Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, center, with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and others at the new Indira Canteen in Bangalore on Wednesday. Photo: Hindustan Times
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, center, with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and others at the new Indira Canteen in Bangalore on Wednesday. Photo: Hindustan Times

Barely 25 days before the crucial state-assembly elections in India’s key southern state, Karnataka, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is planning to involve its cadres to make door-to-door visits to persuade the formidable Lingayat and Veerashaiva Lingayat religious communities to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The RSS is the ideological foundation of the BJP, and its cadres form the bulwark of supporters for the party. The Lingayats are the most influential voting population in the state and all parties are trying their best to get the them on their side.

Karnataka is a key state that will play a major role in the 2019 general elections, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be hoping for a comeback. Everyone agrees that the BJP peaked in 2014. It is bound to lose seats in next year’s poll and it is hoping that states such as Karnataka can help make up for the anticipated losses.

Meanwhile, the opposition Indian National Congress party is hoping to retain the state, since it has lost enormous ground with Modi’s ascendancy to power.

All this makes the state elections next month crucial for both major political parties.

For the BJP and Modi, Karnataka and the other states due for polls this year could make or break his chances for a re-election. So far, in southern India, the BJP has no presence in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. In all these states but Karnataka, regional political parties play the dominant role, with national parties having to keep a low profile. However, in Karnataka, the Congress and the BJP have a reasonable presence, with the former marginally ahead.

Sources close to BJP president Amit Shah confirm that he spoke to top RSS leaders a few days ago seeking the involvement of the Sangh’s cadre in persuading the Lingayat community to back the party.

Seer makes Congress appeal

The BJP is worried because a few days ago, Mahadevi, the first female seer to head the Basava Dharma Peeta, the most influential Lingayat center of religious learning in northern Karnataka, appealed to Lingayats: “I want all Lingayats to vote for the Congress party, as Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is honestly espousing the cause of a separate religion status for us.”

Her announcement, backed by 30 other Lingayat seers, could potentially upset the BJP’s electoral prospects. Lingayats and Veerashaivas comprise around 17% of the electorate in Karnataka.

Traditionally these communities have supported the BJP in the past. The BJP’s chief-ministerial candidate, Yeddyurappa, is an undisputed community leader. But Siddaramaiah’s ploy of promising Lingayats a separate religious identity, independent of Hinduism, appears to be turning the community toward the Congress in a big way.

In either case, Siddaramaiah has managed to break the BJP’s hold over the community in a big way. There are currently 50 Lingayat lawmakers in the state assembly, of which Congress has 29, and the BJP 16. The BJP is worried because the issue of a separate religion for Lingayats could have an impact on up to 82 constituencies in a state assembly with 225 seats.

The BJP’s Yeddyurappa is putting up a confident face, and said: “Lingayats are with us as always and BJP will win 150 seats in the coming elections.” But to get there, the RSS cadre and BJP workers will jointly visit at least 100 assembly constituencies in 15 districts spread over northern and central Karnataka.

RSS workers will visit all Lingayat households in these 15 districts and will ask people to vote BJP and will request that they not get involved in Congress’ alleged agenda of “dividing Hindu society.”

They will focus on the central Karnataka region, mainly in Davangere, Shivamogga and Chitradurga districts. In these areas there are some powerful and influential mutts (monasteries), mainly the Murugharajendra Mutt, the Siddaganga Mutt and the Sirigere Mutt. All these belong to the Lingayats. Central Karnataka has 41 assembly seats. In 2013 assembly elections, Congress won 23, BJP four, Janata Dal (Secular) or JDS 11, and others three seats.

RSS sources say that besides their teams of cadres, more than 2,000 workers from the rest of Karnataka will be deputed to Lingayat-dominated areas in other parts of the state. RSS leaders feel they can help the BJP in 82 constituencies where Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats are influential and will try to persuade influential mutt leaders to ask their communities to vote BJP.

More than 30 senior functionaries from the RSS are camping in Bangalore, and they will focus on central and southern Karnataka and some coastal areas. This region commands 80 to 100 seats and could prove crucial for the BJP. While there are no directions for them to be involved in the election process, it has become an integral part of their activity to get involved in electoral politics behind the scenes, say senior RSS functionaries.

Sameer Chougaonkar

Sameer Chougaonkar is a senior journalist who has tracked the RSS and the BJP for decades.

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