This Karnataka Election Is All About Which Party Solves The Caste Equation Better

Posted by Varun Maturkar in Politics, Staff Picks
May 4, 2018

Every election has a tone. The Gujarat election rang of the Patel agitation, demonetisation, and GST. The 2014 General Elections had the tone of Modi wave.

The upcoming Karnataka Assembly election is all about caste calculus, about Karnataka statehood, and the charisma of local politicians, or so it seems. The ideal issues of unemployment, women’s safety, GDP or corruption – which were talking points during the recently concluded elections in Gujarat or Tripura — are missing from discussion, as both the major political fronts (BJP and INC) have failed to talk about them.

Even though incumbent chief minister Siddaramaiah sometimes praises himself for the development of Karnataka, he refrains from making far-flung claims, perhaps with the fear of it back-firing. On the other hand, PM Modi also isn’t talking of development, note-ban, and GST in his campaign, like he did in UP and Gujarat elections.

If caste-arithmetic is indeed the math that will decide the result of this election, it will be interesting to watch what this result is. From where the pieces of this number-game are right now, we can guess the result to be a hung assembly, as the opinion polls seem to be predicting. A dive into these numbers and their implications follow.

Caste Census Turmoil

CM Siddaramaiah is commonly called an AHINDA leader. AHINDA is an acronym for Alpasankhyatara, Hindulida, and Dalit (minorities, backward castes, and Dalits).

In 2015, the Siddaramaiah government launched a Social and Education Survey in the state, commonly known as the caste census, with the motive of gathering data about those who are still backward both educationally and socially, and for helping the administration in framing programmes that are inclusive of all sections of society.

The results of the caste census haven’t yet been released by the government. CM Siddaramaiah earlier said that he would release the census data at an appropriate time. According to reports, the Chief Minister told the state’s Legislative Council that the government was yet to receive the report from the Backward Classes Commission.

“The caste census has been completed and it is being analysed. We have also sought the opinion of the commission (State Backward Classes Commission) on ways to increase the percentage of reservation from the current 50% to 70%, on the lines of 69% reservation currently practiced in Tamil Nadu. Once we get that report, we will release the survey report also,” the incumbent CM has earlier said.

Statistical data believed to be the findings of this Social Economic census, however, was broadcasted by local media outlets in 2016. The leaked data claimed that Lingayats and Vokkaligas form 9.8% and 8.16% respectively of the Karnataka population, countering the claims that they are numerically strongest in the Kannada society.

If the leaked data, which may be inaccurate, is to be believed, the Dalits and Muslims are numerically the largest vote bank, with 18% and 12.5% share in population respectively, which may benefit the incumbent AHINDA leader.

The data will have an effect on the elections irrespective of the government’s denial of its authenticity, because it was circulated amongst the Karnataka masses. It had already disturbed the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, who have largely occupied the CM’s seat. And it appears it has consolidated the upper caste vote without any guarantee that the backward caste vote will consolidate to protect the AHINDA CM.

However, Siddaramaiah hit a masterstroke by granting a separate religion tag to Lingayats, which might disturb this upper caste consolidation.

Lingayat Separate Religion Tag

The Lingayats are followers of Kannada philosopher and poet Basavanna and are monotheists, who believe in the Shiva Lingam as a form of universal energy rather than an idol. After the death of Basavanna, the Lingayat culture was mixed with that of upper caste Shaivites called Veershaiva. In due course of time, most of the Lingayats started practising the Brahminical ways of religion, which practically mixed them with other Hindus.

In order to protect their 800 years’ old tradition, many Lingayat leaders and seers have been campaigning for a separate religion tag more vociferously since last year. Lingayat leaders of the Congress in Karnataka, such as M.B.Patil, Vinay Kulkarni, Prakash Patil, and H Basavaraj, have supported the movement since then. The party had lost favour with the community after Veerendra Patil, Karnataka CM from the community in 1990, was ousted by Rajiv Gandhi.

The movement has reached another milestone with the recommendation of a separate religion tag for Lingayats by the Karnataka government. Now the ball is in the court of the Union Government, and it has to decide whether to accept the suggestion of the Karnataka government. It is unlikely that the pro-Hindu party will support the Congress-ruled Karnataka’s demand. Amit Shah has said that he will take a stand on the demand after the polls.

Ironically, both parties have played for a side other than they are on currently. In 2013 the UPA government rejected the same demand citing infringement on the rights of Lingayat SCs. The current state BJP President B S Yeddyurappa was apparently a supporter of a separate religion tag for Lingayat-Veershaivas when he floated the KJP in 2013.

Unlike Yeddyurappa’s past demand for Lingayat-Veershaiva separate religion tag, the move of the Siddaramaiah government involves only separate Lingayatism, excluding Veershaivas from them. Only those Veershaiva-Lingayats who believe in Basavanna’s ideology will be granted a separate tag, the state government’s notification says. Even though Lingayats are different from Veershaivas, BJP leaders regularly berate the Congress government for dividing those sects.

