In poll-bound Karnataka, where caste is one of the crucial factors in deciding the outcome of elections, it is key to understand the importance of the influential Lingayat or Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, to analyse the polity of the state.
Emerging in the 12th century, out of a distinct thought process that questioned the existing traditions, with Basavanna and other ‘Vachanakaras’ revolting against the caste system, that found support from all those who were discriminated, especially the working class, the sect that came to be known as Lingayats, has a significant place in the social history of Karnataka.
Lingayats are said to constitute about 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population, and the community has dominance in as many as 100 out of total 224 constituencies, majority of these seats being in north Karnataka region.
Vokkaligas constitute 15 per cent, OBCs 35 per cent, SC/STs 18 per cent, Muslims about 12.92 per cent, and Brahmins about three per cent.
Midway through polling, Karnataka records 37.25 per cent voter turnout in Assembly elections
However, a caste census conducted between 2013 and 2018, which has not been made public yet, pegs the population of Lingayats and Vokkaligas much lower at nine and eight per cent respectively.
In the present Assembly, there are 54 Lingayat MLAs from across parties including 37 from the ruling BJP.
Also, out of the 23 Chief Ministers that Karnataka has had since 1952, as many as 10 have been Lingayats, followed by six Vokkaligas, five from Backward Classes, and two Brahmins.
Well aware, as to how crucial it is, to get the support of the Lingayats to win the May 10 polls, political parties are trying to woo the influential community.
Until 1989, the Lingayats were in the Congress’ fold and had formed the strong support base of the party, but the sacking of the then Chief Minister Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, who was recouping from a stroke in 1990, by Rajiv Gandhi, turned the community against the party.
The Congress, which had won 178 of the total 224 seats in the 1989 elections under the leadership of Veerendra Patil, was reduced to 34 seats in the next election.
With the disintegration of Janata Parivar and the emergence of B S Yediyurappa in the BJP, the larger part of the community’s vote base shifted towards the saffron party, making Karnataka its southern citadel.
It got further strengthened when former Chief Minister and JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy declined to transfer power to Yediyurappa in 2007, violating the power sharing agreement of BJP-JD(S) coalition, resulting in government collapsing and the latter riding on the sympathy wave in the next Assembly polls.
After the 2008 Assembly elections, BJP formed its first government to the south of Vindhyas, under Yediyurappa’s leadership by winning 110 seats, but five years later in 2013 polls, the saffron party’s tally plunged to just 40 seats, as Yediyurappa by then had parted ways with the BJP and had formed a new political outfit- the Karnataka Janata Paksha.
Though Yediyurappa’s new outfit KJP managed to get only six seats in that polls, it secured a vote share of about ten per cent, badly denting the BJP’s prospects. Later, Yediyurappa rejoined the BJP ahead of 2014 Lok Sabha polls, with Modi at the helm, and in the subsequent Assembly elections in 2018 it managed to win 104 seats, and the ”Lingayat Strongman”, subsequently went on to become the Chief Minister once again.
Fully aware of the importance of the community’s support, the saffron party ensured that another Lingayat — Basavaraj Bommai — succeeded Yediyurappa, when he stepped down as the Chief Minister in 2021, citing age and party policy as the reason.
Aimed at keeping its Lingayat support base intact even after the recent announcement by Yediuurappa to retire from electoral politics, the BJP is falling back on the seasoned oarsman making him a key poll mascot, by pushing him to the top of the campaign plank, amid efforts by the Congress to woo the community by projecting that the saffron party has sidelined the octogenarian leader (who has a considerable sway on Lingayat votes).
The party also tried to do some kind of justice to the reservation demand by a section of the Lingayat community, enhancing their quota by 2 per cent.
While the presence of the JD(S) is by and large limited to the Old Mysuru region dominated by the Vokkaliga community, the Congress that has pan-Karnataka presence has been making consistent efforts to regain lost ground, among the Lingayat support base.
However, the then Siddaramaiah-led Congress government’s decision to recommend to the Centre to accord ‘religious minority’ status to the Lingayat community had resulted in electoral losses for the party in 2018 Assembly polls.
Along with Congress facing losses in the Lingayat-dominated constituencies, most of its leaders who were actively involved in the ‘separate Lingayat religion’ movement suffered defeat.
It was largely seen as consolidation of Lingayat votes in favour of the BJP’s narrative that the Congress divided society by declaring Lingayats as a minority community, and that it was an attempt to prevent Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, from becoming chief minister.
The move was also seen as an attempt to divide the community itself, as a section expressed resentment over projecting Veerashaivas and Lingayats as the same.
While one section led by Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha had demanded separate religion status, asserting that Veerashaiva and Lingayats are the same, the other group wanted it only for Lingayats as they believe that Veerashaiva is one among the seven sects of Shaivas, which is part of Hinduism.
Congress, which lacks a big mass leader from the community, has appointed senior Lingayat legislator M B Patil as the Chairman of its campaign committee ahead of the 2023 Assembly polls, while another legislator, Eshwar Khandre, was made the state unit’s working president.
Mutts also play an influential role in socially and politically channeling the Lingayat community.
Several Lingayat mutts across the state are politically influential, and so do the seers or pontiffs who head them.
Another factor is various sub-castes within the community like- Banajiga (to which Yediyurappa belongs), Sadar (Bommai’s sub-caste), Ganiga, and Panchamasalis, which too play a crucial role in Lingayat politics.
Panchamasalis, who are said to be numerically higher among the Lingayats, under the leadership of their seer Basava Jaya Mruthyunjaya Swamiji, had until recently held an agitation, demanding higher reservation in employment and education, which had put the ruling BJP government in a tight spot ahead of Assembly polls, as they had threatened electoral consequences if their demands are not met. Aimed at placating them the government recently decided to enhance the quota for Lingayats by two per cent under the state’s OBC list.