Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has so many balls up in the air that one can only watch as he juggles them, deftly defying every law of gravity. One mis-step, one wrong judgement call – on the state flag, the Kannada language kerfuffle, and the biggest one of all – the Lingayat-Veerashaiva minority tag – and he may as well kiss this election goodbye.
So what gives? Where does his confidence stem from? Who’s pumping this ball up with all this hot air? Will the BJP be able to deflate it? Does Siddaramaiah know something we don’t? Why take such a huge gamble with the unquantifiable, the swing vote that one has absolutely no control over? Have the Congress’ own Lingayat leaders – there are so many more than I thought there were – figured out that the back of the Lingayat-Veerashaiva vote bank can be broken, that it isn’t as monolithic as the BJP thought it was? Or, as predictable? Or as reliable? Or is all this being done, simply to rattle the BJP?
Could the real reason behind this mad rush to clear it through the cabinet and dispatch it to Delhi, be this – Siddaramaiah knows that the BJP-led central government, driven by Prime Minister Modi and his poll star Amit Shah will not give it their stamp of approval. The last thing Modi-Shah can be seen as doing, is backing a Congress government that they would like to simply incinerate in the critical May polls. But that's exactly the poll gift that the Congress wants so that it can blame the BJP for not giving the Lingayats the minority religion tag!
Mr Shah may have got it spot on in UP, cold-bloodedly sacrificing Gorakhpur, to cut the ‘Yogi for PM in 2024’ pipe-dream dream down to size, and then pricking the balloon of false hope inflated by the BSP-SP anti-BJP alliance, and crushing the Rajya Sabha polls in the Hindi heartland as effectively as he did on Friday. The BSP cross-voter, not impervious to the BJP this time!
Which is why, one is foxed by the repeated errors of judgement by the BJP, when it comes to Karnataka, the state that the BJP must win, not just to re-open its southern imprint, but to shore up its numbers in the Rajya Sabha where they are still short of a majority and unable to push through its Agenda 2019 and beyond; Unless they take control. Are they not able to read the south? The bad blood with Chandrababu Naidu and turning a blind eye to the desecration of Periyar statues in Dravidian 'Tamil' Nadu while pushing a Ram Yatra, a case in point.
The BJP’s Lingayat icon B.S. Yeddyurappa is clearly floundering. He’s taken five days to articulate his position, first saying he would wait for the Akhila Bharatiya Veerashaiva Mahasabha to come out with its position before he speaks. But even after this group of seers from the Veerashaivas mathas spoke up, Mr. Yeddyurappa hasn’t been able to publicly admit and embrace his monumental error of judgement – he signed on to a document that was sent to Sushil Kumar Shinde, the then home minister in the UPA led government in 2013 asking the government to grant separate religion status to the Lingayat community. The BJP’s line is that Mr. Yeddyurappa was not in the BJP then, and therefore, the views that he held in 2013, are not what he espouses today.
If that's not specious enough, his rejection of a separate minority tag for Lingayats, despite the fact that the Lingayats want to make themselves out as distinct from the Veerashaivas, who follow Hindu rituals unlike the Lingayats who adhere to Basavanna's teachings and don’t hold to any caste or ritual, doesn’t fly either.
Nobody doubts the thinking behind the Congress’ stratagem to split the Lingayat vote in its favour. It’s the BJP’ plan that isn’t quite there yet. Word is that one of the main poll planks when BJP ruled Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls is to say that Rahul Gandhi shouts unity at a party plenary and lets his lieutenant play divide and rule at the state.
In fact, the CM’s ruse continues to be broadly, in keeping with the long standing Congress party’s policy of minority appeasement that sees every community, every religious minority, be it Muslims, Dalits, Backwards, OBCs or the SC-STs and Kurubas, as separate vote banks. It is this very Congress' appeasement of caste and community that has led to the rise and rise of the BJP which drums it in to the upper caste Hindu, that his clout is diminishing in the face of the rise of the ‘others,' that his religion is in danger.
Siddaramaiah is the only Congress leader in some 40 years who has been willing to throw caution so completely to the winds and stake everything on bringing the Lingayats home. I ask again, what gives?
Siddaramaiah’s core strategists believe that of the 3,000 odd Lingayat mathas across the state, not all adhere to the Veerashaiva belief system, and that in North Karnataka from where the Congress’ ambitious NextGen quintet of leaders M.B.Patil –Sharanappa Patil – Basavaraj Rayareddy -Vinay Kulkarni – S.M. Jamdar come from, they can draw on the support of 200 well-established mathas alone.
Congress insiders, insist that across the state, the Veerashaiavas in the larger Lingayat –Veerashaiava Lingayat ecosystem barely make up one to two per cent of the whole. And that in at least a 100 odd constituencies in North and central Karnataka, there is a 13-14% Lingayat presence that they are confident can be tapped to their benefit.
BJP insiders are working on the premise that of the Lingayat community as a whole, they can command the support of at least 70-75 per cent of the vote share, and that of the 3,000 mathas, one out of every three mathas backs the BJP. They say that the powerful Siddaganga matha and the Rambhapuri Swamiji are solidly behind the BJP.
What no-one's talking about is the caste survey that Siddaramaiah has conducted and not gone public with. That's where all this may be coming from – instead of 17%, the Lingayats may be down to just 11%, and the Vokkaligas down from their once dominant 14% to 10%. That would go a long way in explaining the complete disdain with which Siddaramaiah and now, Congress president Rahul Gandhi treat the aspirational king-makers, the JD(S), and the move to collar the Lingayat vote, while leaving the rapidly shrinking Veerashaivas to the BJP.
Amit Shah, dealing with a southern state that isn’t as easy to read as the Hindi heartland, has not just mathas on his mind, but a Siddaramaiah, a stronger adversary than he had envisaged.
Let the best juggler win!
Neena Gopal is Resident Editor, Deccan Chronicle, Bengaluru
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