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How Lingayat community became a key BJP vote bank in Karnataka

Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa’s constant appeal to seers and supporters from the Lingayat community, to refrain from protesting a move by the BJP high command to remove him from the post, has not exactly been received well, as the community continues to strongly oppose the decision, warning the Centre of “consequences”
By Arun Dev, Bengaluru
PUBLISHED ON JUL 25, 2021 12:10 AM IST

Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa’s constant appeal to seers and supporters from the Lingayat community, to refrain from protesting a move by the BJP high command to remove him from the post, has not exactly been received well, as the community continues to strongly oppose the decision, warning the Centre of “consequences”.

The community forms around 16-17% of state’s population and over decades, has played pivotal role in the Karnataka state elections. The threat of this vote share being snatched away is creating trouble for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), something that the Congress has tried to take an advantage of.

MB Patil, a Lingayat leader in the Congress lended his support to the Karnataka chief minister and said on multiple occasions that the community will not be happy with a move to replace him. Even the president of all-India Veerashaiva Mahasabha, Shamanur Shivashankarappa, threw the weight of the Mahasabha behind the chief minister, though he is a Congressman.

One of the reasons for the Congress party attempting to appease the Lingayat community is because it knows that the biggest vote bank in the state was not always a BJP supporter, rather, used to back Congress for years.

Over decades of political circus in the state, consisting of series of splits between Congress, Janata Party, coalition of parties and untimely deaths of major Lingayat-supported leaders resulted in the community’s vote share currently resting with the BJP.

The Lingayat community traces their roots back to the 12th century. Social reformer Jagajyoti Basaveshwara, popularly known as Basavanna, formed the Lingayat way of life, which distanced itself from Veerashaivas, who followed the Vedas and supported the caste system.

Basavanna taught people to move away from temple worship and other religious dogmas. The progressive nature of the new community attracted many followers from across the society. But following Basavanna’s demise, the Lingayat and Veerashaiva communities merged once again. By the 21st century, Lingayat and Veerashaiva became synonymous.

The community’s large following resulted in it becoming the biggest vote bank in the state also.

In the post-independence politics of the state, the Lingayat voters were loyal to the Congress party. Since the party had leaders who came from the community, it remained consolidated in the Congress itself.

The situation began to change in 1969 when the Congress party in the state split following the expulsion of Indira Gandhi. Those supporting Indira Gandhi formed the Congress (I), while those opposing her became the Congress (O). Following this split, most of the senior Lingayat leaders, such as S Nijalingappa and Veerendra Patil went with Congress (O).

Following the Emergency between 1975 to 1977, the Janata Party was formed in the state. In this new political scene, the Congress (O) in Karnataka merged with the Janata Party, which included the Lingayat leaders and the vote bank.

While this merger had resulted in the transfer of the Lingayat vote bank, the consolidation of the Lingayat votes took place following the dismissal of the Lingayat chief minister Veerendra Patil in 1990.

“Even though Patil joined the Congress (O) and subsequently the Janata Party, in 1978, he had gone back to the Congress (I) and in 1989, he became the chief minister of the state. In 1990, however, because of a series of riots in the city and considering the health issues faced by the Patil, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi removed him from power,” said Congress legislator, who didn’t want to be named.

He added that Patil’s removal from power became a controversy. “The claims that the decision to remove Patil was taken at Bengaluru airport by Prime Minister Gandhi without consulting the Lingayat leader became a matter of humiliation for the Lingayat community. This led to the Lingayat vote bank firmly consolidating with the Janata Party,” he added.

It was during the same time, a first division clerk with the social welfare department, who had left the job to pursue politics, was rising through the ranks. Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa won the elections at the Panchayat level and by 1977, became the president of the Shikaripura unit of the newly formed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 1998, he became the state president.

In 1988, the Janata Party decided to merge with some smaller parties to form the Janata Dal. The Lingayat vote bank that came from the Janata Party and support from the Vokkaliga (second largest community in the state) community ensured that Janata Dal came to power in 1994 in Karnataka, under the leadership of HD Devegowda.

But the Janata Dal split in 1999 due to differences within the party and Janata Dal (Secular)and Janata Dal (United) were formed. While JD(S) was led by HD Devegowda, Lingayat leader JH Patil, and Ramakrishna Hegde, who enjoyed the support of the community, became the faces of JD(U).

Years later, in the 2004 elections, JD(U) lent its support to the BJP in the state elections. However, despite the BJP emerging as the single largest party, Congress and JD(S) formed a collation government. By this election, BJP had become a political party to reckon with in the state.

In the coming years, JH Patil passed away, and Hegde retired from active politics. As the Congress was led by a Vokkaliga chief minister, SM Krishna, the vacuum created for a Lingayat leader in the opposition was filled by BS Yediyurappa, who has since remained the tallest leader in the party.

The decision to remove Yediyurappa from the chief minister’s post now opens another chance for this vote bank to shift. “The BJP doesn’t have a big Lingayat leader apart from Yediyurappa. Even though there are attempts to projects some leaders, the community has not accepted them so far. If the Lingayat community takes this move as an insult, similar to what happened with the removal of Veerendra Patil, the equations in Karnataka’s caste politics could change,” said a Lingayat leader from the BJP, who didn’t want to be named.

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