Will Lingayats give Congress the key to power in Karnataka elections?
Call it an imponderable or the x-factor. The outcome of the impending polls in Karnataka will depend a lot on Lingayats, who have a demographic share of 16-17 per cent in the state.
Long identified with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the community is caught in a cleft stick. The reason: The Congress’s big overture, recognising it as a minority distinct from the Hindu faith.
To get a feel of the community’s pulse, I travelled to the town that is the seat of its much-revered Sree Siddaganga Math. It’s a gurukula run on the teachings of the 12th century social reformer Basaveshwara (also known as Basavanna), who bequeathed to his followers a way of life outside the Vedic sphere.
But talking politics on the Math’s sprawling premises is taboo. Popularly associated with Lingayats, the spiritual-philanthropic hub is open to all social groups, including Dalits and Muslims. In fact, I could meet the 111-year-old head seer, Dr Sree Sree Sivakumara Swamiji, at the intervention of two Muslim social workers, Iqbal Ahmed and Mushtaq Ahmed.
“Not interested, can’t say,” whispered the Swamiji to questions about special status for Lingayats and its impact on the upcoming polls. About calls on him by top Congress and BJP leaders, he merely said: “I blessed them.” He continues to be the math’s spiritual and religious head. But administrative duties have been entrusted to his young heir and declared successor, Sree Siddalinga Swamji.
The junior Swami was relatively upfront. He underscored the necessity to vote without betraying political preferences: “We just ask people to exercise their franchise without saying which side to go. We do that as voting is the constitutional duty and responsibility of every citizen.”
Asked whether the state government’s special status push for Lingayats could be a factor, he replied: “People change governments when they want; their power is supreme. They aren’t always influenced by promises and freebies. We’ve seen that happening in Tamil Nadu.” His emphasis on voter’s sovereignty was generic, not specific. It didn’t directly address the question.
The next stop was at the office of S Naganna, editor of the Tumkuru-based Kannada daily Praja Pragati. An OBC (other backward classes) Kuruba like Siddaramaiah, he has had a long association with the chief minister and his AHINDA alliance of OBCs, Muslims and Dalits that acquired form and shape in Tumkuru. The senior Swami’s portrait adorning his workstation was a reminder of his stint as a teacher at a school run by the math. “Minority status won’t change the voting behaviour of Lingayats,” he declared with the caveat: “If at all, it might help in the 40-odd seats where the Congress has candidates from the community.”
Siddaramaiah stood to gain more from his ‘bhagya’ schemes aimed at the poor than by the so-called Lingayat card, argued Naganna. The Congress challenge was strong in Tumkuru district — that sends 11 legislators to the assembly — on account of such policies. Its candidates in the area include Pradesh Congress Committee chief Dr G Parameshwara (Koretgere) and law minister TB Jayachandra (Sira).
The veteran editor’s analysis made sense. But as Lingayats are greater in number in north Karnataka, it lacked the broader overview.
The big picture came from a retired IAS officer, SM Jaamdar, who is general secretary of the Jagtik Lingayat Mahasabha. He said the 90-10 division between Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats (who practice Vedic rituals) was now playing out in the state’s politics.
Jaamdar said the upcoming elections were crucial for the Lingayat issue: “The BJP will not accept (minority status for the community). We’d move the Supreme Court for it...” A scholar of Basaveshwara’s teachings, he claimed the Tumkuru sage and another influential Lingayat seer, Chitradurga’s Murgarajendra Swamiji, weren’t too pleased with the BJP and former CM BS Yeddyurappa’s stand on the issue. The latter is a Lingayat but is seen to be siding with Veerashaivas. Of little help also is the growing perception that he is being sidelined within the BJP.
The counter view is that Siddaramaiah’s unwavering emphasis on the AHINDA tapestry could be counter-productive, regardless of the fact that Lingayats were mostly oppressed people ameliorated socially by Basavanna who was a Brahmin.
The late Devraj Urs, whom the CM emulates, was forever cautious about not alienating ‘elite’ castes. He mobilised subaltern groups without denying the Lingayats and Vokkaligas a share in power after the winning elections. There were five representatives each from these communities in his ministry, recalled a Congress veteran.
The Lingayats have a presence in over 100 seats of north and central Karnataka with a decisive say in 60-odd. In comparison, Vokkaligas with a 12 per cent population share, are a deciding factor in over 50 seats in Old Mysore.
Together these communities can rule Karnataka. But it’ll be like two swords in a sheath. This shows the relevance of Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA and his outreach to the anti-Vedic Lingayats, but he may be better off under-stating what he has engineered socially.