“I’ve made the BJP realise what it is without me,” roared former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa after the 2013 election. In 2012, Yeddyurappa, the most prominent leader from Karnataka’s powerful Lingayat community, formed the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) — a not so subtle attempt to destroy the electoral fortunes of the BJP by stealing away its core base of Lingayat voters. Reeling under accusations of corruption and illegal land deals, the central leadership all but forced Yeddyurappa to resign his chief ministership, leading to his vengeful defection. It worked. The BJP dropped to just 40 seats in the 2013 state election, down from 110 in the previous one.
This time, the KJP is gone and Yeddyurappa is back in the fold for the BJP as its chief ministerial candidate, and the working assumption was that the Lingayat community had returned to the BJP. That was until current Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah took advantage of a schism in the Lingayat community by distinguishing higher status Veerashaivas from other Lingayats, to whom he has granted “minority status”. As we travelled through Karnataka, we observed that predicting the voting behaviour of Lingayats is anything but straightforward.
To bring some data to the issue, we start by considering what would happen if Yeddyurappa brought every vote back with him to the BJP. Chart 2 compares the actual election results (in number of seats) by region with a model in which the vote shares of BJP and KJP are merged into a single party. Predictably, a combined BJP/KJP performs much better in Bombay, Central, and Hyderabad Karnataka where the Lingayat community is large in number — in these three regions, the BJP/KJP combine picks up 28 more seats compared to when the BJP and KJP contest separately. All told, in the hypothetical scenario of a perfect transfer of KJP votes to BJP, the Congress still wins 99 seats (instead of 122) while the combined KJP/BJP wins 75 seats (up from 46 when they are split), and the JD(S) holds steady at 35 seats (instead of 40). These numbers point to the differing geographic bases of the JD(S) and the BJP/KJP, while demonstrating the centrality of these three regions in determining the ultimate outcome in this election.
But the model of perfect vote transfer is far too simplistic. We hear in Bunder, the port area of Mangaluru, that there is dissension in BJP ranks as Yeddyurappa has brought his own workers back into the organisation. The politics of Siddaramaiah may also win over non-Lingayats who had voted for the BJP but are wary of a dominant Lingayat community.
There is also extraordinary complexity in the Lingayat vote. In the lush paddy fields outside Hirekerur town in Haveri district, a young Lingayat farmer told us that the implications of the minority status decision for Lingayats was unclear. “The impact of the decision would be more on the powerful Lingayat mutts that can gain state benefits and expand their reach than on ordinary people. You cannot assume that Lingayats as a whole will vote either way because of a decision like this.” In turn, he conceded, these mutts could “potentially influence the choices of Lingayat voters”.
The young man tells us that Siddaramaiah’s move, while not directly appealing to voters,is a higher level game: “Certain Lingayat maths share close relations with Yeddyurappa and the BJP. Siddaramaiah’s move gives options to those mutts aggrieved with the BJP patronage of other mutts.”
One prominent Bengaluru-based political watcher tells us, “The Lingayats work quietly, and we can never really tell what they will do.” When the Lingayats finally show their cards, they will decide this election.