Bengaluru: The decision of the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government to grant minority religion status to the influential Lingayat community was termed, by political pundits and the media, as a masterstroke aimed at splitting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) voter base in the run-up to the recently-held Karnataka assembly elections. However, this has now become a politically untouchable subject for all parties in the state, including the newly-formed coalition government.

The Congress government in March had decided to grant minority religion status to the Lingayats, believed to be the single-largest community in the state, in the hope that by ceding to the century-old demand the party would be able to draw a sizeable chunk of votes away from the BJP and retain power in the state. However, the issue, instead of delivering the expected result, led to differences of opinion within the Congress in the run-up to the polls.

“It has now become a psychological barrier," Harish Ramaswamy, political analyst and faculty at the Karnatak University, Dharwad, said of the issue.

More than the issue of according minority religion status to the Lingayats, the Siddaramaiah cabinet’s decision to introduce ambiguity by mentioning the Veerashaivas, who are considered a sub-sect, separately, led to widespread outrage in the state.

The impact of this was felt in the elections, with the Congress seat tally dropping from 122 in 2013 to 78 in 2018. The impact was also felt in Wednesday’s cabinet expansion. Some of the people involved in the movement were not able to retain their seats in the 12 May polls, while some who did win have been sidelined.

Prominent pro-separate minority religion leaders such as former water resources minister and Congress leader M.B. Patil and senior Janata Dal (Secular) leader Basavaraj Horatti were among those who lost out on cabinet berths. Even those who opposed the move, such as Shamanur Shivashankarappa and Eshwara Khandre of the Congress, did not get a ministerial post.

“There are certain people who made the suggestion (for according a separate religion status) and they are the ones who brought the party down," said one All India Congress Committee (AICC) member, requesting not to be named.

He said that the involvement of these people in the movement was the biggest factor, if not the only one, for them not being considered for ministerial posts.

One legislator who has been sidelined did not see any correlation between the issue of a separate religion and cabinet formation. However, others such as Horatti said that this was probably the biggest reason for them not being named as ministers.

“I never thought this was a factor but now it feels that it was the main reason," said Horatti, who is one of the senior most legislators in the Karnataka legislature.

Political analysts said that all political parties would now be wary of raising the issue. The perceived political dividend of getting the mass support of the Lingayats has also not accrued.

The subject has become untouchable for the Congress as the issue has not helped it, said A. Narayana, political analyst and faculty at the Azim Premji University.

“Along with those guys, we (the party) shouldn’t sink," said the AICC member cited above.

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