Karnataka Water Resource Minister DK Shivakumar called the Congress’ decision to recommend religious minority status for the Lingayat community before the Assembly elections in May a “major blunder”.

“We the people in politics and in government should never ever lay hands on the matter pertaining to religion and caste,” Shivakumar said on Wednesday, according to PTI. “It was a crime committed by our government.”

Shivakumar added that his party’s dismal performance in the state elections was proof that people did not like the move. “I would like to say that the peoples’ verdict [in Assembly elections] is proof that no government should never ever lay hands in religious matter,” he said. “We beg your pardon for the blunder committed by our government. Please pardon us wholeheartedly.”

The Congress had won 78 seats in the 224-member Assembly.

Earlier, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party had accused the previous Siddaramiah-led government of dividing people to gain political points. Shivakumar’s comments will now give ample chance to the saffron party to attack the Congress ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Shivakumar’s statement is also likely to trigger a rift within the Congress as former minister MB Patil said he would raise the matter in the party forum. “I don’t know in which context he spoke. We will discuss the matter within the party forum,” he said.

Patil, however, dismissed Shivakumar’s argument that the Congress suffered loss in the election because of the decision. “Let him [Shivakumar] introspect. We have to analyse how much votes we garnered in Hassan, Mandya and Vokkaliga belt. There isn’t any connection between Lingayat religion tag and Congress party.”

Lingayats, who are classified as Other Backward Classes, are considered the single-largest community in the state, with their population estimated at anywhere between 11.5% and 19%. The Veerashaiva community had opposed the Karnataka government’s decision and said the status should have been granted to the entire Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, not just the followers of Basavanna’s philosophy. Basavanna was a 12th-century Lingayat philosopher, poet and social reformer.