15/05/2018 4:23 PM IST | Updated 15/05/2018 5:25 PM IST

Lingayat Loss: How Siddaramaiah Shot Congress In The Foot #KarnatakaVerdict

The worrying descent from win-win to lose-lose.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
BENGALURU, INDIA - MAY 6: Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah during a press conference at the Press Club, on May 6, 2018 in Bengaluru, India. Siddaramaiah mocked the Karnataka BJP, saying it solely depended on the prime minister as regards the May 12 state Assembly polls as it had no leader with a 'face value'. (Photo by Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

At around 10.30am when the first foggy leads were slowly clearing up, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted — "When Siddhu split the Lingayat community I had told the media : Congi committed suicide"

Swamy was right. What was meant to be an ace, a checkmate of sorts by the Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, turned out to be one of its deadliest mistakes.

On 19 March, Siddaramaiah announced 'minority religion' status for the Lingayat community. This was seen as a trump card for the incumbent chief minister and the Congress party which had large stakes in winning Karnataka, one of only three states in the country ruled by the grand old party.

In the run-up to the elections, the Congress was confident that it had won the Ahinda vote. Ahinda is nomenclature for Backwards Classes, Minorities and Scheduled Castes. The party felt it had to woo at least one of the other two dominant communities in the state – the Vokkaligas or the Lingayats.

"Lingayats worship Ishtalinga (formless God) and do not follow vedic rituals. Of the 99 sub-castes of the Lingayats, one - the Veerashaivas - worship the Hindu god Shiva and follow vedic texts."

While Lingayats are against the caste system as taught by Kannada social reformer and philosopher Basavanna in the 12th century, Veershaivas incorporate the caste system in their world view.

Siddaramaiah chose the Lingayats, instead of the Vokkaligas who the Janata Dal (Secular) had a strong hold over.

Siddaramaiah included the "Lingayats and the Veerashaiva Lingayats" as a minority religion in an effort to appease the powerful community, as recommended by the Justice HN Nagamohan Das Committee report.

It appeared to be a win-win situation, considering that the grant of 'minority religion' status would help bring in more sops and funds to the community, especially in the fields of education. Lingayats run a number of excellent educational institutions in north Karnataka, similar to the convents run by Christians.

From win-win turn to lose-lose

The failure was largely one of communication, according to political observers in Karnataka. Of the 99 sub-castes of the Lingayats, close to 60 sub-groups are converts from the Hindu OBC or Dalits. The 'upper castes' amongst the Lingayats, including the Veerashaivas, managed to send a strong message across to the others amongst the Lingayats – that the Mutts controlled by the Veerashaivas, one of the 'upper caste' Lingayats, would not be open to the others.

As anger mounted among the non-Veerashaiva but Lingayat community, the Congress was unable to explain the benefits of 'minority religion' status – reservations of seats in educational institutions run by the powerful Veerashaivas and Lingayats was a main and big benefit to the 'lower' rung Lingayats who could not otherwise get admission. And this lack of communication meant that the Lingayat community curiously united in a different manner.

"Lingayats are made up of a number of 'upper caste' communities as well those from the backward classes and Dalits," said political analyst and senior journalist Imran Qureshi. "Congress was unable to effectively communicate what the 'minority religion' tag would mean in reality. So the 'upper castes' among the Lingayats made the others swear on Lingas that they would not vote for the Congress as it was dividing the Lingayat community. The Congress' plan backfired," he said.

Senior journalist DP Satish too agrees that the Congress' best laid plans went awry. "It united all groups amongst the Lingayats and they voted against the Congress," he said. "Because many did not want to call themselves minorities, or be seen on par with the Muslims. Yeddyurappa being portrayed as the Chief Ministerial face of the BJP also helped unite the Lingayats," said Satish who is a Senior Editor with News18.

BJP supporters amongst the Lingayats are rejoicing at the Congress' beating as is evident on social media.

Déjà vu?

But the game for the Congress is far from over at the moment. In a throwback to 1996, when the Congress, under PV Narasimha Rao, helped break a hung Parliament by supporting JD(S) leader Deve Gowda become the Prime Minister of the United Front government, Karnataka's Assembly now hangs on Gowda's son HD Kumarasamy. Sonia's Congress has now offered the post of Chief Minister to Kumarasamy in exchange for a post poll alliance in the southern state to keep the BJP out. Party spokesperson Ghulam Nabi Azad told the media that the JD(S) had accepted their proposal. The JD(S) is yet to speak on this issue.

But the Gowdas are not likely to forget what happened with the father barely a year after becoming Prime Minister with Congress backing. In April 1997, the Congress party pulled the rug from under the feet of Deve Gowda, bringing IK Gujral to power as an alternative candidate. Another year later, RJD's Lalu Prasad Yadav would do the remaining damage, walking out of the United Front alliance and sending the nation to polls once again.

With seats numbering about half of the what the Congress has won in the state, the JD(S), if it accepts the Congress' offer in a hurry, is likely to face a tough test ahead.