Karnataka polls: BJP caught off guard as Siddaramaiah govt seeks separate religious status for Lingayats

Massive political face-off erupts in Karnataka between Congress and BJP over the Siddaramaiah government's decision to recommend separate religious status to Lingayats. The political confrontation is understandable as the Lingayats, believed to be the single largest community in the state, constitute 17 percent of the state's population and are decisive in scripting the mandate in about 100 of 224 Assembly constituencies. Given the first-past-the-post system of Indian elections and the multi-corner contest the state is witnessing, poll pundits predict that even a small shift in the Lingayat votes away from BJP to Congress can help the latter to retain power. The political potential of the issue made Siddaramaiah take this gamble.

Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

The BJP which attacks Congress stating that the party is dividing Hindus finds it difficult to explain why its chief ministerial face BS Yeddyurappa supported this demand and signed a memorandum submitted to the Centre in 2013. Yeddyurappa as the BJP chief minister in Karnataka has pampered the community especially the all-powerful mutts and the educational institutions run by the pontiffs of the community. The seers and the mutts have a lot of influence on the patterns of voting of this community. The BJP cannot, now, digest the Congress playing same appeasement politics to woo a powerful community that has stood by it for long, that too with a decision completely unpalatable to the saffron party's ideological agenda. Thus, the concern of the BJP is not that a sect is moving away from Hindu fold. It is more a political worry in a state where the victory means a lot for political optics in the run-up to 2019.

More than the appropriateness of the demand of Lingayats for a separate religious identity from sociological and philosophical points of view, the politics of it and especially the timing of the controversial decision is certainly something the Congress cannot defend. The Congress is unable to explain why it now recommends such a status to Lingayats when its own UPA government rejected the demand in as early as 2013.

Rajiv Gandhi sacked the powerful Lingayat leader and the chief minister Veerendra Patil in 1990. This generated lot of antipathy towards Congress among this community voters. The BJP especially Yeddyurappa carefully nursed this important segment of the electorate. Siddaramaiah, now, with his salvo is trying to restructure the traditional voting patterns naturally making BJP jittery.

The BJP is trying to counter Congress move by mobilising the non-Lingayat Hindu votes especially the Veerashaivas who are opposing it. This was essentially the counter strategy adopted by the saffron party in Gujarat. When Congress attempted to mobilise Patel votes by cornering the BJP on the demand for reservations, the latter has hit back by mobilising other backward classes who are opposed to Patels in the villages. It may be noted here that Patels like Lingayats of Karnataka constitute a strong support base of BJP for all these years. The BJP wants to play the same trick to negate the possible gains for the Congress due to the Lingayat card employed by Siddaramaiah. Though the Congress succeeded in eroding the Patel vote base of BJP, the saffron party could retain power. As the BJP tries to counter the Karnataka Congress with the Gujarat formula, one has to see how it works on a ground dissimilar to Modi-Shah's Gujarat that always remained the saffron laboratory. Meanwhile, the BJP's propaganda machine has unleashed a strident campaign to paint Congress as anti-Hindu. This is aimed at thwarting the Rahul Gandhi's new found love for religious rituals as a part of his soft Hindutva electoral mobilisation.

However, the Karnataka BJP is pursuing a cautious approach. It wants the opposition within the community to build up. Subsequently, the party would like to intensify the attack on Congress government. The party wants to exploit the divisions within the broad sect to overcome the government's decision. Yeddyurappa told reporters in Bangalore that the Veerashaiva Mahasabha should convene a meeting of mutt, seers, community leaders and take a call on the government's decision. The Mahasabha has already convened a meeting in Bangalore on 23 March to discuss the government's decision.

The Congress, even as it tries to consolidate the Lingayat vote which was hitherto a bastion of BJP, is facing internal fissures as party legislator and a former minister openly questioned the government's decision. Shivashankarappa who is also president of Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha called the decision of the state government as the height of injustice. The cabinet is also reportedly divided over the issue.

Quite interestingly, nothing seems to be happening before Karnataka elections on the issue. But, the political harvesting is possible as social divide comes open.

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2018 19:14:16 IST

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