Smart move by Cong in K’taka on poll-eve?

In recommending that the Centre accord religious minority status to the politically powerful Lingayat community in Karnataka, chief minister and state Congress strongman Siddaramaiah has played a clever card, a high-stakes gamble that he hopes will pay off with an electoral bonanza. With Assembly elections due to be held in early May, Mr Siddaramaiah has pulled out all the stops, offering one sop after another to the disadvantaged, poorer sections and women who along with the OBCs, dalits and minorities make up the traditional votebank of the Congress. With the Lingayats, who have traditionally backed the BJP and powered it to victory in 2008, the Congress leader is attempting a major reordering of voting patterns. The minority sop to the Lingayats seeks to change years of ill-feeling generated by the shock sacking of then state chief minister Veerendra Patil in 1990 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Lingayats have nursed a grudge against the Congress ever since.

They had found, in BJP leader and fellow Lingayat B.S. Yeddyurappa, a man who not only espoused their cause but who, while in office, backed the powerful Lingayat mathas, the educational institutions that the Lingayat pontiffs control, and which greatly influence the way the numerically strong community votes. Making up around 17 per cent of the state’s population, the Lingayats dominate key districts across a swathe of North Karnataka. Mr Siddaramaiah’s main stratagem in this poll-bound state therefore, is to end the BJP’s hold over the community. On Monday, his Cabinet officially approved the demand by a section of Lingayats for a religious minority tag. But that’s where the plan could come a cropper. The religious minority tag that Mr Siddaramaiah recommends will only give the Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats — who unlike the Lingayats, subscribe to Hindu rituals — greater benefits, in running educational institutions, and not reservations of jobs in the government.

Second, there’s a schism within his own Cabinet with a young and ambitious Lingayat group pushing for the minority tag, in the belief that even a two to three per cent shift in the Congress’ favour will impact at least 100 seats in the 224-member Assembly. But the older and more diehard Veerashaiva Lingayats in the Congress, controlled by the powerful Akhila Bharatiya Veerashaiva Mahasabha, are against the move and what’s worse could even dent the Congress’ votes in the north and centre. The chief minister believes he will be able to claim the credit for heeding the Lingayats’ call for the new status. But he must be mindful that there’s a High Court ruling that says the Cabinet’s decision is subject to its clearance, and that the BJP is already readying its riposte on Mr Siddaramaiah’s latest poll gimmickry.

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