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Karnataka’s political situation remains fluid over the Lingayat question

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Historically, Lingayats have secured at least 7-8 cabinet berths in Karnataka, and H.D. Kumaraswamy too will follow the same formula.

As the JD(S)-Congress alliance and the BJP were scrambling to stake claim to form a government last week in Bengaluru, it appeared for a short time that the Lingayat MLAs from the Congress may just support the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa.

The rationale behind this argument was that the Lingayat MLAs wouldn’t support the chief ministerial candidacy of a Vokkaliga leader like H.D. Kumaraswamy, and risk alienating the entire Lingayat community.

It is largely true that we vote our identities. But this specious argument boggles the mind because it assumes that we do not have loyalties other than those of caste, and all our actions will be determined by our caste loyalties. Yeddyurappa is seen as the tallest Lingayat leader, and some Lingayat MLAs did resign as part of Operation Kamala in 2008.

However, the notion that all Lingayat MLAs, regardless of their party affiliation, would (or should) vote for Yeddyurappa and honour no other commitment they might hold, either to a party or an ideology, is frankly baffling. Equally offensive is the implicit suggestion that Yeddyurappa will be the chief minister of only Lingayats, and not of all Kannadigas.

Yet, even after Yeddyurappa’s failed attempt to acquire majority last week, BJP leaders are confident that the Kumaraswamy government will not last more than three months. They point out the inherent contradictions in this alliance and expect those MLAs not getting ministerial berths, particularly the Lingayat MLAs, to be willing to join the BJP. As if to bolster the BJP’s hopes, deputy chief minister G. Parameshwara said that his party hasn’t decided whether Kumaraswamy will serve a full five-year term.

Competitive casteism

In this era of competitive casteism where every community aggressively competes for ministerial berths and state benefits, the Lingayats too will surely seek their share. Hence, the demand for a Lingayat deputy CM and cabinet berths. Note that historically Lingayats have secured at least 7-8 cabinet berths in Karnataka, and Kumaraswamy too will follow the same formula.

However, in addition to a Dalit deputy CM, ensuring the presence of a Lingayat deputy CM in Kumaraswamy government is of symbolic significance for the community. Not surprisingly then, senior Congress leader and president of Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha Shamanuru Shivashankarappa met H.D. Deve Gowda, seeking latter’s support for his candidacy as deputy CM. M.B. Patil, former minister and leader of the Lingayat agitation, is another strong claimant for the deputy CM post. Apart from this competition, there are far too many Lingayat contenders for even cabinet berths, raising the BJP’s hopes.

The political situation in Bengaluru remains fluid and uncertain, partly due to the Lingayat question.

Wooing Lingayats

At the heart of the uncertainty is the notion that the BJP is the natural harbour for the Lingayat community. Lingayats haven’t been with the Congress since the 1970s when Devraj Urs took away reservation benefits from them. It was the damage which Siddaramaiah tried to undo by recommending minority status for Lingayats. His hope was to bring Lingayats into the Congress’ social coalition.

Congress gambit may not have been a success in 2018 but it held on to it and perhaps even increased its Veerashaiva -Lingayat vote share. Being in the Congress is not a handicap for a Lingayat politician. So, there is no prospect of all Congress Lingayat MLAs leaving en masse to support a Lingayat chief minister from the BJP.

It wouldn’t be surprising if individual MLAs or perhaps even a group of 4-5 legislators choose to crossover to the BJP. More susceptible to the BJP’s overtures are MLAs with mining business. Such potential defectors could come from the Lingayat fold or from the Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Other Backward Class (OBC) categories. But their choice will be primarily due to their business interests, and not caste affiliation.

Finally, the Lingayat minority status issue isn’t over. After assuming office, Kumaraswamy ruled out revisiting this issue. However, the state government’s role might not be important anymore since its recommendation, sent by the previous Siddaramaiah administration, is already with the central government. Now, it is up to Modi to decide if Lingayats should be given minority status.

As Lok Sabha elections draw closer, leaders of the newly formed Jagatika Lingayat Mahasabha, such as former bureaucrat S.M. Jamdar, will renew their claim. While the Congress may feel reluctant to vocally support them, the allure of minority benefits will draw both the Lingayats and the Veerashaivas to once again reiterate their demands. Here is why even Veerashaivas want minority benefits: Lingayat community’s investment in the education sector alone, as per conservative estimates, is more than Rs 50,000 crore. They surely wouldn’t mind securing exemption under the Right to Education (RTE) and gaining access to more resources from both central and state governments.

Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is a Mysuru-based social historian and political commentator.

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