Karnataka: The importance of being Lingayat

The influential Lingayats have been agitating for non-Hindu minority status and for higher reservations in jobs and education

Karnataka: The importance of being Lingayat

Naheed Ataulla

Union home minister Amit Shah knew the importance of marking his presence at the 115th birth anniversary of the ‘Walking God’ Shivakumar Swami at the Siddaganga Mutt in Tumakuru in April. In August, it was Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s turn to show up for an initiation ceremony and to receive the ‘Ishta Linga Deeksha' (Veerashaiva Lingayat tradition). Known to be a devotee of Shiva, the Congress MP reportedly requested the Chitradurga Murugarajendra mutt to depute someone to teach and train him on how to worship.

Last month also saw the elevation of Lingayat strongman and former chief minister BS Yediyurappa to BJP's parliamentary board, the party's highest decision making body. All three events have the common thread of political parties trying to woo the influential Lingayat community as Karnataka heads for assembly elections next year.

Three decades ago, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sacked Karnataka chief minister Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, resulting in the community moving away from the party. The Congress, which had won 179 (of 224) seats in the 1989 elections under Veerendra Patil, was reduced to 36 seats in the next elections.

Following the 2008 Assembly elections, BJP formed its first government in a southern state under Yediyurappa by winning 110 seats; but five years later in 2013, BJP’s tally plunged to 40 seats after Yediyurappa parted ways with the BJP and formed the Karnataka Janata Paksha in 2012. KJP managed to win just six seats but damaged BJP in the remaining seats. Therefore, no political party can afford to alienate the community.

Karnataka: The importance of being Lingayat

Why they matter

Of the 224 assembly constituencies in the state, as many as 100 constituencies are said to be dominated by the Lingayat community, majority of these seats being in north Karnataka.

The Lingayats account for 17 per cent of Karnataka's population followed by Vokkaligas with 15 per cent, Muslims with 12.92 per cent and Brahmins constituting three per cent. The OBCs are believed to constitute 35 per cent of the population and SCs and STs contributing 18 per cent.

However, an unofficial caste census conducted between 2013 and 2018 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 across parties including 37 from the ruling BJP. Out of the 23 chief ministers in the state since 1952, as many as 10 have been Lingayats, six Vokkaligas, five from Backward Classes and two Brahmins.

In the run-up to the elections next year, BJP and the Congress are sparing no efforts to win over the support of the community. Yediyurappa's induction into the BJP parliamentary board was clearly to placate the Lingayat strongman, who was sulking after being asked to step down from the chief minister's post in 2021 and his younger son BY Vijayendra denied a Legislative Council seat. Miffed at the party marginalising him, Yediyurappa had announced his retirement from electoral politics and anointed Vijayendra as his political heir to contest the Shikaripur seat in Shivamogga district, which he represents.

While the presence of the JD(S) is limited to the Old Mysuru region dominated by the Vokkaliga community, the Congress has been attempting to break BJP's stranglehold over the Lingayats. The party recently appointed senior Lingayat legislator MB Patil to head its campaign committee while another MLA, Eshwar Khandre, is the state unit's working president.

Why Lingayats lean towards BJP

Until 1989, the Lingayats were in the Congress fold, but the ouster of Veerendra Patil, who was recouping from a stroke in 1990, turned the community against the party and it has not been able to recover from that.

In mid-2000, Yediyurappa emerged as the rallying point for Lingayats and with the Janata Parivar fractured, the community leaned towards the BJP. The high point was when former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy declined to transfer power to Yediyurappa in 2007, which resulted in a divide between the Lingayats and Vokkaligas and the sympathy vote for Yediyurappa put him in the CM's saddle in 2008.

Karnataka: The importance of being Lingayat
Karnataka: The importance of being Lingayat

Influence of mutts

Karnataka is dotted with mutts of all religions, but those headed by the Lingayats and Vokkaligas have played a far more active role in politics. The influence of mutts on Karnataka politics dates back to the 1960s, when the then sitting chief minister S. Nijalingappa, representing the Banajiga sub-sect of the Lingayat community, was defeated from Hosadurga constituency in Chitradurga.

The reason was rivalry with the local, influential Sirigere mutt seer representing Sadar, another Lingayat sub-sect, which ensured that a Kuruba got elected. Nijalingappa had to look for a constituency outside his Chitradurga district and was elected unopposed from Bagalkot two months later.

In the 1980s it was former chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde who started the trend of politicians and pontiffs sharing the dais. He also sanctioned land to mutts for starting professional colleges.

Some mutts have tried to arm-twist the government. The most embarrassing public spat was between Yediyurappa and the Panchamasali (a sub-sect of the Lingayats) Gurupeetha seer Vachanananda Swami over giving cabinet berths to the sub-sect in January 2020. The seer threatened that the Panchamasalis would not support Yediyurappa if he failed to accommodate three ministers from the sub-sect into the cabinet.

The present Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is also under pressure with the Panchamsalis demanding higher reservation in employment and education. Pontiff Basava Jaya Mruthyunjaya, who is spearheading the campaign for higher reservation, told National Herald that they want reservation under 2(A) category of Karnataka's reservation policy in education and employment from 3(B), raising the quotas for the sub-sect from the present five per cent to 15 per cent. “The community stood by Yediyurappa and made him CM; we opposed him when he failed to get us the quota and we will continue our agitation with Bommai," he added.

Basavaraj Bommai represents the Sadar sub-sect which numerically is not very significant. Yediyurappa, who originally hails from Mandya district, represents Banajuga (Baniya), the most influential subsect among the Lingayats. But the Panchamasalis are numerically more accounting for 80 per cent of the total Lingayat population.

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