BJP faces rebellion from traditional supporters in north and coastal Karnataka

While some Lingayat seers in north Karnataka have raised objections to Pralhad Joshi's candidacy, alleging neglect towards the community, in coastal parts of the state Billavas are making a plea to endorse candidates from their community.
Satyajit Surathkal and Dingaleshwara Mahaswami
Satyajit Surathkal and Dingaleshwara MahaswamiImage: Bhuvan Malik
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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is grappling with unusual rebellions from two of its traditionally loyal support bases within the state. In north Karnataka, some Lingayat seers have voiced criticisms against the BJP, alleging instances of neglect and disrespect toward the community by BJP representative and Union Minister Pralhad Joshi. Simultaneously, in coastal Karnataka, the Billava/Ediga community is making an uncommon plea for endorsement of candidates hailing from their community.

In North Karnataka, the Dharwad constituency, considered a BJP stronghold, has become a focal point of discontent. Pralhad Joshi, the Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Coal, and Mines, has consistently secured victories in the region since the constituency's formation in 2008. However, Lingayat seers, led by Fakir Dingaleshwara Mahaswami, have raised objections to Joshi's candidacy, alleging neglect and disrespect toward the Lingayat community.

Dingaleshwara Mahaswami held meetings with leaders of prominent mutts in the region last week, aiming to rally support against the incumbent Union Minister. He set a March 31 deadline for the BJP leadership to replace Joshi, whom he labels as "anti-Lingayat." Despite Dingaleshwara Mahaswami's efforts, his petition to BJP Parliamentary Board member BS Yediyurappa was turned down. He held another meeting on Tuesday, April 2 with seers and supporters to announce whether he would contest as an Independent.

Dingaleshwara Mahaswami heads the Shirahatti Fakireshwara Mutt and has been a vocal supporter of Yediyurappa in the past. During the April 2 meeting, Dingaleshwara Mahaswami said that the devotees are pressuring him to contest the elections. And, he will announce his decision in Bengaluru after consulting other religious heads and well-wishers.

Central to Dingaleshwara Mahaswami's discontent is Joshi's Brahmin identity, which he believes does not adequately represent the interests of the Lingayat community. He stressed the perceived lack of representation for Lingayat sects such as Panchamasali, Nolamba, and Banija within the BJP, citing the treatment of former CM Jagadish Shettar, a Sadar Lingayat, during the 2023 Assembly polls. Shettar's denial of a BJP ticket led to his brief departure from the party, only to return as a Lok Sabha candidate from Belagavi.

Senior journalist Ashok Chandargi said the rebellion among Lingayat seers is specifically directed towards Prlhlad Joshi. They perceive Joshi as the instigator behind the removal of Shettar in the 2023 Assembly election. “With Dingaleshwara Mahaswami contesting, the Lingayat community hopes to cut BJP’s vote share in the region,” he said. Pralhad Joshi is believed to have heavily relied on Shettar’s clout in the past elections, until they fell apart. Shettar had in fact blamed Joshi for his decision to leave BJP.

This is the first time in decades that Lingayat seers have put up such opposition to the BJP with whom they aligned in the early 1990s in the wake of the dismissal of Veerendra Patil’s removal as Chief Minister.

The Dingaleshwar Swamiji, who is threatening to contest as an independent himself, could pose a challenge to the BJP in Dharwad given that over 60% of the constituency's voters are Lingayats.

Both the BJP and Joshi have been in damage control mode, with Yediyurappa taking a pacifying tone even while maintaining that Joshi would not be replaced. Joshi too had said that he was ready to talk to the seers and apologise if he had made any mistake.

In the days since, some seers have backtracked on their earlier criticisms, while others have maintained their stance, with heads of various Lingayat mutts convening at Moorusavir Mutt to denounce Joshi's alleged disrespect towards religious heads. The discord arises within the Lingayat mutts, with Mallikarjun Mahaswamiji of Murugha Mutt dissociating himself from the demand to replace Joshi, emphasising the mutt's non-partisan stance in political matters. Similarly, the head of the influential Moorusavir Mutt distanced himself from the resolution, stating that candidate selection is the prerogative of the political party's leadership.

