When religion turns political: Who will steal the thunder in the Lingayat heartland?

Deccan Chronicle.  | vittal shastri

Nation, Politics

The division in Lingayat votes cost the BJP more than 40 seats in North Karnataka.

It is argued that as many as 30 sub-castes including Madhiga, Chaluvadi, Kumbar, Ganiger and Hadapad may not back the Congress move to seek minority tag as they already enjoy government benefits under reservation for backward classes, SC and STs and the independent religion status will only cause a loss to them.

The winds of change are blowing across the plains of North Karnataka  and whether it will favour the Congress or blow away its hopes of returning to power and usher in one more BJP government, remains to be seen. Basavanna, the icon of the Lingayat community,  which is now looking to the Centre for religion status, had rebelled against discrimination and casteism  among the Hindus in the 12th century. Now, new rebels, if one might call them that, have emerged in the community — M.B. Patil and Vinay Kulkarni to name just two — who have raised the banner of revolt against  older leaders like BS Yeddyurappa and Shamanur Shivashankarappa, in their fervour to secure the religion tag for Lingayats. Vittal Shastri analyses the Lingayat dilemma which could change the shape of Karnataka politics forever.

State chief of the BJP, B.S. Yeddyurappa who had emerged as the mascot of the dominant community in Karnataka (with 17% of the population) after the exit of former CMs Veerendra Patil and JH Patel, may see the earth slipping away from under him if the Siddaramaiah government manages to win over the community with its argument that it has done everything possible to secure them the minority religion tag. Or will the Lingayats rise in anger against the Congress, suspecting it of trying to divide them for political gain and conveniently forgetting  them once the polls are over? 

When the Congress swept to power in Karnataka in 2013 making the best of the split in the BJP vote bank after the launch of the KJP by Lingayat strongman Yeddyurappa, it spelt doom for the saffron party which saw its fortresses in coastal and north Karnataka being demolished mercilessly. The division in Lingayat votes cost the BJP more than 40 seats in North Karnataka with Yeddyurappa's now defunct party garnering an estimated 10 per cent votes, thanks to the several goodies he had doled out to Lingayat mutts when he was CM. This time round, with the KJP factor no longer at work,  the Congress is hoping to draw the Lingayats to its fold with its promise of religion status.

New religion, new twists

Among the 99 Lingayat sub-castes in North-Karnataka, people belonging to Panchamasali, Banajiga, Kudu Vakkaligas and Ganiger constitute the major part. The Congress government's decision may help it attract voters who were looking forward to the minority tag, but may not work in many Assembly constituencies where the BJP has strong roots. Reason — the influence and prestige many candidates enjoy cutting across party and caste lines, is sure to ensure them an easy victory in these Assembly segments.

There are Lingayat leaders in North-Karnataka who are however predicting a shift of around 20 per cent Lingayat votes to the Congress following the state government's decision to recommend religion status. They are sure the BJP will suffer a rude jolt due to the silence maintained by Yeddyurappa on the issue and the failure of the party to clear its stand on the government's recommendation for religion status.

Judging the Lingayats' mood is difficult but there is no doubt that they are getting more confused as polling day approaches. "The majority of Lingayat sub-castes voted for Yeddyurappa in the 2008 and 2013 Assembly elections no matter whether he was in the BJP or KJP, considering him the face of the community.

We did not vote for Akhil Bharat Veerashaiva Mahasabha president Shamanur Shivashankarappa in these polls. But the BJP leader is passing the buck to the Mahasabha saying he will abide by their decision instead of clarifying his stand first. This will help the Congress gain the upper hand,” said Vikas Soppin, a community leader who is contesting against Opposition leader Jagadish Shettar and was also in the forefront of the Mahadayi movement.

It is argued that as many as 30 sub-castes including Madhiga, Chaluvadi, Kumbar, Ganiger and  Hadapad may not back the Congress move to seek minority tag as they  already enjoy government benefits under reservation for backward classes, SC and STs and the independent religion status will only cause a loss to them. But resentment is also building up in the community against the BJP in Dharwad district where the party managed to win only two seats last time.  They claim former CM Jagadish Shettar has not done anything for the community and though he has risen to the top both in the party as well as government, his projection as an alternative Lingayat leader after Yeddyurappa's exit to form the KJP, did not fetch enough votes.

"There is anger against the BJP for not working for the welfare of the community,” explained Gururaj Hunasimarad, vice-president of Akhil Bharat Veerashaiva Mahasabha.

Nor can Congressmen rest on their laurels particularly mines and geology minister Vinay Kulkarni, a close confidant of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who spearheaded the movement for independent religion tag. Though he is confident of securing some votes of the Panchamsali Lingayat sect, to which he belongs, the minister is facing a tough challenge from BJP probable, Amruth Desai who hails from the Sadar Lingayat community. Desai had lost to the minister by 18,000 votes by contesting on a JD(S) ticket-the party has no base in Dharwad constituency. Now, the KJP-BJP merger has given him a shot in the arm.

What is however worrying for the BJP is the rise of too many ticket aspirants after the merger of KJP and BJP. The Panchamsalis contend that though they are dominant in North Karnataka, the majority of elected representatives belong to another Lingayat sub-sect- Banajiga- to which Opposition leader Jagadish Shettar,  CM Udasi and  Suresh Angadi belong.

Many Lingayat leaders are also upset with BJP for not inducting any Lingayat leader into the Union Cabinet though eight MPs belonging to the community were elected from the state. Meanwhile, the Congress is planning to allot the ticket to Veerashaiva candidates to keep them in good stead.

