It has now become tricky even for Yediyurappa because former chief minister Basavaraj Bommai, a prominent Lingayat leader, is also keen to become the Opposition leader

BJP’s trust deficit with Lingayats may give Congress a chance in Karnataka

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Karnataka is a work in progress for the BJP. The state, commonly perceived as the saffron party’s gateway to South India, stops well short of being its fortress.

The BJP has tasted power thrice in the state, but never won an electoral majority on its own. It was part of a coalition in 2006. In 2008 and 2019, it fell short of majority and had to poach MLAs from other parties to form the government. In 2013, it faced an existential crisis when its vote share and number of MLAs plummeted due to a “civil war”.

The power of Lingayats

The strength and shortcoming of the BJP in Karnataka is its reliance on Lingayats, who probably constitute about 15% of the population. Of the 224 constituencies in Karnataka, Lingayats can reportedly influence results in 100-plus contests. The community has traditionally backed the BJP, and usually more than half of the Lingayat MLAs in the Assembly belong to the saffron party.

After the unification of the state in 1956, Lingayats tasted power for a long time, and then were out of it for an equal stretch of time. They are in perpetual quest for a leader, who can unite their socially diverse and geographically dispersed sub-castes, and bring them to power.

Also read: Yediyurappa-like strong Lingayat leader eludes BJP in Karnataka

BS Yediyurappa, the latest in the thin line of pan-Karnataka Lingayat leaders, delivered the community to the BJP. It was his temporary exit in 2013 that cost the party almost 10% of votes.

The Yediyurappa factor

Ironically, the BJP has a long history of fractious relationship with its tallest and most popular leader, who emerged from the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The state RSS leadership and even the party high command find it difficult to share power with Yediyurappa, who has a stubborn mind of his own, and takes no hostages. A trust deficit that has enlarged over the years marks the relationship between Yediyurappa and the rest of the party leadership.

In 2021, after two years in power, BJP forced the 79-year-old leader to step down, citing his advanced age, but could not stop him from turning his dismissal into a public spectacle, which played on TV for days. As he broke down before large crowds, an unprecedented number of Lingayat swamis, including the usually apolitical heavyweights, gathered in support of their tearful community strongman.

In purging Yediyurappa, the BJP took a huge gamble. Its assumption that it can hold on to the community without him will be put to test in the elections less than a year away.

“The BJP will have a price to pay for Yediyurappa’s dismissal and the way it was handled. It will damage the party 100%,” believes HM Renuka Prasanna, secretary of the All-India Veerashaiva Mahasabha, a powerful community organisation.

Also read: Congress pushes to make corruption a key political narrative in poll-bound Karnataka

A chance for Congress?

Renuka Prasanna, who has documented the Lingayat voting patterns, says the majority of the Lingayat voters are committed to either the BJP or the Congress and will vote for their respective party come what may. “But around 20% are fence-sitters, and they will be swayed by factors like Yediyurappa’s humiliation and anti-incumbency,” he says.

Basavaraj Kuratti, a BJP worker in Nanjangud taluk, says many of the seven constituencies in the region with substantial Lingayat presence are likely to see a neck-and-neck race between Congress and BJP. By side-lining Yediyurappa, the BJP has reportedly put off its traditional voters and given the Congress an advantage.

“If the BJP rehabilitates Yediyurappa and his son Vijayendra, and gives tickets to their supporters, the Lingayats may soften. But If Yediyurappa stays away from campaigning or puts in a half-hearted effort, people will pick up cues and not vote for the BJP,” he says.

The BJP high command’s attempt to appoint Yediyurappa to the parliamentary board to placate him does not cut ice with his followers, who go more by his visible presence and clout in state politics. “Yediyurappa speaks neither Hindi nor English. What will he do in Delhi?” asks one of his supporters.

Also read: Lingayat mathas: Agents of change or alternative power centres?

The other Lingayat

The trust deficit between Yediyurappa and the BJP leadership comes in the way of his rehabilitation. Over the past year, he has repeatedly sought permission to tour the state on his own to “strengthen the party,” but has been rebuffed each time.

Yediyurappa recently announced that Vijayendra would be replacing him in the family bastion, Shikaripura, in the coming elections. He retracted a few days later and said the high command would decide the issue.

Yediyurappa does not exercise a uniform pull across all Lingayats. A government college principal in Davangere said by replacing Yediyurappa with Basavaraj Bommai, a fellow Lingayat, the BJP has mitigated the fallout. “The Congress is pro-downtrodden, and Siddaramiah’s arrogant statements are offensive to Lingayats. Most of my sub-caste members are with the BJP,” he says.

Both the principal and the present chief minister, Bommai, are from the Sadhar sub-caste of Lingayats, which has a strong presence in parts of Karnataka.

A “puppet government”

Author and journalist Devu Pattar, who has worked in the Lingayat areas of north Karnataka, says all castes vote to get their man elected as chief minister to corner patronage. “They may not like what was done to Yediyurappa, but the BJP is the only party where they have any chance of putting a Lingayat on the CM’s seat. They have no choice except to vote for the BJP,” he says.

