K’taka govt approves separate Lingayat religion: Cong’s masterstroke or massive gamble?

The contentious decision just before the state Assembly elections came after much deliberation by the state government.
K’taka govt approves separate Lingayat religion: Cong’s masterstroke or massive gamble?
K’taka govt approves separate Lingayat religion: Cong’s masterstroke or massive gamble?

As the ruling Congress in Karnataka invited the ire of Opposition parties by seeking a central government nod for a separate religion tag for Lingayats, political analysts are divided on whether it will be a bane or a boon for the party.

The contentious decision just before the state Assembly elections came after much deliberation by the state government, following a mini-feud within the state cabinet.

 BJP’s official Twitter handle had likened CM Siddaramaiah to the Mughals and the British for playing divisive politics and called him the most “virulent” chief minister. However, the reaction from their chief ministerial face and a Lingayat strongman himself, Yeddyurappa, was a rather moderate one.

 Political scientist Harish Ramaswamy observes, “This seems like a hasty decision. As I understand it, the status quo would have benefitted the Congress. I do not know what the idea for this change is, as the fallout of this is unknown and uncertain.”

"The ordinary voter is not clear where he belongs, it can be a very intellectual question. This is only going to complicate the situation for the Congress. The Congress, which was ahead of the BJP in securing a majority, should not have forfeited its chances like this. This is a real gamble. The fight within the cabinet also does not bode very well. According to me, Siddaramaiah has now gone one point down in his chances of winning a majority,” he added.

 Explaining this, Harish said, “The Congress has always had a better chance of securing swing votes in its favour while the BJP’s is mostly a consolidated vote bank. With this decision, there is a chance of more polarisation… anyway, trends suggest there are more Veerashaivas (higher caste) than Lingayats.”

 Narendar Pani, professor of political science at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, however, opined that it may be a beneficial move for the Congress.

"I think this goes with the Congress’s Ahinda (short for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) line. It could gain the Lingayat vote alone because while the Lingayats have a discourse of being pro-poor, Veerashaivas, as we know, are upper castes. The inclusion of the Veerashaivas might alienate the Ahinda vote bank. Last time, there was almost a 100% consolidation of Lingayat votes by the BJP-KJP, so whatever Congress gets out of that will be a gain,” Pani notes.

 "The BJP actually cannot be very vocal about it. The official line has to be in favour of the Veerashaivas alone; as it has to toe the Hindutva line. In an election year, they do not want to alienate their core vote bank. In fact, last time, if Yeddyurappa’s (Lingayat) and the BJP votes did not get divided, it might have been a different picture,” he elaborates.

 Will the rift in state cabinet cost Congress?

Pani says, “It will be interesting to see if Shamanur Shivashankarappa goes alone or along with the BJP. They will win but that will go against the traditional BJP following. This again might affect their performance in the surrounding areas.”

 Shivashankarappa is the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha President and his son is in the state cabinet and was one of those who opposed the likes of his colleague MB Patil who batted for the separate religion.

 However, highly placed sources in the Congress claim that Shivashankarappa leaving the Congress is not even a possibility.

 All for the win?

 “The conversation on a separate religion status was started keeping the elections in mind. Most of the top leaders in the state were convinced that in order to fight the anti-incumbency wave, they needed to break the BJP’s Hindu vote bank. The possibility of risking at least 20 constituencies in Mumbai-Karnataka region was also considered. It was also decided to paint a picture of internal turmoil within the Congress itself on the issue,” a party insider said.

 “The next stretch of the campaign will stress on creating the narrative that the BJP is only pro-rich, pro-Hindutva and anti-minority to secure the existing Ahinda vote bank. Moreover, caution was taken not to displease the existing minorities,” he added.

 Another leader said that although the likes of Shamanur Shivashankarappa might be vocal against the decision, they are not personally keen about the issue.

 Another set of Congress leaders, however, are much more cautious.

“This is a huge gamble that the party has made. There are equal chances of it collapsing. But if it works, it would successfully ensure that the votes in BJP strongholds are broken. In order to even the scales, the party has decided to field both Veerashaiva and Lingayat candidates. The unspoken agreement with the Lingayat seers is that they will ensure that votes swing in favour of the Congress. Although they will not openly endorse the candidates,” a leader said.

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