All is fair in love and Indian politics. There can be a dispute about love, but none with regard to politics. Look at Karnataka, where an imminent Assembly election is inspiring politicians to employ some new tricks apart from those they are traditionally adept at playing. Just don’t ask them to be fair. That would be really unfair.
One such is the Congress government’s decision to accord minority religion status to Lingayats, a dominant community with considerable political influence. Timed to perfection by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, it’s not an ordinary political trick but a desperate gamble by a politician on whose shoulders rest the hopes of a party that is seeing its fortunes dwindle across the country. Siddaramaiah, tasked with keeping the Congress in power in Karnataka and himself fighting a tough electoral battle that could decide the future course of his career, may not want to be judged on the appropriateness of the potentially divisive decision, but is surely hoping to reap its benefits.
The question of fairness aside, it’s ironic that a man who swears by secularism should take so much interest in having one more religion that he goes ahead and notifies it despite voices of opposition from within the community and signs of communal conflict that could flare up in the coming days. Further, what makes the move election-specific is the fact that a separate Lingayat religion is unlikely to get the Centre’s approval anytime soon, and unless that happens, the community will not get the benefits envisaged under the Constitution for minority groups.
It’s also ironic that the religious identity of a community that traces its origins to a social revolution spearheaded by saint-philosopher Basavanna nearly 900 years ago should be decided by the political agenda of an Assembly election and used by parties for gains that may not last beyond one electoral contest. That the community’s eight-decade-old demand for a non-Hindu identity was dealt with hurriedly indicates not only the electoral desperation and the close fight expected in the coming elections but also the fact that it is being treated as just another election issue and not being given the importance it deserves.
The separate religion debate has two aspects. One, whether there’s a need to segregate Lingayats from the larger Hindu community and treat them as a separate religion, considering the differences in beliefs and practices? Two, should Lingayats and Veerashaivas, treated as a single community until now, be
considered as different groups? There are fundamental differences between all three.
While Veerashaivism is believed to have its roots in Vedic Shaivism, and is hence considerably older, Lingayatism originated in the 12th century as a result of the radical social reforms propagated by Basavanna. While the Vedas are an essential part of the Hindu doctrine, the original Lingayatism shunned the Vedas and associated rituals. There’s no caste system among Lingayats and no temples. Lingayats worship ‘ishtalinga’ (formless god), and this is where they differ from Veerashaivas, who worship Lord Shiva. But, these differences exist mostly in principle. In practice, it’s not easy to tell Veerashaivas from Lingayats due to intermixing of beliefs, practices and even rituals.
The government has notified Lingayats as a separate religion and said even Veerashaivas who follow Basavanna’s teachings are part of it. Unconvinced, Veerashaivas have come out in protest and are pushing for a separate religion tag for the entire Veerashaiva-Lingayat community.
The community, accounting for about 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population according to one estimate, has the potential to influence electoral outcomes in nearly half the Assembly seats. While it has mostly stayed loyal to the BJP and its CM candidate, B S Yeddyurappa (a Lingayat himself), over the last decade or so, the Congress too counts among its leaders a few Lingayat strongmen. The government’s move is an undisguised attempt to further divide the community electorally and weaken the BJP’s support base.
It’s likely that the Congress will get more Lingayat votes this time than before, but it will have to contend with the Hindu anger against what’s being seen as an attempt to divide the community. While Siddaramaiah can still count on the loyalty of minorities and Dalits, his support base among Hindu castes may weaken. Hence, gains from the Lingayat split may not be as significant as he would like them to be.
In a country where politics is both entertainment and business, and has very little to do with principles, ideology, service and leadership, the best, as also the worst, of a politician comes out at the time of elections. This is Siddaramaiah’s moment. The Congress, thanks mostly to Siddaramaiah’s leadership, was expected to have an edge in the coming contest. By playing the Lingayat card, he has introduced an additional amount of uncertainty into the fight.
What was till now building up as a clash of personalities – Siddaramaiah versus the Modi-Yeddyurappa combine – will also be about religious identities and the politics of divisiveness. Depending on the outcome, Karnataka’s political history will remember Siddaramaiah either as a bold leader who took risks and won or as one who lost all because of one bad move.
Resident Editor, Bengaluru, Karnataka