But if patronage is the main draw, Lingayat bureaucrats, party workers, and other sections, which deal with the government, are upset that their clout has vanished with Yediyurappa’s exit.

Also read: Scam-hit Karnataka BJP goes on offensive, unearths Congress-era scams

They say they have been side-lined completely, as all power is now concentrated in the Sangh Parivar and a handful of officers close to them. A small group of senior Lingayat government officers met recently at a community organisation to express their ire and plan their future course of action.

“This is a Lingayat government only in name. The decision-making power is with the Sangh Parivar. The CM is just a puppet,” a Karnataka Administrative Service (KAS) officer reportedly said at the meeting.

Another state government officer in Dharwad said, “We are very angry with the BJP. It looks like the party has decided to dump Lingayats and look elsewhere for support.”

Fear of betrayal

Many in the community fear that BJP may take their votes and bring in a non-Lingayat CM after winning the election. “After Yediyurappa was dismissed, Prahlad Joshi and BL Santosh (both Brahmins) were spoken about as possible replacements. BJP has not indicated anywhere that a Lingayat will continue as chief minister after the election,” said Renu Prasanna.

The escalating agitation by Panchamasalis, the largest Lingayat sub-caste, for a bigger slice of the reservation pie is further challenging BJP’s hold on the community.

Also read: Grand celebration marks 3rd anniversary of BJP govt in Karnataka

It is spearheaded by Basava Jaya Mrityunjaya Swami, the most prominent religious leader of the sub-caste, and supported by Panchamasali politicians cutting across parties. “Support for the agitation has grown exponentially, and reservation is now a very important issue for us,” says Basavaraj N, a resident of Davanagere and a Panchamasali himself.

“Panchamasalis have traditionally voted for BJP, but are now upset, as they feel the party has repeatedly broken its promise. The Swami has enough clout to move some votes away from the party,” he believes.

A Catch-22 situation

BJP faces a Catch-22 situation here, as yielding to Panchamasalis is sure to alienate other castes. Even other Lingayat sub-castes are opposed to the demand.

Ironically, many believe that a section of BJP leadership instigated the Panchamasali agitation to build a rival power centre to Yediyurappa within the Lingayats. “They used anti-Yeddyurappa politicians within the BJP, such as Murugesh Nirani and Basangouda Yatnal, to start the movement. It is gaining strength even after his removal and posing a headache for BJP,” said Basavaraj Navane.

As the agitation gets shrill in the wake of the coming elections, Congress leaders such as MB Patil, Vijayand Kashappanavar, and Vinay Kulkarni are reportedly gaining more control over the movement.

Also read: After Siddaramaiah, Yediyurappa visits ailing Deve Gowda; CM Bommai next

Anti-Brahmanical roots

While BJP perhaps has time and ways to mitigate the fallout of these factors, the party has no hope of building any bridge with a section of vocal Lingayats. The intellectuals and leaders who advocate a separate Lingayat religion, drawing inspiration from the staunchly anti-Brahmanical roots of the community, remain deeply suspicious of the Hindutva forces.

They see an elaborate Hindutva ploy to reduce the political clout of Lingayats by gaining control of their religious organisations and educational institutions. They fear that the recent spate of sex scandals is being used to send a message to politically inconvenient religious leaders.

Three separate sex scandals have rocked the Lingayat community in recent months. Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru, a prominent separatist swami, who was once known for his progressive and secular measures, is behind bars, facing serious charges under the Protection Of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act.

Another popular religious figure, Basava Siddalinga Swami, hanged himself after he was mentioned in a controversial conversation between two Lingayat women, which was recorded and mysteriously leaked.

Also read: Karnataka CM woos caste groups in maiden budget

“Systematic campaign”

Two followers of Shivamurthy Sharanaru secured an injunction from a Bangalore court against the “scandalous,” “appalling,” “unverified,” “one-sided,” and “defamatory” media coverage that was showing “the mutt and the entire community in bad light.” A source close to the petitioners alleged that a group opposed to the swami had orchestrated the way the case was filed and the aggressive media coverage that followed.

“There is a systematic campaign to level charges against Lingayat swamis and torment them. This is a total effort to target Lingayat mutts, and there are invisible hands behind it,” said Shankar Basavannappa Gowda, a leader of Rashtriya Basava Sene, a community body. He made these comments while addressing a crowd, which was demanding strict police action against the two women whose audio clip had led to Basava Siddalinga Swami’s suicide.

“The anti-Hindutva Lingayat leaders are well-regarded, but they are a minority and do not represent the community,” says Devu Pattar. “Ordinary Lingayats see themselves as upper caste and like to distance themselves from the downtrodden groups. They will stay with BJP,” he says.

But the Dharwad government officer, who voted for the BJP in the previous election, disagrees. “There is an opening for the Congress here. If they can stop infighting and send a strong message, Lingayats may vote for them in larger numbers.”

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