After the rise of Yeddyurappa, Lingayats were typically BJP supporters. When Yeddyurappa was out from BJP for a brief period of time, his independent outfit KJP had a vote-share of 9.79%, and his party was instrumental in denting the prospects of BJP in Lingayat-dominated constituencies. This shows that Lingayats have a great electoral deal with Yeddyurappa. But the Congress government’s move is likely to leave both Yeddyurappa and Lingayat voters in a dilemma.

Religious seers also haven’t been unified in their support of a party, which could further complicate this dilemma. Some of the seers have chosen to remain silent,while others have asked the central government to support the state government’s proposal. Although it is very difficult to predict the mind of Indian voters, seeing the current developments, we can arrive at the conclusion that the Congress is going to eat a portion of the BJP’s Lingayat pie.

Veershaivas on the other hand are totally furious with Siddaramaiah and his move of separating Lingayatism, as they are seeing it as an attempt to divide Shaivite ideology. Moreover, if the leaked caste census data is true, which claims Lingayats are just 9.8% of the total population, the LIBRA (Lingayat and Brahmin) vote arithmetic of the BJP is not going to give it the result it expects on the other side of this calculation.

Vokkaliga Anger

The Vokkaligas are a cultivator and landlord caste, and influential leaders like former PM HD Deve Gowda, former CM SM Krishna, union minister DV Sadananda Gowda, and state minister DK Shivakumar belong to the Vokkaliga caste. They are also the last resort of the BJP and the only resort of JD(S), and may help them in improving and retaining their Vokkaliga vote-tally respectively.

This is because the leaked data says Vokkaligas are just 8.16% of the Karnataka population, contrary to the claims of 12-15%. The data has created an impression that Siddaramaiah has neglected some sub-castes of the Vokkaligas. As MJ Vinod, apolitical science professor, told the Deccan Herald, “The Vokkaliga anger seems to be reaction to the fact that their officers were not given some posts they were expecting.”

Another issue on which the Congress hurt the Vokkaligas is that the CM is said to have appeased the people of his caste, the Kurubas. Siddaramaiah wants to give ST status to his community, which OBC Vokkaligas may not like.

Electorally the Vokkaligas have been with the JD(S) in Southern Karnataka and with Congress in other parts of state. Even though the Congress claims Vokkaligas do not vote on caste lines, this time they may go against the party because of their recent consolidation against it. That doesn’t mean they will go with the BJP. They might sail with JD(S) as the Deve Gowda family is from a Vokkaliga caste.

For the BJP, SM Krishna, the former CM who joined the party last year, may be helpful in cornering Vokkaliga votes where JD(S) is weak. BJP is also bringing Yogi Adityanath to Karnataka to woo Nath-panthis who are a major part of Vokkaliga social structure.

Sadananda Gowda on the other hand belongs to the coastal Karnataka region, where people generally vote on religious lines than on caste lines. He has no influence in the Central And Southern Karnataka region where Vokkaligas are numerically strong.

The Dalit Divide

The Dalits form about 17% of the Karnataka population according to the 2011 census. In Karnataka there are two sections of Dalits: the “left” group of Dalits with castes such as Madiga and Aadijamabava and the “right” group of Dalits with castes such Chalavadi and Holeya. Their exact share in population is not known, but the “left” group is said to be numerically stronger than the “right” group.

Both the groups leaned towards the Congress traditionally, but that is changing or might have already changed. Currently, the Madigas allege that the Congress is giving more importance to the “right” by giving more tickets to them. Moreover, influential Congress leaders like G Parameshwara and Mallikarjun Kharge belong to this faction of Dalits. Add to that the matter of internal reservation, which was proposed by the BJP in 2012 but then given to a committee by Siddaramaiah an year later. The Madigas saw this as a ploy to delay the plan.

Owing to this rivalry between the two groups, the “left” group seems to be leaning towards the BJP. According to the Dalit seer Madhara Chennaiah, BJP has promised internal reservation to Madigas, and in return the Madhara Chennaiah mutt of Madigas has pledged its support to the party. This mutt has a large influence over the projected 1.5-crore-strong Madiga community, which may break the stereotype of united AHINDA vote for Congress.

Moreover, the spat between the seer and social welfare minister H Anjaneya has worsened the situation for Congress. Similarly, the rise of B Sriramulu, and the speculation that there might be a Deputy CM post for him, may help in breaking the Dalit vote bank to the benefit of the BJP.

The silver lining for Siddaramaiah government here are schemes  like Anna Bhagya (free distribution of food-grains) and Karnataka Anila Bhagya (free LPG connections), which may help them to win at least a portion of the vote bank.

With the LIBRA (Lingayat-Brahmin) vote bank of BJP undecided, the Vokkaliga vote bank possibly taking a new turn, and the AHINDA formula of Siddaramaiah getting divided, it isn’t surprising to see that most of the opinion polls predict a photo-finish, although the Congress seems to be getting a few seats more than the BJP.

Opinion and exit polls aside, the Indian voter is mostly silent and unpredictable. The result of this math, however, will definitely help explain where they are headed.

The author is a part of the Youth Ki Awaaz Writers’ Training Program.