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Congress looks to break BJP’s Lingayat base in Karnataka with Siddaganga Mutt support

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-09-2017 Sharan Poovanna

Bengaluru: B.S.Yeddyurappa, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Karnataka unit president on Monday remained tight-lipped about the backing given by the head of the Siddaganga Mutt, the spiritual headquarters of the Lingayats, for a separate religion tag and break away from the Veerashaiva sect.

On Sunday, Karnataka water resources minister M.B.Patil said that Sri Sri Sri Shivakumara Swamiji, the 110 year old religious head of the Lingayat sect—believed to be the single largest community in the state—has given his consent to pursue the minority religion tag for the community.

Patil said that the 110-year-old community head has also clarified that the Lingayat and Veerashaiva, a sect that was so far seen as part of the Lingayat sect, are separate entities.

“Will let you know about my stand in the next 3-4 days,” Yeddyurappa said on Monday.

The 74 year former chief minister of Karnataka said that he stands by the statements of Shamanur Shivashankarappa, the president of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha, who has said that the two sects are the same and has discredited Patil’s efforts to break up the sect.

Yeddyurappa’s apprehension not to take on the spiritual leader stems from the fact that the Lingayats-Veerashaiva combine is his largest support base and any split within the sect is bound to reduce his grip on the community and the BJP.

“I apprised the seer of Lingayat movement across Karnataka and Maharashtra. He agreed that Lingayat should be accorded a separate religious tag. He has given his consent to the movement,” claimed Patil.

Patil, also from the community, has rekindled a decades-old demand of the sect in a move that could potentially take away the large support base of former chief minister Yeddyurappa, one of the most well known leaders of the community, ahead of next year’s assembly elections.

The BJP has the support of the community in a state where most chief ministers since independence have been either Lingayat or Vokkaliga, believed to be Karnataka’s two largest communities.

The Veerashaivas, who have traditionally been identified with the Lingayats and follow the Siddaganga Mutt (the spiritual abode for the community), will not be happy with the move, analysts say, as they were hoping to get a backward tag by staying with the Lingayats.

Siddaramaiah, who is one of only five Karnataka chief ministers coming from an other backward classes (OBC) community, came to power with the support of AHINDA (an acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) in 2013. He has continued to consolidate the backward classes vote during the last four years. In 2015, Siddaramaiah commissioned a caste census—the first since 1932—to determine the exact strength of each community. Analysts believe Siddaramaiah wants to challenge the present caste structure which has long been dominated by the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, and establish the backward classes as the majority, aiming to subsequently increase reservations to 72% from 50%.

The Lingayats and Vokkaligas have threatened a massive protest if their dominant status is challenged.

According to leaked findings of the report (the government has denied their authenticity) it estimates the Lingayat population at below 10% from around 17-18% and the Vokkaligas at around 8% from about 14%, making the Dalits the single biggest group at around 24%.

Nearly 55% of Karnataka’s population is from the backward classes. The Vokkaligas are also classified as OBC.

In July, BJP national president Amit Shah had reached out to the Vokkaligas to attract some of its votes and undermine Janata Dal (Secular)-run by former prime minister H.D.Devegowda, a prominent Vokkaliga leader.

Shah has named 74-year-old Yeddyurappa as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate as there are few leaders who can challenge his hold over a large voter base.

“BJP will be weakened from within,” said Harish Ramaswamy, political analyst and professor at the Karnatak University, Dharwad, adding that the Congress had planted the idea to give the Lingayats a backward tag.

“Yeddyurappa will face difficulties. He was the one man representing the whole community,” Ramaswamy says, while adding that this could be good news for some dissenters within the BJP, who have been trying to challenge Yeddyurappa for some time now. This may be their chance.

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