Bengaluru: The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government on Saturday got a major boost in the run up to the assembly elections after many important Lingayat seers of influential Mathas (monasteries) in Karnataka openly endorsed the party.

Mathe Mahadevi of the influential Basava Dharma Peetha in Kudalasangama said on Saturday that Siddaramaiah should be supported by the community. “This time, I don’t know about the others, but we should all support Siddaramaiah and his party," she said in Bengaluru on Saturday amid slogans like “Bharata Desha, Jai Basavesha" and “Lingayata Vyakthi, Bharatakke Shakthi".

The Forum of Lingayat Mathadipathis (monastery heads) met in Bengaluru on Saturday to express their gratitude to the state government and demanded that the centre also follow suit.

Though other seers were discreet in their endorsement of the incumbent government, the support of Mathe Mahadevi, one of the more influential spiritual leaders of the community, could give the Congress a much better fighting chance in the Lingayat dominated areas like Mumbai-Karnataka, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a strong hold.

With assembly polls due on 12 May, the Karnataka government’s decision on 19 March to grant minority religion status to the Lingayats, believed to be the single largest caste group in the state accounting for almost 15%, could well become its best political strategy to outplay the principal opponent, the BJP.

The seers hailed Siddaramaiah for not budging from his stand and granting the minority religion status despite the pressure mounted on him.

Sri Shivamurthy Murugha Sharana, head of the Murugha Matha on Saturday that it was “Sahakarakke Sahakara" or cooperation for cooperation, referring to its equation with the political establishment for granting it minority status. However, he added that Mathe Mahadevi’s comments were in her personal capacity, even though he conceded that he “can’t say everything in the open."

Lingayats wield considerable political influence in the state and have so far been seen as supporters of BJP and more importantly of B.S.Yeddyurappa, who hails from the same community. The decision to grant minority status was aimed at splitting the BJP’s vote to help the Congress retain power in Karnataka, one of the last states still under the party’s rule.

In a statement on Saturday, the seers also took on BJP national president Amit Shah who had earlier said that his party will not support the minority religion status for Lingayats.

The seers said that Shah had no official government post and his statements amounted to nothing.

In an embarrassing turn of events, Sri Shivakumara Murugha Sharanaru, head of the Murugha Matha in Chitradurga had on 27 March given the memorandum to Shah, when the latter visited the Matha to mobilise support for its own party.

Clearly outplayed by the Congress over the contentious issue, the BJP led by Amit Shah and its state president B.S.Yeddyurappa had visited influential Mathas like Siddaganga, Sirigere and Murugha Mathas among others to earn back the support of the community that has largely sided with the right.

The BJP had said that Siddaramaiah had tried to break up the Hindu community for electoral gains and mobilise the Veerashaiva Mathas, who have opposed the government’s decision

The original cabinet decision said that those Veerashaivas who believe in Basava Thathva (philosophy) will also be considered as Lingayats. By mentioning both Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats separately, the state cabinet chose to introduce some level of ambiguity into the original recommendation to pacify disgruntled Veerashaivas, who feared being left out of the separate minority religion movement led by the water resources minister M.B. Patil of the Congress party in Karnataka.

Though the Veerashaivas are small in number, the state government’s decision has split the community into two camps that has now turned political with them taking sides with the BJP or Congress.

The caste based Mathas in Karnataka, the number upwards of a few hundred, have a huge following and any endorsement from these institutions could brighten the chances of many candidates.

However, the seers said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a lot of respect for Basaveshwara, the 12th century social reformer, and that he should take the process to it logical end.

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