This Article is From Mar 30, 2023

Opinion: Can BJP Crack The Vokkaliga Code In Karnataka This Time?

The BJP has never won a clear majority in Karnataka. It formed its governments through post-election partnerships with independents and defectors from other parties. The party's failure to cross the halfway mark on its own was blamed mainly on its low appeal in the Vokkaliga heartland, which includes the districts of Mandya, Bengaluru Rural, Hassan, Kolar and Chikballapura. The region has virtually dictated the political life of the Vokkaligas.

Members of the Vokkaligara Sangha founded in 1906, and numerous other community-minded individuals, besides the Adichunchunagiri Matha, the lone Vokkaliga mutt located in the Mandya district, helped mobilise the Vokkaliga identity across southern Karnataka over the last century.

Because of their efforts to push modern literacy and ensure higher representation in politics and bureaucracy, the Vokkaligas, a landed, meat-eating community, emerged as a dominant caste in Karnataka. That is, a numerically large and politically influential caste. They make up 11.5 per cent of the state's total population and, since Independence, a quarter of the elected legislators in the Karnataka assembly have been Vokkaligas on average. In the complex process of caste formation seen across India in the 20th century, the Vokkaliga community came to include dozens of sub-castes from across South Karnataka, all of whom were unlikely to have married into each other's communities even till the 1960s.

Over the last two decades, the BJP has been able to extract support from some sections of Vokkaligas in the urban centres of Bengaluru and Mysore, and in Malnad, Kodagu and Dakshina Kannada.

It's a different story in the Vokkaliga heartland, though, which solidly backs the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress. The BJP's overtures in this region have not yielded the results it would have hoped for. Besides offering ministerial berths, Rajya Sabha nominations, and directorships of government-run bodies to Vokkaligas, the ruling party has tried to prop up Vokkaliga leaders from among its legislators to gain support from the community.

DV Sadananda Gowda was made Chief Minister of Karnataka (2011-12) and R Ashoka and CN Ashwath Narayan have been Deputy Chief Ministers. But none of these political figures have the leadership stature among the Vokkaligas that is enjoyed by JD(S) leaders - former Prime Minister Deve Gowda and his son HD Kumaraswamy - or by Congress leader DK Shivakumar.

The BJP has chased other symbolic strategies to cultivate Vokkaliga support. In recent years, there has been much talk about the historically close ties between the Adichunchunagiri Matha and the Yogi Adityanath-headed Goraknath Matha, both of which claim affinity to the Natha sect.

Last year, in a hugely publicised event, state BJP leaders inaugurated a giant 108-foot statue of Kempegowda, the legendary 16th-century founder of Bengaluru, outside the city's Kempegowda International Airport. But the omission of Deve Gowda from an event that had Prime Minister Narendra Modi as chief guest didn't go down too well with the community and drew criticism that the BJP's plan was to monopolise all credit for installing the statue of a Vokkaliga icon.

Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister, recently inaugurated another statue of Kempegowda and one of Basavanna, the founder of the Lingayat community - the other dominant caste in Karnataka - in front of the Vidhana Soudha. The BJP government has also announced plans for a 108-foot monolith rock statue of Kempegowda in a park not far from the airport. Last month, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai launched work on a memorial in Bengaluru to popular Vokkaliga leader Ambarish, a filmstar and former Congress MP, and renamed a major road after him.

A few days ago, Chief Minister Bommai removed the 4% reservation that Muslims were entitled to under the 27% OBC quota and shifted them to the 10% Economically Weaker Section quota. The 4% quota that was freed up was said to pass on to the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, who had been demanding an increased share in reservations. (It later became clear that several other communities, including Jains and Christians, were also eligible for the 4% slot). Though the decisions are likely to be challenged in court for the lack of data to show that the Muslims are no longer socially and educationally backward, it nevertheless shows the BJP's intent to win over the two dominant castes while pitting them against Muslims.

Two decades ago, the BJP's bid to claim the Bababudangiri shrine in Chikmaglur - where both Hindus and Muslims have prayed for centuries - as a Hindu shrine, helped the party mobilise Hindu voters around that region, which included a sizeable number of Vokkaligas.

The Bommai government has announced a plan to build a large Rama temple on a hill in Ramanagara, a district with a large Vokkaliga population, which houses the constituencies of HD Kumaraswamy and DK Shivakumar.

Two years ago, a local Hindutva group tried to stop the Christmas celebrations at a school in Pandavapura in the Mandya district. Last year, a day after the Ugadi festival, when meat dishes are a must for the meat-eating castes of southern Karnataka including the Vokkaligas, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva groups called for boycotting Muslim-owned meat stalls. Efforts like these, however, have not found many takers.

Much electoral mileage was expected to follow the sudden appearance last year of Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, who, the BJP leaders claimed, had killed Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore. These characters, who don't find a mention in any of the British records of their final battle with Tipu Sultan, their most feared enemy in India, showed up last year in a Kannada play that villainises Tipu Sultan as an anti-Hindu king. Since then, an intense social media campaign followed to project these Vokkaliga characters as heroes and stoke anti-Muslim sentiments among the Vokkaligas and draw their electoral support for the BJP.

While historians denied that these Vokkaliga characters ever existed, and their visual images turned out to be those of two chieftains in Tamil Nadu, the campaign raged on with several Vokkaliga BJP leaders declaring them real and a BJP minister even announcing plans for a movie on them. At this point, Nirmalanandanatha Swamiji, head of the Adi Chunchungiri matha that is revered by all parties in Karnataka, intervened and said a campaign like this that lacked historical basis and vitiated community life must be halted. The words of the spiritual head of the Vokkaliga community, which placed intellectual and community ethics at the forefront, compelled the BJP leaders to call off their campaign. Will his intellectual seriousness and social wisdom mean a course correction for the nature of BJP's ideological campaign? More importantly, will they prove instructive for the Vokkaligas in not accepting the distorted claims aimed at their votes and choosing peace over discord?

(Chandan Gowda is Ramakrishna Hegde Chair Professor of Decentralization and Development at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.