Karnataka polls: Siddaramaiah unsettles BJP as Congress' pro-Lingayat steps shake BS Yeddyurappa's citadel

The ongoing movement for minority status for Lingayats in Karnataka has the potential to change the established political equations, break old bonds and create new loyalties. The socio-political churn caused by the movement could help the Congress divide the BJP vote, making it difficult for the saffron parivar to regain entry in south India.

That the movement has become a hot potato for the BJP was evident during Amit Shah’s visit to a mutt in Chitradurga on Tuesday. Shah had gone to the mutt to reach out to the Lingayats, who have been promised minority status by the Siddaramaiah government. But, he faced an awkward moment when the seer of the Muruga mutt handed him a memorandum seeking minority status for Lingayats.

File image of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa. Getty Images and PTI

File image of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa. Getty Images and PTI

In his memorandum the seer said: "A Lingayat movement is on in Karnataka, pressing for minority status for the Lingayat community. Though it appears there is a conflict between Lingayats and Veerashaivas, it is just temporary as people from both sects have been issuing emotional statements. The Karnataka government has rightly recommended granting of minority religion status for Lingayats. It’s not a step to divide community but a medium to unite."

Incensed by the support to the Congress move in Karnataka, the BJP chief reportedly left the venue in a huff citing a busy schedule.

Identity-based movements have had a history of causing a political churn and impacting elections. Every time a community rises in unison before an election, it generally ends up upsetting the existing caste equations and forging new loyalties. Nobody would know this better than the BJP.

In the past, the saffron party has been a beneficiary of identity politics emerging from the Ayodhya movement and suffered electoral losses because of stirs by communities like the Patidars in Gujarat and the Gurjars in Haryana. But, what comes closest to the ongoing movement in Karnataka is perhaps the way the BJP gained electorally from the quota movement by Jats of Rajasthan. Understanding the parallels between the Jat movement and the Lingayat stir could help us understand the trajectory of Karnataka’s politics.     

The Jats, who comprise around 10-12 percent of Rajasthan’s electorate, were traditional supporters of the Congress. Till the 90s, it was widely believed that the Congress entered the poll arena with the Jat vote in its back pocket, making it tough for the opposition to beat it in polls. It is precisely for this reason that even at the peak of its popularity—the Ayodhya movement—the BJP could never get a majority in the 200-member Rajasthan Assembly.

Aware of its limitations, the BJP made some calculated moves around 1998 to take the Jats away from the Congress. First, it backed a popular movement for OBC status for Jats. And then, just before the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, it announced OBC status for the community at the Centre. The result: It won 16 seats in the state against the five just a year ago in 1998.

The Congress is trying something similar in Karnataka. It knows the Lingayats are traditional supporters of the BJP because of Yeddyurappa, the party’s chief ministerial candidate and a powerful Lingayat leader. In today’s The Indian Express, Lingayat scholar SM Jaamdar says Yeddyurappa became a Lingayat icon because the community felt he was slighted by HD Devegowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) in 2007 by denying him the chance to become the chief minister by rotation as per the agreement between the two parties. Since then, he has been the BJP’s Pied Piper for Lingayat votes.

Siddaramaiah is trying to break Yeddyurappa’s hold on Lingayats by promising them minority status. In a closely contested election, whatever he takes away from the BJP vote bank could decide the outcome. This should be seen in the context of the 2013 Assembly elections when the BJP was routed without the support of the Lingayats, who backed Yeddyurappa, who floated his own party after being ousted by the BJP.

Nobody knows if the Congress would successfully drive a wedge through the BJP vote. Like the Jats of Rajasthan, the Lingayats are the biggest community in Karnataka with an estimated population of 17 percent. Even if a percentage of them moves away from the BJP, Shah would try to counter it by reaching out to the Vokkaligas (estimated to be 12 percent) through an alliance with JD(S), which claims to represent the community. Siddaramaiah is trying to pre-empt this by making the JD(S) irrelevant through defections and by making the contest a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP.

In this searing bid for new vote banks, expect the unexpected in Karnataka this election.

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Updated Date: Mar 28, 2018 22:08:53 IST

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