Karnataka needs infrastructure and jobs, giving Lingayats separate religious status may backfire on Siddaramaiah

The Congress has been known to appease minorities to get their votes. This took India back by several decades and ruined the country’s social fabric, leading to a Hindu revivalism in 1980s and the rise of the Hindutva forces later. Undeterred by the fragmentation of India’s politics and society, now the Congress wants to go one step forward in its desperate electoral journey — or take the country a thousand more steps backward. It wants to create new minorities.

Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

That’s what Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah’s bizarre move on Monday to turn the state’s Hindu upper caste of Lingayats into a separate religion amounts to. Karnataka is in desperate need for creation of infrastructure and jobs, not new religions.

The demand for the status of a separate religion by some in the community was made, rejected and forgotten a long time ago. But by finally agreeing to recommend to the Centre the tag of a minority religion for Lingayats, the chief minister stirred a hornet’s nest just two months before the state goes to Assembly elections. There are no prizes for guessing what his real motives are.

Siddaramaiah’s supporters see this as a brilliant master stroke by the Congress chief minister to outwit the BJP, which sees the Lingayats as its core electoral base, but that might turn out to be wishful thinking. This surely puts BJP in a fix but this also might push the Congress, already seen as anti-Hindu party, into a position where it will be seen as a divider of Hindus.

In India’s byzantine communal politics, any move to please one caste may lead to backlash from others. Pleasing all communities is tantamount to walking the political tight rope: it’s easy to slip and fall. Even within the Lingayat community there are two major factions: Lingayats and Veerashaivas. A committee that the government set up had recommended the minority status only for Lingayats. By trying to extend the status to even Veerashaivas, the government may have ruffled the feelings of many in the community.

The status of a minority religion will no doubt please many Lingayat mutts and leaders who run a string of educational institutions or capitation fee-based money-making machines. This will help them reap benefits and privileges of a minority community, like Christians and Muslims. But past elections proved that the pontiffs of these mutts have little or no electoral influence on their community. Besides, this also has the potential for making the existing minorities insecure and uncomfortable as statements by some Muslim leaders already indicate.

Fools rush in...

Which reminds one of what Charlie Chaplin once said: “Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” Or is it the case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread? Or is it just a case of vinashe kale vinasha kale, viprita buddhi (when one nears one’s doom, one gets bizarre ideas).

Siddaramaiah has been toying with this wacky idea for some time now. But the Congress' vastly improved performance in the Gujarat Assembly elections three months ago may have given the party the “fool’s courage” to put the proposal in motion.

In Gujarat, the Congress promised to turn the upper caste of Patidars into a backward caste. Patidars saw the futility of it since it would go against a Supreme Court ceiling on reservations and fail judicial scrutiny, and though they helped the Congress win a few more votes, the party lost the poll.

Are Lingayats Karnataka’s Patidars?

The Congress is playing the same game again with the Lingayats of Karnataka. Like the Patidars, they are an upper caste in public perception. But unlike Patidars, Lingayats enjoy the benefits of a backward class with five percent reservations. So the Congress has promised nothing less than the status of a separate religion to them.

As in the case of the Patidars, this is also a promise, by way of a recommendation to the Centre which must ratify the proposal. If the Centre agrees to the proposal, the Congress will take credit for it. And if the Centre rejects it, the Congress will blame Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Karnataka’s BJP president BS Yeddyurappa, who is a Lingayat, for it. But the big question is whether the Lingayats, or at least a significant part of them, are dancing with joy over Siddaramaiah’s recommendation and will show their gratitude by voting for his Congress en masse in the upcoming Assembly elections. The question has no clear answers.

Who is a Lingayat?

For one thing, there is no agreement on just how many Lingayats there are in Karnataka. The last caste census was taken in the state 87 years ago, long before the reorganisation of states and Independence. In the absence of a new census, the Lingayats have been estimated to be about 17 percent of the state’s population. That figure has been bandied about by political analysts for a long time.

But according to a so-called “socio-economic caste census” that Siddaramaiah ordered in April 2015 at a cost of around Rs 150 crore — which involved dispatching some 1.3 lakh enumerators to 1.4 crore homes across Karnataka — Lingayats account for only 9.8 percent of the state’s population. The new census even pegs the percentage of Vokkaligas, the other politically dominant upper caste in the state, at 8.2 percent but not 12 percent as believed.

If the idea of Siddaramaiah, who belongs to the backward caste of Kurubas, was to project Dalits as the state’s single largest caste group and raise their reservations, he was sorely disappointed. He has been projecting himself as the state’s unmatched “ahinda” leader: Kannada acronym for Alpa sankhyatara, Hindulida, Dalit (minorities, backward castes and Dalits). Vokkaliga and Lingayat legislators of all parties including the Congress raised a hue and cry over their reduced proportions in the population, forcing the chief minister to keep the census results in the deep freeze.

Whether the Lingayats are 17 percent of Karnataka’s population or just 9.8 percent, giving them the status of a separate religion can’t guarantee a victory at polls.

The upcoming election in Karnataka is largely about Modi, and to some extent Siddaramaiah. Forget Rahul Gandhi and the like. In broad terms, the election outcome will depend on how two anti-incumbency factors — one against Narendra Modi at the Centre and the other against Siddaramaiah in the state — will play out, with a series of unabashed populist schemes of the Congress in the state thrown in for good measure.

Siddaramaiah would do well if he stops his sole dependence on caste and communal politics and starts talking about in a convincing fashion what he has done for Karnataka’s development: Very little according to his detractors, and if the crumbling infrastructure in Bengaluru and elsewhere in the state are testimony to a non-working government. Or he must talk about what he wants to do to improve the life of citizens, if re-elected.

 


Updated Date: Mar 19, 2018 20:58 PM

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