When Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah decided to turn upper caste Lingayats into a separate minority religious community on 19 March, it was hailed as a brilliant masterstroke that would have made Machiavelli proud.
The move was intended to splinter the Lingayat vote base of BJP, but a month later, Siddaramaiah and his Congress are not sure what impact it will have on the party in the Assembly election three weeks from now. In fact, indications are that Siddaramaiah is nervous about whether the whole thing will boomerang on the party.
Siddaramaiah thought that the promise of benefits that come with a minority religion status would make a significant section of the Lingayats grateful enough to back the Congress. The community, to which BJP's Karnataka president and chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa belongs, accounts for anywhere between 10 to 17 percent of the population. It has a significant presence in about 100 Assembly constituencies " about 70 of them in the northern Karnataka " of the state's 224 seats.
During the one month since the Siddaramaiah government took the decision, there has been feedback from the ground " surveys, internal assessments by parties and anecdotal evidence " which suggests that the average Lingayat is not exactly dancing with joy about it. How the Lingayats would vote in the end is still anybody's guess, but Congress leaders are beginning to admit that Siddaramaiah's adventure, which from the outset was thought to be a gamble fraught with political risks, might not pay off to the extent they had hoped, and may even backfire.
The most notable reaction from the Lingayats is that the whole thing is an election gimmick aimed at dividing their community and vote. The awareness among them that the state's decision has no meaning unless it is ratified by the Centre is gaining ground. Other responses reveal scepticism over the benefits that would accrue to them if and when Lingayatism is recognised as a minority religion. There is also utter confusion among some over what all this means.
The suspicion that Congress might be seen as a party that divides Hindus " which is what BJP says the offering of minority tag to Lingayats amounts to " is also gaining strength within the ruling party. Besides, Congress, despite public claims to the contrary, is apprehensive of the impact Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have in his final leg of campaigning in areas that include Lingayat-dominated northern Karnataka. The memories of Modi's last-minute coup in Gujarat Assembly election four months ago are still fresh.
The possibility of the pampering of Lingayats leading to consolidation of some other castes, or at least sections of them, behind the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), as argued in this article is also not being ruled out in Congress circles. The ruling party and its senior leaders now concede that they are simply not in a position to gauge the mood of Lingayats, three weeks before polling day.
In the circumstances, Siddaramaiah is doing the only thing he can: switch to a silent mode as far as the minority religion status for Lingayats is concerned. See for instance the Facebook post by Siddaramaiah on Basava Jayanti on 18 April. He paid glorious tributes to Basaveshwara, the 12th-Century founder of the Lingayat faith. He said he had taken oath as chief minister on Basava Jayanti day in 2013, ordered that Basaveshwara's photos be put up in government offices and even based his "Karnataka model of development" on the ideas of Lingayatism's founder.
It's fascinating, exhilarating and invigorating to know that Siddaramaiah swears by the ideals of Basaveshwara. By saying such sweet things he even manages to look like an oasis of profound wisdom and sanity in the wild desert of stupidity that's called politics. But Congress leaders don't miss the fact that when Siddaramaiah said all this he chose not to utter a single word about giving Lingayatism the label of a separate religion that his government had decided on a month ago.
Amit Shah has nothing to say either
It's not just Siddaramaiah who is clammed up on the issue of separate Lingayat religion. Even BJP president Amit Shah, who waxes eloquent on sundry issues targeting Siddaramaiah, is at a loss for words on the issue.
It has been said that silence speaks volumes. But the silence of both Siddaramaiah and Shah speak different things. In Siddaramaiah's case, it means that he wants to minimise the damage or the backlash that Congress attracts from other communities by appearing to mollycoddle the Lingayats. It means that it's better to be safe than sorry.
Wheres Shah hops from one Lingayat mutt to another, seeking the blessings of the community's seers, but saying nothing about a separate religion that the chief minister dangled. Shah's silence means: "We never said anything about it, did we?"
Thrown into a fix by Siddaramaiah's decision in the first place, BJP has never taken a categorical stand on whether the Lingayats must have a religion of their own or not. The party is not in the position to either support a separate religion or oppose it, and so opts for silence except to say that Siddaramaiah is breaking up Hinduism.
The only ones who will " and must " speak up on the subject are Lingayats themselves, and they will do so on 12 May by pressing the buttons of their choice on EVMs.