The Karnataka cabinet's decision to remove four per cent reservations in jobs and educational institutions for Muslims under the OBC quota and shifting them to a different pool is seen as a decisive attempt by the BJP to build a Hindutva narrative on top of its caste arithmetic.
The fact that the decision was taken weeks before the state election bolsters the view that it could become an important, if not central, issue for the BJP in its campaign. Union Home Minister Amit Shah's comment that "reservations based on religion are unconstitutional" at his rally in Bidar only sets the tone for the state leadership to focus on quotas.
While communal polarisation is not new to Karnataka - coastal Karnataka and large parts of Mumbai-Karnataka regions are considered firm Hindutva territory - the central political theme of the BJP is built around its appeal amongst the Lingayats, a Hindu sect founded by the 12th Century social reformer Basavanna, which forms the state's largest population block.
In the 1990s, the BJP experimented with issues like the Hubbali Idgah Maidan controversy and Baba Budanageri, but hardline Hindutva could not take off in the absence of a strong caste/social base in a state driven by that narrative. Since then, the communal narrative has been at best sporadic, and confined to pockets of controversies like the debate around Tipu Sultan, the legendary 17th century Mysore king, or the ban on Hijabs.
So, does the reservation decision and the subsequent statements mean the party has made a decisive decision to embark on a Hindutva narrative in Karnataka? If so, why?
To answer this, it is important understand the limitations the caste and sect-based realities impose on the ruling party.
Former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, a Lingayat, was instrumental in building the BJP's Lingayat base. Once strongly with former Chief Minister S Nijalingappa when the Congress split during the Indira Gandhi years, the Lingayats moved towards the Janata party in the 1980s. After the disintegration of the Janata movement, the BJP built a base that was instrumental in its Karnataka success.
However, the electoral dividends from this narrative are maxed out and the party has failed to graduate from a decisive single largest party to winning a majority on its own. The BJP under Yediyurappa has had to depend on independents and defections from other parties to get past the 112-seat mark in the 224 seat State assembly.
There are two key reasons for this. First, the OBC Vokkaliga caste - the second largest population block concentrated in the Old Mysore region of the state - have consolidated firmly behind the Gowda family-run Janata Dal (Secular) in the last two decades. The second is a time-tested social coalition of all other voting groups called Ahinda that was built as a counter to the Lingayats and Vokkaligas.
Much like the KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) social coalition in Gujarat, Ahinda - Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits - was built in the 1970s by former Chief Minister Devraj Urs of the Congress. Siddaramiah, who is the Congress's top leader in the state, is a strong Ahinda leader.
Karnataka broadly splits into Lingayat versus Ahinda or Vokkaliga versus Ahinda seats; there are very few Lingayat versus Vokkaliga seats.
This translates into Congress versus JD(S) seats in the Vokkaliga caste bastion in districts like Mandya and Hassan, where the Lingayats get isolated, and Congress versus BJP in other parts of the state. As long as the narrative is on these lines, the BJP can't break into constituencies dominated by a Vokkaliga versus Ahinda narrative.
In a parliamentary election, the JD(S) vote seems to transfer to the BJP, leading to huge sweeps for the ruling party, but in a state election the caste vote remains with the regional party that dominates it. This is precisely what the BJP hopes to break with a Hindutva push.
BS Yediyurappa was the coalition builder who kept away from the communal narrative as that would alienate him from post poll allies or those defecting from other parties. The constant show of respect to Yediyurappa by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah is to ensure there is no weakening of the party's Lingayat hold or the old narrative. At the same time, issues like reservation will bolster the Hindutva push. Essentially, a new narrative on old foundations.
It is important to note that the four per cent taken away from the Muslims has now been allotted as two per cent each to the OBC Vokkaliga caste and the Veerashaiva Lingayat sect, both major electoral blocks in the state. So, the decision seems to have three objectives - To create a Hindutva narrative, to appease the party's traditional Veerashaiva Lingayat vote base and to break into the Vokkaliga caste vote.
Election results will reveal if this strategy is successful, but for the BJP, it simply needs to work if the party wants to grow more in Karnataka. The strong caste affinity and social coalitions that have lasted over three decades may not give way easily.
(TM Veeraraghav is the Executive Editor, BQ Prime.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.