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Congress's 2B Formula for Karnataka Polls: Siddaramaiah Invokes Basavanna And Babasahib to Challenge BJP in The Lingayat Belt

The sudden debate over the birth of a new religion has rattled the Opposition BJP, that is headed by a Lingayat strongman B S Yeddyurappa himself, and boasts of a large number of MLAs and MPs from the community.

Deepa Balakrishnan | CNN-News18deepab18

Updated:July 25, 2017, 7:18 PM IST
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Congress's 2B Formula for Karnataka Polls: Siddaramaiah Invokes Basavanna And Babasahib to Challenge BJP in The Lingayat Belt
File photo of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.
Bengaluru: The Congress in Karnataka is doing what BJP does best. It is setting the agenda, challenging its adversary in its own constituency. And it is forcing BJP to react.

Over the past one week, election-bound Karnataka has been debating and discussing whether Veerashaiva-Lingayats are a separate religion unto themselves. There have been demands from a section of the community that Lingayats like Sikhs be recognised as a separate group altogether.

The debate was triggered by none other than Chief Minister Siddaramaiah who gave rather cryptic assurances in public meetings in Bidar and Bijapur. The CM said he was ready to recommend Veerashaivism a separate religion status, if there was consensus in the community.

On Tuesday, his Cabinet colleagues decided to take it a step further – five Ministers who are influential members of the community have decided they will tour different districts to build this consensus.

"The Veerashaivas are not a caste... we are a religion. In the 12th century, Basava and his disciples gave us a strong culture, a strong philosophy...of a casteless society, of equality to all, including women; about avoiding superstitions. It is a world religion, like Buddhism, Christianity, Jains. Like Hinduism," says MB Patil, Water Resources Minister and an influential Minister from the community in Bijapur.

The sudden debate over the birth of a new religion has rattled the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that is headed by a Lingayat strongman B S Yeddyurappa himself, and boasts of a large number of MLAs and MPs from the community.

A jittery BJP smells an attempt to split its traditional vote-bank in north Karnataka. "We are very much a part of Hinduism," Yeddyurappa told a public rally, accusing the Congress of divisive politics. "The Lingayat community will stand united and there is no question of seeking separate religion status," he asserted.

A statement that's been brushed aside by the Congress: "One set of people cannot tolerate the philosophy of Basaveshwara. Now there is RSS. They don't want Lingayats to go out of Hinduism for their own sake...for their designs, we cannot sacrifice our demand… Yeddyurappa is controlled by the RSS. They are not wholesale representatives of all Lingayats. Nobody has given them the power of attorney of Lingayat community...is the community in his (Yeddyurappa's) pocket? The issue is of Lingayat Dharma (faith), not of Congress and BJP," says Minister Patil.

He further says that those who oppose the idea are those who don't give Saint Basaveshwara (12th century social reformer) his due, they don't believe in equality of all, they don't believe in a casteless society or women's empowerment – thus openly daring the BJP to shun away from these preachings of Basavanna.

That, barring the one statement from Yeddyurappa, other Lingayat leaders of the BJP like former CM Jagadish Shettar from the Hubli-Dharwad region are shying away from talking about this shows they are caught unawares — unsure of their next move; unsure of antagonizing their community.

"We have to take the opinion of all our religious heads (heads of different religious mutts). There is no urgency in this, it is not going to happen tomorrow," he says, adding that Siddaramaiah is out to divide-and-rule (a feature, some political analysts snigger, is a page off the BJP’s book).

Doubtless, it is the Union Home Ministry that would have to declare any such religious status or identity ultimately – in fact, a resolution by the Veerashaiva Mahasabha had gone to the Centre when Congress' Sushil Kumar Shinde was Home Minister – and it has been on the back-burner ever since.

There was a move in the 1990s to have a separate category for Veerashaivism as a different religion during Census surveys – but not many had subscribed to this at the time.

And political analysts refuse to believe that the suddenly-renewed demand is as innocent and apolitical as the Congress makes it out to be.

"There is a game-plan to it – first, the flag issue, then the Ambedkar conference, now a new religion. All these are political exercises to eat into the vote-bank of the BJP – where there appears to be a consolidation of Lingayat votes in their favour as of now," says political analyst Prof Sandeep Shastri.

It may not be that all Lingayat votes will go to the Congress – but it would at least split the votes such that BJP would lose this caste advantage in some places.

The Congress – whose primary vote-bank has been that of SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities – is trying to reach out to the dominant Lingayat community to widen its base but cutting into BJP’s citadel, Shastri says. It could also be to avenge the BJP’s in-roads into the Dalit vote-bank – Yeddyurappa, for instance, has spent at least half his time in Dalit colonies during every tour he has taken up.

"They are trying to bring about a social coalition that would favour them," Shastri argues, adding that the Congress's gambit could well backfire – the Lingayat community has, hitherto, strongly been conservative and identified itself with Hindu traditions, culture and rituals.

The community then could consolidate further behind the BJP – as members may feel attempts are being made to break them away – a new religion would, after all, make them a 'minority' status.
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