The All India Veerashaiva Lingayat Mahasabha, a powerful group of Lingayat sect, is supporting Dingaleshwar Mahaswami’s stance. “The local chapter in Dharwad has supported the swamiji. His stance is right, it is important that the community be represented as we are a majority there. We will stand by swamiji’s decision,” an office bearer of the forum told TNM.

Rebellion of the ‘footsoldiers’

In coastal Karnataka, a different narrative is unfolding. A long-time hard core Hindutva activist and influential leader of the Billava community, Satyajit Suratkal, has urged members of his community to support only Billava or Eediga candidates in the polls, regardless of the party fielding them. After the ‘Go Back’ Shobha campaign, the BJP decided to put up Billava leader Kota Srinivas Poojary from Udupi-Chikmagalur. The Congress in the meanwhile, has fielded two Billavas/Edigas: Padmaraj from Dakshina Kannada district and Geetha Shivarajkumar from Shivamogga. 

For the past few months, Satyajit has openly expressed his disenchantment  with the BJP's failure to give recognition to the Billavas, a large number of whom have been killed in the Hindutva cause. 

Read: Brahmins vs Bajrangis: Caste trumps Hindutva in Naveen Soorinje’s latest book 

“Despite the population, we have been sidelined in electoral politics,” he said. He highlighted the significant decline in political representation from the community, noting that whereas there were once four to five MPs from the community in the state - including B Janardhan Poojary, Vinay Kumar Sorake, there are presently none. Interestingly, BJP has never had an MP belonging to the Billava community so far. 

Satyajit Suratkal on Monday, April 1 announced that the Shree Narayana Guru Vichara Vedike (SNGVV), Mangaluru based organisation backed by him, would actively support the three candidates — R Padmaraj of Congress in Dakshina Kannada, Kota Srinivas Poojary of BJP in Udupi-Chikkamagaluru and Geeta Shivarajkumar of Congress in Shivamogga Lok Sabha constituencies. 

Satyajit, once a prominent figure in the BJP representing Hindutva ideals, has recently fallen out of favour within the party. Despite purported promises of a suitable position within the party, these commitments failed to materialise. During the 2018 Assembly election, Satyajit was denied a ticket in favour of a young dentist and former JD(S) leader, Bharath Shetty, who is from the Bunt community. Satyajit initially threatened to contest as an Independent candidate before he was pacified by the party. He was also aspiring a ticket from Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituency this year but the party fielded Brijesh Chowta, a Bunt instead. 

Satyajit's decision to support candidates outside the BJP comes after what he perceives as a lack of recognition within the party. Despite his "37 years of selfless service for the cause of Hindutva," he claims the BJP sidelined him and offered only vague promises of a "suitable position" in the future.

The maximum support for the BJP in coastal Karnataka comes from the backward Billava caste group, a toddy-tapping caste that was once treated as ‘untouchables’. Billavas are the foot soldiers of the BJP, along with other lowered castes and in recent years the community feels shortchanged as the Hindu nationalist party has not given them enough “electoral representation” according to Satyajit. 

Speaking to reporters in Mangaluru, Satyajit also launched a scathing critique of the BJP, accusing the party of favouring specific communities such as Lingayats, Brahmins, and Bunts, while neglecting leaders from backward classes after exploiting their support. He said, "There is no BJP now. It was the BLP, BL Santosh party, and now it has become BSP, BS Yeddiyurappa party."

In the 19 unreserved seats of the total 25 seats that the BJP is contesting (the state has 28 seats of which 7 are reserved)  the party has nominated nine candidates from the Lingayat community, one from the Billava, three Brahmins. Meanwhile, the Congress has put forward five candidates from the Lingayat community and two from the Billava community.

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