Modi to pursue Lingayat votes back home: Decoding PMs UK visit ahead of Karnataka polls

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI.

During former mayor of London borough of Lambeth Neeraj Patil's tenure, a prime piece of land was secured along the bank of Thames for installing the statue of the Indian philosopher. The project was approved by the planning department of The London borough of Lambeth and subsequently by the British Cabinet minister for culture media and sports as per the Public Statues Act, 1854, PTI reported.

The Basaveshwara statue installed at the Albert Embankment is not only the first statue to be unveiled by an Indian prime minister in the UK, but is also the first conceptual statue approved by the British Cabinet in the vicinity of the UK Parliament.

The approval was given as a mark of respect to Indian philosopher and social reformer for promoting democratic ideals, social justice and gender equality. India has recognised Basaveshwara as one of the pioneers of democracy and his statue was installed in the Indian Parliament during the tenure of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

India also released a coin and a postal stamp as a mark of respect for Basaveshwara and his contribution to Indian society. Modi will arrive on Tuesday night for a four-day visit during which he will hold bilateral talks with British prime Minister Theresa May and attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Ahead of the 2018 Karnataka Assembly election, the Lingayat issue debuted on the political stage with the Congress coming out in full support of a contentious demand from a section of the Lingayats for a separate religion tag outside of Hinduism. The move was to undercut Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) push for Hindu consolidation in the state. Lingayats/Veerashaivas are said to form about 17 percent of the population, and wield decisive clout in around 100 constituencies, particularly in north Karnataka.

Karnataka Assembly has 224 members. The Congress, which heavily invested in the issue, with a few cabinet Lingayat ministers spearheading the movement to demand a “separate religion” tag, is now cautious as it fears that the issue could swing either way for the party, as it has been accused of dividing the Hindu community.

Lingayats and their history

A 12th Century religious movement, Veerashaivism was spearheaded by the Kalachuri chief minister, Basavanna. Basavanna, a social reformer, built a philosophy of social reform through the use of Vachanas, a form of poetry which speaks of and to Shiva.The Lingayats wear a small Shiva linga around their neck. Started as an anti-caste campaign, Veerashaivism was a religion of dissent from the very beginning.

"Their biggest attack was on the polytheism of Hinduism. A monotheistic religion, Veerashaivism believed in worshipping only Shiva in the form of an ishtalinga. Furthermore, it condemned the ostentatious rituals that defined Hinduism, such as praying in a temple, going on elaborate pilgrimages and so on. The new movement also summarily rejected the Brahmanic idea of worshipping deities and doing good in order to go to heaven," an article in The Wire noted. The Lingayats fall within the Other Backward Class category in Karnataka.

How the Lingayat issue became one of the top discussed poll issues in Karnataka

File image of Siddaramaiah. Getty Images

File image of Siddaramaiah. Getty Images

After Siddaramaiah's Congress-led government in Karnataka demanded minority religion status for the politically influential Veerashaiva-Lingayat community from the Centre, the decision was proved to be a shot in the arm for the ruling party. It also undercut the BJP's push for Hindu consolidation. With the Congress in the lead with the Lingayats in the state (a forum of Lingayat seers indirectly gave a call to the community to support the party in the upcoming Assembly elections), the BJP is now trying to go the other way and attract the Vokkaliga community: The stronghold of Janata Dal (Secular)'s HD Deve Gowda.

The Veerashaiva-Lingayat factions, until now, have not shown a collective will to push their demands. The Veerashaiva-Lingayats, especially in north Karnataka, have supported the BJP. "Though all communities have shown their susceptibility to the BJP-led right wing ideologies, the main reason for the Lingayat support to the BJP is the perception that the Vokkaliga leaders (both Congress and JDS) have done them injustice by keeping them out of positions of power in the bureaucracy." The Economic Times noted in one article.

However, wary of electoral implications, political parties in Karnataka seem to have toned down the contentious issue of "religious minority" status to the dominant Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats in the run-up to the 12 May Assembly polls. After having taken a huge gamble despite sharp divisions within the Siddaramaiah government in an apparent move to take away a significant slice of the Lingayat/Veerashaiva vote bank that has largely stayed with the BJP, the ruling party is now treading cautiously.

Opposition from influential 'pancha peethas' (five Veerashaiva mutts) and a sense of scepticism about the nature of benefit that the community may get on being granted religious minority status, also weighed in for Congress not to raise the pitch politically. Interestingly, Congress ministers and leaders belonging to Veerashaiva community like Shamanuru Shivashankarappa, who have openly opposed the government decision, have also now gone silent.

The state cabinet on 19 March decided to recommend to the Centre grant of religious minority tag for the Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats. The state government's decision was based on the report of an expert committee that recommended considering grant of recognition as religious minority to the Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats (believers of Basava Tatva philosophy).

Speaking to PTI recently, Karnataka Congress working president Dinesh Gundu Rao said the party has nothing to do on the issue of religious minority status to Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats, and it will not make much impact in the polls. Terming it is a "community issue," Rao said the chief minister has followed procedure following the demand from the community.

On the other hand, the principal Opposition BJP, which sees the move to grant religious minority status as an attempt to eat into its vote share is yet to make its stand clear. Playing his cards close, BJP national president Amit Shah visited over 10 Lingayat mutts during his recent tours in the state, which is largely seen as an attempt to keep the community support intact.

The third major political player in Karnataka, the JDS, too has largely remained non-committal on the issue, though, Basavaraj Horatti, one of the senior leaders of the party hailing from Lingayat community was part of the movement demanding a separate religion tag. Whether Modi's attempts in United Kingdom pay dividends in the upcoming polls remains to be seen.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 11:26:51 IST