One of the biggest questions leading up to the Karnataka Assembly elections on Saturday was: will the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government’s recommendation to the Centre to declare Lingayats a religious minority fetch the party votes from the community? As the election results were announced on Tuesday, it became clear that the answer to this question is as complicated as the community’s views on whether they wish to break away from the Hindu faith.

While it is difficult to isolate the reasons for electoral choices, it seems the Congress’ gamble has not paid off in most of the Lingayat-dominated constituencies, even though it may have given the party an edge in some individual contests.

The Lingayats of Karnataka are followers of the 12th-century philosopher and social reformer Basava. They are widely believed to account for 17% of the state’s population and their vote is said to be decisive in more than 100 of the state’s 224 Assembly seats. While a section of the community has aggressively demanded that they be recognised as a religious group distinct from Hindus, another section has equally fervently opposed this demand. In July, close to 2 lakh community members had gathered in Bidar to break away from Hinduism. But when Siddaramaiah announced his government’s acceptance of their demand in March this year, a section of the community dismissed it as a cynical political move and accused the chief minister of trying to break their unity.

BJP revival

Without the Lingayat movement, some Congress leaders argued, the party would have been completely wiped out in the regions dominated by the community.

The community has traditionally supported the BJP – which fielded Lingayat strongman BS Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate. In 2013, Yeddyurappa had contested the polls separately after walking away from the BJP. This had split the Lingayat vote and worked to the advantage of the Congress.

On Tuesday though, the Lingayat-dominated regions of Bombay-Karnataka and Central Karnataka showed a BJP revival. In Bombay Karnataka, the party won 30 of the total 50 seats, up from the 13 it had won in 2013. The Congress won 17 seats, down from its tally of 31, despite Siddaramaiah contesting and winning from Badami in the region. Of Central Karnataka’s 36 seats, the BJP won 15, up from three in 2013, while the Congress’ tally dropped from 19 to 13.

Hyderabad Karnataka, another Lingayat-dominated area, saw a close contest between the BJP and Congress. Eventually, the BJP added five seats to its 2013 tally of five while the Congress retained its lead with 21 out of 40 seats. It had won 23 seats in 2013.

Overall, the BJP emerged the single largest party with 104 seats but short of the majority mark of 113, while the Congress tallied 78 seats. After the results, some BJP leaders contended the Congress’ performance was a consequence of its meddling in the Lingayat matter.

That three of the four prominent Lingayat Ministers in the Siddaramaiah Cabinet who led the movement lost badly seems to be another clear sign that the move had backfired for the Congress.

The BJP's revival has also been attributed to the return of Lingayat leader BS Yeddyurappa. (Credit: PTI)

Consolation victories

However, Siddaramaiah’s move appears to have worked to the Congress’ advantage in at least some constituencies.

If three ministers – Basavaraj Rayaraddi, Vinay Kulkarni, and Sharan Prakash Patil – lost their seats, the fourth, MB Patil, a prominent Congress face of the Lingayat movement, defeated the BJP’s Vijaykumar Sidramagouda Patil by 29,715 votes to retain Babaleshwar in North Karnataka, a stronghold of the community. This was a repeat of the 2013 result, but MB Patil had won with a smaller margin of 4,355 votes then.

In Basavakalyan in Hyderabad Karnataka – the region where Basava lived – the party won an election for the first time since 1978. This constituency had for years seen a contest between the BJP and Janata Dal (Secular) but on Tuesday elected the Congress’ B Narayanrao, a backward classes leader. His victory margin over his nearest rival, the BJP’s Mallikarjun Sidramappa Khuba, was 11.9%.

Basavakalyan has been intrinsic to the Lingayat movement. Dr Basavalinga Pattadevaru, president of the Anubhava Mantapa – a spiritual parliament in the likeness of the one created by Basava – was instrumental in mobilising support for last year’s rally in Bidar.

The Congress also gave an improved performance in Bhalki, 40 km from Basavakalyan. Its candidate Eshwar Khandre retained the seat he had won in 2008 and 2013 but with a considerably bigger margin. He polled 21,438 votes more than the BJP’s DK Sidram. In 2013, Khandre’s victory margin was 9,669 votes.

Incidentally, Khandre had last year asked Lingayats to resist any attempt to divide the community. But as several voters in Bhalki told in April, their vote would go to the Congress in gratitude to Siddaramaiah for supporting the community.

Other factors

There were many cases where the verdicts showed the complicated nature of the electoral battle, with some party leaders arguing that the Congress would have fared even worse without the Lingayat movement.

In Aurad, despite signs of support for minority religious status for Lingayats, the constituency elected the BJP’s Prabhu Chouhan for a third consecutive term, albeit with a narrower victory margin of 10,592 votes compared to 23,191 votes in 2013.

In Bidar South – the venue for the Lingayat mega rally in July – the main contest was between Bandeppa Kashempu, a Kuruba leader of the Janata Dal (Secular), and Dr Shailendra Beldale, an influential Lingayat leader of the BJP, with the Congress’ Ashok Kheny coming in third. Kashempu, who had opposed Lingayat attempts to obtain backward class certificates, defeated Beldale by 12,742 votes.

But Hubli-Dharwad Central saw a contest between two Lingayat candidates with BJP veteran Jagadish Shettar defeating the Congress’ Dr Mahesh Nalwad. Shettar has held the constituency (formerly Hubballi-Rural) for nearly two and a half decades now.

The Congress’ Shamanur Shivashankarappa, a Lingayat, was elected for a third term from Davangere South, another constituency with a sizeable Lingayat presence. However, Shivashankarappa had opposed his party’s demand for minority religious status for the community. On Tuesday, his victory margin dropped from 40,158 votes in 2013 to 15,884 votes.