Faith issue fallout unnerves Cong, BJP

Faith issue fallout unnerves Cong, BJP

Ideologically, the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP seem irreconcilable. Ahead of the May 12 polls, however, both parties have one commonality: fear over the decision to grant a 'religious minority' tag to the Lingayats and the Veerashaiva-Lingayats who follow Basavanna's principles.

Lingayats/Veerashaivas are estimated to form 17% of Karnataka's population and are considered the BJP's traditional vote base.

The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government decided last month to recommend the Centre to grant a 'religious minority' tag to the dominant Lingayat and Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, a move fraught with political implications. In fact, the government used powers vested in it to declare the Lingayats and Veerashaiva-Lingayats who follow Basavanna's thought as a religious minority in Karnataka.

The government hoped to eat into the BJP's vote base by responding positively to the demand for a separate religion. That elected representatives, mainly from the Congress, took the lead in the movement made the political motive apparent.

Now, there is widespread fear within the party that the decision to accord 'religious minority' tag to the Lingayats would backfire. The party was a divided house right from the moment Siddaramaiah declared, at a public event in June 2017, that he was willing to consider the separate religion demand positively. A group of Lingayat ministers led by M B Patil locked horns with the Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha, led by veteran Shamanur Shivashankarappa.  

Although a group of Lingayat seers last week publicly announced support to the Congress, Pancha Peetha (holy pantheon) pontiffs of the Veerashaivas, the upper-most sub-caste among Lingayats, have opposed the 'religious minority' grant with a warning that the Congress will have to "pay the price."

It took three Cabinet meetings for the government to take a decision on the matter. In between, minority leaders in the party, especially Muslim, expressed fear that granting 'minority' status to Lingayats would eat into their benefits.

Accordingly, the Cabinet decided that 'minority' status for Lingayats would be subject to ensuring that existing benefits enjoyed by other minority communities are not affected. There is also a fear of backlash because Lingayats will continue to get the existing 5% reservation under Category 3B without any additional 'minority' benefits.

In all, this has been dubbed a risky gamble.  

By granting 'religious minority' status to Lingayats, Siddaramaiah has been accused of dividing Hindus, which fits into the 'anti-Hindu' narrative the BJP has been building against him, according to A Narayana, who teaches politics and public policy at Azim Premji University.

"This is the strongest narrative the BJP has because their attempts to pin the Congress over corruption and development issues have not been successful," he observed.

The BJP, too, is worried. It has charged that the faith issue is a Congress ploy to prevent B S Yeddyurappa, the party's tallest Lingayat leader, from becoming the chief minister. "Given that the Congress does not have a strong counter-narrative, the BJP has an advantage. But even the BJP is not sure of the impact the issue will have," Narayana said.

While BJP president Amit Shah has asserted that the Lingayat issue would "boomerang" on the Congress, he made frantic visits to one mutt after another, reaching out to seers and seeking their support.

Lingayats, who have supported the BJP from the late 1990s, can influence results in an estimated 123 of 224 Assembly constituencies in Karnataka.

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