Wary of electoral implications, political parties in Karnataka seem to have toned down on the contentious issue of "religious minority" status to the dominant Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats in the run-up to the May 12 Assembly polls.
After having taken a huge gamble despite sharp divisions within the Siddaramaiah government in an apparent move to take away a significant slice of the Lingayat/Veerashaiva vote bank that has largely stayed with the BJP, the ruling party is now treading cautiously on the issue.
Lingayats/Veerashaivas are said to form about 17 per cent of the population, wielding a decisive clout in about 100 constituencies, particularly in north Karnataka. Karnataka Assembly has 224 members.
Congress turns cautious
The Congress that heavily invested on the issue, with a few cabinet Lingayat ministers themselves spearheading the movement demanding a "separate religion" tag, is now cautious as it fears that the issue could swing either way for the party, as it has been accused of dividing the Hindu community.
Opposition from influential 'pancha peethas' (five Veerashaiva mutts) and a sense of scepticism about the nature of benefit that the community may get on being granted religious minority status, has also weighed in for Congress not to raise the pitch politically.
Interestingly, Congress ministers and leaders belonging to Veerashaiva community like Shamanuru Shivashankarappa, who have openly opposed the government decision, have also now gone silent on the issue.
The state cabinet had on March 19 decided to recommend to the Centre grant of religious minority tag for the Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats.
The state government's decision was based on the report of an expert committee that had recommended considering grant of recognition as religious minority to the Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats (Believers of Basava Tatva (philosophy). Basaveshwara was a 12th century social reformer.
Subsequently, the Karnataka minorities welfare department notified the Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats as a religious minority, but said it would come into effect after the Centre's approval to the state recommendation.
Speaking to PTI recently, Karnataka Congress Working President Dinesh Gundu Rao said the party has nothing to do on the issue of religious minority status to Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats, and it will not make much impact in the polls.
Terming it is a "community issue," Rao said the chief minister has followed procedure following the demand from the community.
BJP keeping cards close to chest
On the other hand, the principal opposition BJP, that sees the move to grant religious minority status as an attempt to eat into its vote share is yet come clearly with its stand.
Keeping the cards very close on the issue, BJP national president Amit Shah has visited over 10 Lingayat mutts during his recent tours in the state, which is largely seen as an attempt to keep the community support intact.
JDS remains non-committal
The third major political player in Karnataka, the JDS, too has largely remained non-committal on the issue, though, Basavaraj Horatti, one of the senior leaders of the party hailing from Lingayat community was part of the movement demanding a separate religion tag.
Narayana A, who teaches Political Philosophy and Indian Politics at Azim Premji University said, parties may have toned down as they have now realized it is a much more "complicated" issue.
"Whatever little Congress would have gained, it may lose because of it.. but finally how much impact the issue will have, depends upon constituency level dynamics," he said.
One thing the issue has done to BJP is that Yeddyurappa's image as Lingayat strongman may have taken a beating, he observed.
"What BJP will lose by not supporting the Lingayat cause will be confined only to Lingayat belt, but they may consolidate other votes," he said.
Will the issue impact poll results?
However, political analyst Narendar Pani feels the religious issue will have "some influence" on the May 12 assembly polls, and the clear picture will emerge only after the results are out.
The demand for a separate religion tag to Veerashaiva/Lingayat faiths has surfaced from the numerically strong and politically-influential community, amid resentment from within over projecting the two communities as the same.
One section led by Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha has demanded separate religion status, asserting that Veerashaivas and Lingayats are the same.
The other group wants it only for Lingayats as they believe that Veerashaivas are one among the seven sects of Shaivas, which is part of Hinduism. Of late, some Lingayats have also stated that they were open to having the Veerashaivas under their umbrella, but the Lingayat nomenclature was non-negotiable.
Parallels have also been drawn equating Lingayat movement to Patidar movement in Gujarat, Maratha stir in Maharashtra and the Jat agitation in Haryana.