Karnataka polls: As BJP considers options beyond Yeddyurappa, Lingayat voters check options beyond BJP

Basavaraj Horatti is a busy man. Sitting in his office in Hubli in north Karnataka, the president of the Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha peruses the member application form of the Mahasabha. More than 70,000 Lingayats have enrolled as members, contributing Rs 14 lakh to the association's kitty. The Mahasabha was formed six months ago, the result of a demand to have Lingayats declared as a separate religion. It now exults that it has tasted success.

"A lot of people think Siddaramaiah's decision to give separate religion status (to Lingayats) was only political. We do not look at it this way. We have been making this demand on behalf of the community for several years now," says Horatti.

Horatti incidentally also wears another hat, that of the Leader of the JD(S) in the Karnataka legislative council. But given his party's image as a Vokkaliga-dominated outfit from the old Mysuru region, it's unlikely that Horatti spearheading the Lingayat cause will bring about any electoral benefits to the JD(S) in the Mumbai-Karnataka region.

 Karnataka polls: As BJP considers options beyond Yeddyurappa, Lingayat voters check options beyond BJP

File image of BS Yeddyurappa and Narendra Modi

This part of Karnataka is Lingayat territory and a majority of the 50 seats spread over six districts will see a Congress versus BJP electoral fight. The Lingayats have traditionally backed the BJP, thanks mainly to community strongman BS Yeddyurappa at the helm of affairs. In 2008, the Mumbai-Karnataka region helped the BJP, by giving it 34 seats. However, following Yeddyurappa's exit from the BJP to form his Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), the BJP's tally came down to 13 seats in 2013, KJP winning from two constituencies.

"Yeddyurappa did not open his mouth during the Lingayat struggle. He was always backing the Veerashaivas. 80 percent of the community are Lingayats and 20 percent are Veerashaivas. So Lingayats are angry with the BJP, and this will prove to be a setback for the party," says Horatti.

When senior Lingayat leader Veerendra Patil of the Congress was unceremoniously sacked as chief minister in 1990 by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the community practically deserted the party. They swore their allegiance first to the Janata Dal under Ramakrishna Hegde, and then the BJP under Yeddyurappa.

"It is not as if Lingayats are now gung-ho about the Congress. There is still a lot of aversion to the party. But the community is equally angry about the BJP's silence when Lingayats and Veerashaivas were engaged in street fights," says Vikas Soppin, a farmer in Navalgund.

In 2013, roughly 10 percent of the Lingayat vote moved from the BJP to KJP, which was seen as proof that the community vote was not loyal only to the Lotus. Dharwad-based political analyst Harish Ramaswamy sees a shift this time as well. "I expect about 8-10 percent of the Lingayat vote to the Congress because of its decision to accord separate religion status," says Ramaswamy.

But on the ground, apart from the Lingayat card, one gets the impression that Yeddyurappa — for a different reason — will still hold the key to which way the vote goes.

Hardcore Yeddyurappa supporters belonging to the Lingayat-Veerashaiva community are looking at the developments within the BJP with anxiety. Their apprehension stems from the manner in which Yeddyurappa was not allowed to field his son BY Vijayendra from Varuna constituency. Though Narendra Modi attributed it to the BJP's opposition to dynasty politics, Yeddyurappa backers question how two Reddy brothers and B Sriramulu and his nephew Suresh Babu were given tickets.

Conspiracy theories, fanned by Congress leaders on social media, that Yeddyurappa may not make it as chief minister even if the BJP comes to power has meant the Lingayat voter is still mulling his options. In this part of Karnataka, the grapevine is abuzz with the possibility of HD Kumaraswamy heading a BJP-JDS coalition government with B Sriramulu as his deputy. The theory is that the possibility of this happening increases should the BJP not do too well in Lingayat-dominated constituencies.

"The diminishing of Yeddyurappa's stature is visible to all," says GB Patil, general secretary of the Lingayat Mahasabha. "The fact that Modi is not even sharing the dais with him at all public meetings is not seen as a good sign by the Lingayat community. It is hurting everyone."

Modi's praise of HD Deve Gowda during his public meeting in Udupi too has not gone unnoticed. While the rest of India sees it as a case of a former prime minister being praised, in caste-obsessed Karnataka, the Lingayats see this as the tallest leader of the BJP making overtures to a Vokkaliga leader. The two communities are the most influential, politically speaking in Karnataka, competing with each other to wield power.

Add to this the absence of a single Lingayat minister in the Union Cabinet despite Karnataka sending nine Lingayat MPs of the BJP to the Lok Sabha. After the lone Lingayat minister GM Siddeshwara was dropped in 2016, Yeddyurappa had lobbied for another Lingayat MP to be inducted in his place but did not succeed. The community understandably feels left out of the power matrix in New Delhi.

In Jamkhandi in Bijapur district, a group of sugarcane farmers say they are hardcore supporters of Yeddyurappa. "We vote for the BJP because Yeddyurappa from our community is leading the party. That alone determines our decision to stick by the BJP. We will not like it if Yeddyurappa is not in the forefront of the party," says Neelkanth, a farmer.

For the record, the BJP insists Yeddyurappa is its chief ministerial candidate. Yeddyurappa himself has tried to allay any misgivings among his followers by claiming he will take oath as the chief minister on 18 May, in Narendra Modi's presence. This self-confidence, the BJP and Yeddyurappa hope, will be enough to ensure the 14 percent Lingayat vote does not betray them in the privacy of the polling booth on 12 May.

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Updated Date: May 03, 2018 15:46:05 IST