Karnataka will face Assembly elections in a few weeks and the Congress is facing a tough challenge from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it tries to retain power. The Congress government of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in its bid to outsmart the BJP has recommended separate religious status for the Lingayat community.
BJP's tallest leader in Karnataka is former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa and he belongs to the Lingayat community. The Congress move is a clear sign that the party is going all out to undercut Lingayat strongman Yeddyuarrpa's popularity and to stop Hindu consolidation.
The Lingayats are nearly 16% of the population in Karnataka and are influential in almost 100 of the 224 Assembly seats in the state. Their support virtually assures a party of victory. Ever since the BJP started to project Yeddyurappa as its face in Karnataka, the Lingayats have become the party's core voters.
But Siddaramaiah's audacious attempt to woo the Lingayats by accepting their demand for a separate religious status may throw a spanner in Yeddyurappa's dream of defeating the Congress. The move has been made with a clear aim to expand the Congress vote share beyond the traditional Dalits, minorities and backward classes fold.
At present the Lingayats come under the other backward caste (OBC) category and the Congress move will force the BJP to rethink its strategies just weeks before the elections. BJP leadership including Yeddyurappa have been opposing the separate religion tag for the Lingayats and have accused the Congress of diving Hindus.
Siddaramiah's move does not have the backing of the entire Lingayat community and several organistaion have opposed the separate religion tag. Congress also runs the risk of allowing the BJP to give a call for Hindu consolidation if the party is seen as backing the recommendation wholeheartedly. But the BJP is also wary that its open opposition may lead to fragmentation of its vote bank.
Meanwhile, the Janata Dal Secular leader HD Kumaraswamy, too, has opposed the Congress move. Kumaraswamy's party banks on the other powerful community - Vokkaliga - in the state and is eyeing the role of a kingmaker in case of a split verdict in the state. It does not suit JDS to have either a strong Congress or a strong BJP in the state.