Karnataka elections: Water, not Lingayat issue, dominates poll discourse in Babaleshwar
No other decision by the Siddaramaiah-led government of Karnataka has over the past five years generated as much controversy as the move in March to grant Lingayats the status of a minority religion ahead of assembly elections, seen by critics as an attempt to divide Hindu votes.
The man who led the campaign for Lingayats to be recognised as a minority community is MB Patil, the irrigation minister in the Siddaramaiah cabinet and a polarising figure in Karnataka politics. His opponents said he had stoked the move for personal gain, citing the clutch of education Lingayat institutions Patil runs. Minority educational institutions are exempt from the Right to Education Act and receive other benefits from the government.
Patil is back in Babaleshwar, his pocket borough, to defend it in the May 12 polls. In the constituency itself, there is little mention of the move to categorise Lingayats and Veerashaivas as a minority religion. The issue in the predominantly rural constituency is water, and Patil’s popularity stems from ensuring enough of it for farmers .
“Many people visit us here nowadays because of Patil, but they seem to want to talk about only the Lingayat issue. But we farmers need water for our crops and that’s all we care about,” said 65-year-old Ramugouda, who grows grapes on his 10-acre plot on the outskirts of Babaleshwar town.
In the arid regions of Mumbai-Karnataka that border Maharashtra, water forms the basis of all political talks.
“I am myself a Lingayat and I feel they shouldn’t have divided Lingayats and Veerashaivas. If there is one thing I will hold against Patil, it is this. But then he is the same person who has ensured water for irrigation, which is more important for me,” Ramugouda said.
From building canals to filing around 200 lakes and tanks in the area to the Krishi Bhagya Scheme to construct farm ponds, farmers point to the primacy Patil has given to water. In fact, between 2014-15 and 2017-18, of the 203,152 ponds constructed across the state, 16,130 were built in Vijayapura district alone, the highest number in the state.
Another farmer, Appugouda Patil, who grows sugarcane on his 15-acre plot, said nothing else matters to the region apart from water. “As a farmer I am only concerned about my crops and irrigation. We have not had good rainfall for three years now, so these measures will obviously have an impact,” he said.
Appugouda also cited an announcement in the latest budget by chief minister Siddaramaiah of providing a direct income transfer of ?5,000 per hectare per year to farmers, with a cap of two hectares.
Not everybody is overlooking the move to grant Lingayats the status of a religious minority. “We will all benefit from this move and it was definitely one of our ambitions to have this separate religion identity,” said Jagadish Rayappa Kannur, who works as an agent for a bank collecting small deposits.
“This is a move that will immensely benefit the youth. We will get reservations in education and employment and other added benefits. With this we will also be able to compete with others in the job market,” he added.
For the Bharatiya Janata Party’ (BJP) Babalehwar candidate Vijugouda Patil, the strategy is now clear. He has decided not to not contest the tag of a separate religion. “Clearly, these people have decided to divide the Lingayats and Veerashaivas. I am not saying that we shouldn’t be accorded separate religion status, but why break these two historically united communities?”
Patil, who until recently was with the Janata Dal (Secular) party led by former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, said a media blitzkrieg organised by MB Patil had created the misconception that he had done a lot for irrigation. “This is completely false and baseless. There is a huge drinking water crisis in the whole region and MB Patil thinks he can paper over the cracks by spending his enormous wealth on a media campaign,” the BJP candidate said.