In Haveri, a stronghold of the KJP, community leaders claim that some of their votes may go to the Congress as  BJP leaders like Yeddyurappa have failed to send out a clear message on the demand for minority status. But they may also keep political parties guessing till the elections and may change their stance depending on future developments on the Lingayat issue.

"More than 3 lakh Panchamsali Lingayat voters in our district have maintained that Lingayats and Veerashaivas are one and the same as we follow both traditions. Many community voters, especially those who have remained neutral, may shift to the Congress which may reduce the influence of Yeddyurappa in our district", said SR Angadi, president of Haveri Zilla Veerashaiva Lingayat Panchamasali Sangh.

In Gadag, Dr Siddalinga Swamiji of Tontadarya Mutt, who is one of the leaders of the Lingayat movement, and the Pancha Peetha seers wield enormous influence and could tilt the scales in favour of the BJP or Congress. Rural development minister HK Patil and BJP leader B Sriramulu too enjoy considerable clout in the district. According to Akhil Bharat Veerashaiva Mahasabha Gadag district president, Basavaraj Korlahalli, the ongoing religion row will not have much impact on the poll prospects of any party.

Bagalkot, another hub of Lingayat politics, has the prominent Mutt Shivayogi Mandir, which was developed by Hangal Kumar Swamiji more than a century ago in Badami and trains and educates Veerashaiva seers. The holy Samadhi of Lingayat philosopher Basavanna is located in the pilgrimage centre of Kudal Sangama here and the Pancha Peetha seers and Lingayats pontiffs will have the final word when it comes to voting preferences. Among the sub-castes Ganiger, Panchamasali and Banajiga Lingayats, dominate in the district and they may vote for a candidate belonging to their community, cutting across party lines.

There could be good news coming the way of the Congress in Belagavi with a large chunk of traditional BJP voters in the Lingayat belts of Belagavi and Vijayapura  certain to drift to the Congress if the huge success of Lingayat rallies demanding separate religion status is any indicator. Many seers and leaders of Lingayats here have gone to the extent of saying that what Lord Bavanna could not do in the 12th century, has been achieved by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah!
Speaking to Deccan Chronicle, Dr Sarjoo Katkar, a member of the Justice Nagmohandas-led Commi ttee to recommend minority religion tag to Lingayats, said the Lingayats would become the first independent religion of Karnataka if the Centre gives the green signal to the state's recommendation. Before submitting its report to the government, the committee focused on several issues pertaining to Lingayats starting from the time it was founded by Basavanna, he revealed.

According to Dr Katkar, the Lingayat community has 99 different sub-castes and they will all be merged in the independent Lingayat religion if it gets the minority religion tag. 

The Lingayat-Veershaiva community and its leaders may be opposed to religion tag for Lingayats but the fact is that the percentage of Veerashaivas in the state is a meagre 3 per cent. And Veerashaiva are nothing but a sub-caste of the Lingayat community, added Dr Katkar.

Siddarama Swamy of Nagnoor Mutt who spearheaded the Lingayat religion movement in north-Karnataka, feels the movement will certainly see a logical end as the majority of Lingayats are in  favour of the religion tag and have been fighting for it for centuries. He called upon the government to support the demand of Lingayats and also wanted people of all sub-castes including Veerashaivas to join the religion.

But  when it comes to voting preferences, the dominant Lingayat community has been supporting the BJP in both Belagavi and Vijayapura for the simple reason that Yeddyurappa is its community's top leader. “The ongoing movement launched by Siddaramaiah may have attracting five lakh or 10 lakh people, but in elections, Lingayats will vote only for Yeddyurappa and not Siddaramaiah's party. The Congress launched the movement to divide Lingayats but it will not help the Congress politically,'' asserts a Lingayat leader Shivanand Patil from Belagavi.

Contesting this claim, another leader said that at least 50 per cent of Lingayats will break away from the BJP and rally behind the Congress this time with many Lingayat pontiffs backing the CM .

In a state where caste and community based politics has made and wrecked many a politico's future, both the Congress and BJP  know that the powerful Lingayat community is in ferment after the proposal for religion status was first made. Will Siddaramaiah, with his decisive move to leave the nerve wracking decision to the BJP led Central government, be able to swing it for the Congress party and unleash the Lingayats against the BJP if religion status is not granted? Or will the Lingayats, like they have done in the past, vote en masse for Yeddyurappa, forgetting his revolt, his stony silence and his failures?  

This is one poll  which will test the Lingayats like never in the past and the whole of Karnataka will be waiting with bated breath to know their choice.

‘It’s a political stunt by Siddu’
Basavarj Konek, President of the District Adi Banajiga Sangha, Kalaburagi, says the recommendation for minority status for Lingayats, is a political stunt by Siddaramaiah to divide the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community.  It's very sad that a division has been created in the community, he said.

In the previous two Assembly elections, the Adi Banajiga community, which is predominant in this part of Kalaburagi district as well as neighbouring Bidar, voted for both BJP and Congress. "This time the Congress will be able to draw some percentage of our community votes. But the state government's decision has also created strong anti-Congress sentiment among a section of people who will rally behind the BJP."

Siddaraju Reddy, General Secretary, Yadgir District Reddy Samaj, said the decision by the Siddaramaiah government will have little effect on the Reddy community, which has large numbers in the district. This is because the majority of those who follow the Veerashaiva and Hindu traditions, are not aware of the benefits they may get in the event of Lingayats securing the minority status, he contended, adding the Reddy community will not decide whether to support the Congress or BJP based on the campaign for independent religion tag because this is not a major issue for them.

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