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Siddaramaiah’s Lingayat gamble

Kalyani Shankar |

Will the Congress Party reap the benefit of providing religious minority status to Lingayats in the upcoming Karnataka Assembly polls? This is indeed a million dollar question although chief minister Siddaramaiah believes it will help the Congress to get at least 10 to 20 per cent Lingayat votes for his party.

He is not the first to use the religious card, as there are others who have mastered the art. For instance, his Telengana counterpart K. Chandrasekhar Rao too has announced 12 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions for Muslims in his state. Some other parties have tried backward class reservation like the AIADMK.

Who are Lingayats? They are followers of the 12th century Brahmin reformer Basavanna who rejected caste hierarchy and Vedic rituals. Lingayats do not consider themselves as Hindus.

Veerashaivas are worshippers of Lord Shiva. They precede Basavanna. They are one of the five sects of the ‘Pancha Peeta” and one of the 92 sub-castes of the Lingayats. Lingayats have been protesting against the oppression of the Veerashaiva Lingayats.

The Lingayats are an influential and dominant community representing 17 per cent of the voters, the largest in the Karnataka electorate. Siddaramaih has cleverly tried to divide the community.

If recognised as a minority religion, the Lingayats will be able to avail benefits under Section 25, 28, 29 and 30 of the Constitution and in future it could also lead to reservations in government jobs. Many Lingayat politicians have invested in educational institutions.

The Congress hopes that the inclusion of Veerashaiva Lingayats in the recommendation with a caveat that only Veerashaivas who follow the teachings of Basaveshwara should be considered a minority would douse discontent among Veerashaivas to a large extent.

However, the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha has criticised the decision claiming it was wrong of the state government to add the rider and demanded that the entire sect be called Veerashaiva-Lingayats.

Why is the Congress resorting to religious politics? The party tried this card even in January 2014 by giving minority status to the Jains on par with the Buddhists, Parsis, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. However, the results showed that it did not pay dividend to the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Secondly, the Lingayats can influence at least 100 of the 224 constituencies in the Assembly. Since the Congress is keen to retain the state at any cost, Siddaramaiah has resorted to playing the religious card.

Thirdly, by wooing the Lingayats, the Congress could placate the influential community when the party is losing its core voters – the Dalits and the Muslims. The Lingayats had left the Congress fold when Rajiv Gandhi insulted their biggest leader Veerendra Patil by removing him unceremoniously in 1990. Since then they first supported the Janata Party leader Ramakrishna Hegde and then moved on to the BJP.

Today BJP’s chief ministerial hopeful B.S.Yediyurappa is the biggest Lingayat leader and the Congress does not have anyone to match his standing. In the 2008 Assembly elections, the BJP had stormed to power in Karnataka mainly with Lingayat support. This time, the BJP wanted to contest the polls on consolidating Hindutva votes and support from Lingayats.

Fourthly, the demand for minority status to the Lingayats has been pending for more than six decades but no one took a decision fearing a backlash. Pushed to the wall, Siddaramaiah is looking for issues like a separate flag for the state and other emotional issues to win in the upcoming polls. He is also challenging the BJP’s Hindutva campaign with Lingayat identity politics.

While the chief minister has taken a huge risk it is not known whether this will result in the Lingayats shifting their loyalty to the Congress though the government has clarified to avoid backlash from other communities that this decision “should not affect the existing benefits available to other religious or linguistic minorities.” Some BJP experts claim that the National Commission for Minorities Act 1992 states that only the Centre can recognise a particular religion as a minority.

Siddaramaih has put the ball in the BJP’s court by sending the cabinet resolution to the Centre putting the BJP is in a Catch-22 situation. The chief minister has nothing to lose by sowing the seeds of separation among the Lingayats. In fact he wants to kill two birds with one stone. Dividing a community which is hostile to his party and putting the blame on the BJP for not meeting its demand may indeed be a clever move.