Lingayats and Yediyurappa factor back in spotlight in Karnataka politics

Chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa at Vidhana Soudha, in Bengaluru on July 22, 2021.   | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

It was at the end of July 2011 that Lingayat strongman and Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa resigned after occupying the post for a little over three years in his first stint in the post. In less than two years, his newly founded political outfit Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) had caused a near rout of the BJP as it garnered about 11% of the vote share, said to be mostly Lingayats, making way for the Congress to return to power.

Days shy of a decade of his resignation back then under a cloud of corruption charges, Mr. Yediyurappa is again under pressure from the party’s central leadership to step down and allow a smooth transition even as the Veerashaiva-Lingayat card is at play again in Karnataka politics.

Over the last couple of days, as speculation is rife over the imminent exit of the veteran leader, a host of Lingayat seers have extended support and urged him to stay put. The All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha, an organisation with considerable sway over the community and with grassroots presence in 22 districts in the Lingayat heartland, has rallied behind him. In a development that has taken many Congress leaders by surprise and yet again underlined how caste affiliation can cut across partylines, two of its senior Lingayat leaders, nonagenarian Shamanur Shivashankarappa and M.B. Patil, have urged the BJP not to replace Mr. Yediyurappa.

No alternatives

The absence of a leader with mass appeal among the Lingayats, who could potentially replace the ageing leader, is believed to be the reason for the community to rally behind him despite allegations of corruption, nepotism, mishandling of COVID-19 and the factor of his advancing age.

News analysis | Lingayat community’s response at core of Karnataka drama

Without an acceptable alternative on the horizon, the community feels that there could be a “vacuum” in a context where the second-generation community leaders have not yet shown potential to emerge as a pan-Karnataka representative.

“The community sees him as an undisputed leader as of now, and it needs him. For political optics, he is using it for his benefit we well,” a Lingayat leader said, underlining this symbiotic relationship. “We need a mass leader and a career politician who can give his all and knows the dynamics down to the constituency-level. You can draw parallel from H.D. Deve Gowda among Vokkaligas or Siddaramaiah among the Backward Classes.”

Mahasabha office-bearers believe that Mr. Yediyurappa organically grew to the stature of community leader without much support of the Mahasabha or the mutts in the initial days. It was the post-political decline of Veerendra Patil, S.R. Bommai and J.H. Patel, other tall names in the community, that the search for a leader by the community led to him.

The Lingayat community, a numerically strongly one comprising a considerable section and with big land holdings, is seen strongly behind the BJP now. Its slow move away from the Congress began after the land reforms initiated by the late D. Devaraj Urs in the 1970s. However, sensing the emergence of a Lingayat Chief Minister, the community, along with other dominant castes of Vokkaligas and Brahmins, sided with the party in 1989 when 48 of the 178 Congress legislators were Lingayats.

The unceremonious exit of the late Patel, however, led them back to Janata Parivar, and with the emergence of Mr. Yediyurappa, brought them to the BJP post-2004. It was this political analogy that Shamanur Shivashankarappa reminded the BJP central leadership of any “adventure” to remove Mr. Yediyurappa.

The BJP, which had 39 Lingayats out of its total 108 seats in the 2008 elections, saw only 10 Lingayats of the total 40 legislators being elected, while the KJP won six seats in 2013. The KJP also damaged the BJP’s prospects in about 30 seats.

KJP play

Barring 2013 when the vote split due to the KJP helped the Congress, the BJP has had more than 30 Lingayat legislators in 2004 (31), 2008 (39) and 2018 (38), while the Congress, which in the 1970s had about 50 Lingayat legislators, is now reduced to between 14 and 16 Lingayat legislators.

For the BJP, the trouble in removing Mr. Yediyurappa again at this juncture seems to be tricky as it can antagonise a community that has returned almost 40% of its total legislators. The Mahasabha claims that it is not only the seats that the BJP wins from the Lingayat heartland in the central and north Karnataka region, but also that, in its estimate, in about 135 seats, including over 30 reserved constituencies, Lingayats are electorally significant.

Any attempts to prop up another Lingayat to replace the veteran leader, whose links to RSS is decades old, could ruffle feathers. “It can only be a compromise. The community has chosen him as its leader and will not accept plans made elsewhere. A vacuum in leadership is what the community is worried about,” said one office-bearer.

Lingayat leaders believe that the parade of the religious leaders to demonstrate their support also comes from the community pressure. It is estimated that about 3,500 mutts scattered across the State have influence over the nearly 98 sub-sects in the community, and powerful ones such as Sirigere take a political stand. While the mutts have been directly benefited from Mr. Yediyurappa’s regimes, with massive budgetary allocations, the devotees want them to stand by the leader now in trouble.

The other side of the coin is also that this excessive dependence on Mr. Yediyurappa and Lingayats has made leaders from other communities uncomfortable. However, the fact remains that the party over the decade has not invested in young leaders from different communities and regions to reduce the Lingayat influence and dependence within the party.

A Lingayat leader from the Congress, Basavraj Rayareddy, while criticising the involvement of the religious heads in political affairs of the party, also felt that people would “see through these political posturing.”

Political observers believe that though Lingayats have been voting for the BJP with the Yediyurappa factor being an important component, it is also fallacious to assume that all their votes go to the saffron party. The Congress holding on to about 15 seats remains a testimony. Some of the Lingayat legislators within the BJP also feel that the influence of Mr. Yediyurappa could be waning and the political situation now is different compared to 2013, with age not on his side.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 8:36:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/lingayats-and-yediyurappa-factor-back-in-spotlight-in-karnataka-politics/article35483731.ece

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