Why the Choice Between 'Hindutva' and 'Lingayat' Led to BJP's Defeat in Karnataka

The BJP has paid a price for banking too much on the one dominant community, the Lingayats. This is very much against the party’s decade-long game plan, adopted elsewhere in India.

For a party which claims to espouse the cause of Hindus of India and abroad to have relied so heavily on one caste group to win a state election was in itself a self-defeating strategy. This was a weakness the opposition exploited.

Karnataka is the second state which the Congress has snatched from the Bharatiya Janata Party in just five months. In December 2022 the rag-tag army of the Congress dealt a severe blow to the powerful war machine of the saffron party in Himachal Pradesh. This had happened when Rahul Gandhi did not campaign in the state at all — he was busy in Bharat Jodo Yatra — whereas Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like in Karnataka, led from the front.

The BJP has paid a price for banking too much on the one dominant caste, the Lingayats. This is very much against the party’s original game plan, adopted elsewhere in India in the last one decade.

Be it in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Maharashtra, the BJP has succeeded in pitching a majority of social groups against politically influential caste groups like Jats, Yadavs, Jatavs, Marathas.

In Karnataka it did just the opposite.

Also read: How Karnataka’s Lingayat Community was First Hinduised and Then Hindutvaised

It put almost all the eggs in one basket and thus eased the task of its main rival party in gathering under one umbrella many other communities. Lingayats, who form some 15-16% of the state’s population, cannot alone ensure a victory. At the same time by changing its gear, the BJP made it known that now it does not fully trust its own Hindutva card.

Now it has rather unwittingly revealed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is losing his magical touch. BJP has to fall back on the very same caste politics for which it has always criticised other parties.

What the party failed to realise in Karnataka is that in the last several years, it had gone too far in keeping Lingayats in good humour. No doubt the Lingayats have had a strong presence in Karnataka politics even before the advent of Narendra Modi. But ever since the last assembly election, the party revolved its activities too much around the Lingayat factor. Just after the 2018 polls, B.S. Yediyurappa was hurriedly installed as the chief minister, even though BJP had won only 104 out of 224 seats.

As he failed to prove majority on the floor of the House, the governor (after the intervention from the Supreme Court) was left with no option but to invite H.D. Kumaraswamy, a Vokkaliga, to head the Janta Dal (Secular)-Congress government. But the saffron party did not sit idle. A year later the BJP top brass engineered a unique type of split by wooing 17 MLAs of the ruling combination.

The government was brought down and Yediyurappa was once again made the chief minister and that too at the age of 76. The party’s cut off of 75 was relaxed for him. Two years later, he had to bow out of office following serious allegations of corruption levelled not only by the opposition parties but also by some BJP leaders.

A 2013 reprise

The situation was somewhat similar to 2011 when Yediyurappa was compelled to resign after his government was indicted by the Lokayukt. He later floated his Karnataka Janata Paksha and in the process ensured the defeat of the BJP in 2013 election.

However, the BJP bounced back in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, winning 17 out of 28 seats. But that was possible only because Yediyurappa returned to the party fold in January 2014. Had he not re-joined the BJP and merged his KJP with it the outcome would not have been so good.

After the 2013 experience the BJP did not want to antagonise Lingayats. Therefore, it replaced Yediyurappa with another Lingayat. Basavaraj Bommai, a relatively new entrant into the party, was made CM. This further intensified the infighting, which came on the surface at the time of distribution of tickets. Former chief minister Jagadish Shettar and deputy CM Laxman Savadi, both Lingayat, were denied tickets. They were immediately welcomed by the Congress which made them candidates.

Also read: Karnataka: BJP Putting Hindutva on Backburner Is Proof of Electoral Significance of Lingayats

The extraordinary attention paid to the powerful Lingayat community by the BJP prompted the other relatively weaker sections of the society – the Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims – to drift towards the Congress. The Vokkaligas, who comprise about 12-13%, had in former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda a formidable leader. But the decline in JD(S) votes suggest that a section of the Vokkaligas preferred the Congress, which had in D.K. Shivkumar an influential leader of this community.

The other problem with the BJP is that a section of Lingayats do not consider themselves Hindu. It was only on February 12, 2023 that Akhila Bharat Lingayata Samanvaya Samiti said that they would vote for the political party that comes forward to support their demand for separate religious status.

Not only that, Yediyurappa, even at the height of election campaigns, kept himself away from the party’s attempt to polarise the society. In fact, he rejected the hijab and halal debate and said that Muslims and Hindus should live like brothers and sisters. Even Bommai does not have a hardline Hindutva image.

Organisational mess

Finally, the Karnataka results this time might have been different had the BJP central leadership not created a mess in the state unit. It might have succeeded in installing its government in 2019, but the whole toppling exercise plunged the state unit into organisational turmoil. The line between loyalists and turncoats were blurred. While dedicated workers were left high and dry the
opportunists rose in ranks.

As the BJP had played this same game in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, its defeat in Karnataka may have an impact in these two states which go to polls later in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

It is true the BJP won the May 2019 Lok Sabha polls, though it lost Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to the Congress only five months before, in December 2018. But the scenario has changed drastically since then. The saffron party is terribly alone and even its most trusted friends, Shiromani Akali Dal, Janata Dal (United) and Shiv Sena have parted ways with it. There are, in all, 101 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab, Bihar and Maharashtra.

Also, barring Gujarat, Assam and Uttar Pradesh organisationally the state units of the BJP are in a disarray. The Karnataka verdict has made the task further difficult. In Lok Sabha polls in the state, the BJP may not do well as Yediyurappa has, for all practical purposes, retired. He took interest in these assembly poll because his son was contesting. The saffron party won 25 seats in 2019 Lok Sabha poll. But even before Satyapal Malik’s disclosure, it was a known fact that the Pulwama terrorist attack aided the BJP’s cause significantly.