Karnataka elections: Uncertain caste equations

Karnataka elections: Uncertain caste equations

The elections in Karnataka are bound to be tough and bitter for all the parties and contestants. The caste dynamics and equations in the forthcoming elections will be crucial as mainstream political parties attempt to create new caste permutations and combinations to maximise their electoral fortunes. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in April 2015 commissioned a socio-economic caste census - the first since 1931 - which remains confidential, but for some selectively leaked nugget that suggested that the Lingayats and Vokkaligas are no longer the largest communities in the state, which has major political and electoral consequences.  

Today, the Dalits constitute 17% of the electorate, with a demographic base of 1.43 crore, which is perhaps good news for Siddaramaiah. The new JD(S)-BSP-NCP alliance could partially eat into the Congress bastions. Caste equations and local factors can vary. However Dalits, minorities and the backward classes continue to form the backbone of the Congress vote bank. For the Congress, therefore, the challenge is to retain that vote bank.  

The BJP has traditionally used the Lingayat-Vokkaliga-Brahmin combination, where the Brahmins are under 2% of the electorate. Perhaps the scenario has now changed, with the leaked caste census statistics. Siddaramaiah's strategy is to facilitate the demand of a section of the Lingayats for recognition as a separate religion to split the BJP's vote bank. The Lingayats constitute the largest chunk of that vote bank.  

While it is too early to predict if Siddaramaiah's strategy will succeed, he has been well advised not to overplay the Lingayat card as it could backfire in the polls. It has resulted in a massive rift within the Lingayat-Veerashaiva community. The JD(S) has not much to gain or lose in this battle of wits.  

The BJP is also changing its strategy to target the Dalit vote. Some surveys suggest that segments of the Dalits are moving away from the Congress to the BJP. The strategy now targets the Lingayat-Dalit-Brahmin combination. The saffron strategy is not to garner all the Dalit votes, rather to get around 15-20%, along with a relatively large percentage of Brahmin and OBC votes, besides the traditional Lingayat vote. The party therefore seeks to woo the Vokkaliga community, too. A clear mandate would require winning the magical figure of 113 seats in the 224-member assembly. Moreover, the BJP has a prestige issue on hand, having captured power in 2008 only to squander it, with the state witnessing three chief ministers till 2013.  

Some indications suggest that the BJP and JD(S) are already sending feelers to one another on the post-poll possibilities. The BJP is attempting creation of new caste combinations other than the Lingayats who, anyhow, are traditionally pro-Hindutva. However, considering that many Lingayats had voted against the party in the April 2017 Nanjangud by-election, nothing can be taken for granted.  

Apart from the caste factor, development work and, at times, the sympathy factor also matter, as evident from the April 2017 Gundlupet by-election. Eating into the strongholds of the JD(S) fortress is clearly a part of the strategy. The leaked caste census details indicate that the Lingayats are down from 19% to 9.8% and the Vokkaligas from 12% to 8.16%. Therefore, the challenge is to make the party more acceptable to the Vokkaligas. Amit Shah even met senior priests of the Adichunchanagiri Mutt, the Vokkaliga spiritual headquarters.

For Kumaraswamy to return to power depends on the JD(S) decision over an alliance with the BJP or the Congress. Though he has spoken of the need for fresh polls in case of a fractured verdict, the possibility of the JD(S) playing the role of kingmaker cannot be ruled out. As for Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, his push for AHINDA merits consideration. Today, the advantage he enjoys is that the high command is weak and the Congress is virtually on oxygen. The Karnataka verdict is critical to the resurgence of the Congress in the country as a whole. Moreover, leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge, Janardhan Poojary, DK Shivakumar and G Parameshwara are not in a position to rival Siddaramaiah at this point of time.  

The BJP strategy is perhaps to garner a substantial number of seats through the Lingayat-Vokkaliga-Brahmin- Dalit-OBC combine. It would possibly leave the JD(S) with little option but to join the BJP in the process of government formation. The option to seek a fresh mandate in the event of a fractured one, as the JD(S) leadership suggests, does not seem to be viable and pragmatic. The BJP, of course, would have learnt its political lessons from the 2006-2007 experience with the JD(S). Overall, the BJP seeks to poach from Congress the vote banks while the latter attempts to reciprocate the move. Whether this will turn out to be Siddaramaiah's electoral trump card or Waterloo, only time will tell.  

Besides the caste factor, the BJP plans to capitalise on the anti-incumbency aspect, the Modi magic and even on Congress defectors. For the BJP, defection politics has not necessarily worked in Karnataka. It needs to formulate a strategy to make anti-incumbency work in its favour. The BJP's problem is that it has a vibrant and dynamic cadre but not a very endearing leadership at the helm of affairs in Karnataka. Though the NaMo factor can make a difference, yet its dividends have to be earned when it comes to Karnataka. Perhaps the BJP has learned some lessons from the Nanjangud and Gundlupet by-elections.  

While the BJP and Congress are the two major players, the JD(S) could eventually turn out to be the kingmaker if it manages to garner between 40-50 seats. Caste is a dominant yet not the only factor that influences electoral outcomes. Electoral politics is uncertain because caste groups do not necessarily vote en bloc for any particular party. That's why the parties are compelled to experiment with caste equations and realignments which determines their victory or defeat.

(The writer is a Professor & Dean (Arts), Department of Political Science, Bangalore University, Bengaluru)

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