Last October, Karnataka minister D.K. Shivakumar surprised many in the Congress by admitting publicly, in the middle of a bypoll, that his party had erred with the Lingayat minority religion controversy. He said this at a time when the Lingayat versus Veerashaiva debate had ebbed, at least as a political issue. In an interview this March, Eshwar Khandre, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee working president and the Congress candidate in Bidar, told Outlook: “It’s a non-issue now.” Not only was his party unwilling to go down that road again, the movement for a minority religion tag had also lost steam after the Karnataka assembly polls last year. Khandre, a Lingayat himself, believes issues of religion are best left to religious leaders.
Come mid-April, as the election heat rose, the tussle for the community’s support saw the issue resurface. Former Karnataka CM B.S. Yeddyurappa of the BJP accused the Congress of trying to divide the community—he even resurrected a letter purportedly from Congress leader M.B. Patil to Sonia Gandhi that had been doing the rounds last year and was decried as fake by the Congress, which also lodged a complaint with the Election Commission. Then, as a sideshow, came a spat within the Congress as Patil hit out at Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga from the south, over speaking for the Lingayats.
The BJP’s significant clout in the northern Karnataka region that went to polls on April 23 (the rest of the state had voted on April 18) relies heavily on the Lingayat community. But political analysts reckon the Lingayat minority religion issue won’t resonate as it did in the state polls last year. “It has faded away to a large extent and won’t make a difference in these elections, though there may be traces of it,” says political commentator A. Narayana. Indeed, it’s the Narendra Modi factor that the BJP is clearly banking on.
Congress veteran Mallikarjuna Kharge has never lost an election. A party rebel who joined the BJP is running against him in Gulbarga.
“We are well-placed,” says BJP Karnataka spokesman Vaman Acharya. He points to Gulbarga, a stronghold of Congress veteran Mallikarjuna Kharge where the BJP is fancying its chances—the party’s candidate there, Umesh Jadhav, is a Congress rebel. Kharge, 76, has never lost an election—he holds a record of nine straight wins in assembly polls from Gurmitkal and Chittapur between 1972 and 2008, and has held the Gulbarga Lok Sabha seat for two terms since 2009. “But the situation this time has changed and the signs seem to be fairly good,” claims Acharya. It’s shaping up to be a tough fight, many reckon, going by the local fallouts and sub-caste undercurrents in the reserved constituency. On the credit side, Kharge’s supporters point to the special status accorded for the dry Hyderabad-Karnataka region through Article 371J. “The Hyderabad-Karnataka region is a Congress bastion and we will sweep it,” claims a Congress leader. Bellary, which slipped out of the BJP’s grasp in a bypoll in November, is another keenly watched election battle this election.
The Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) have an alliance in Karnataka, making it a straight fight in every constituency. But the JD(S) isn’t much of a factor in the northern districts except for a few pockets. In 2014, the BJP had won 11 of the 14 northern seats that went to polls this week and it re-nominated many of its sitting MPs. While Acharya discounts any talk of anti-incumbency working against them, Manickam Tagore, AICC secretary in-charge of Belgaum, insists there is “double anti-incumbency against them”. Both in 2014 and in the 2018 state polls, Modi was the face of the BJP, he points out. “Now, it’s an election where people have seen Modi twice,” he says. Yet, Modi, says a local journalist, is a big draw in the region, especially among the youth. “The BJP is using social media in a way that the Congress hasn’t be able to,” he says.
“Whether the Modi factor offsets the anti-incumbency that local candidates have picked up is something we need to see,” says political commentator Narayana. “So it’s a battle of margins.”
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore