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.