This Article is From Mar 13, 2023

Opinion: Math + Chemistry In Karnataka's Caste-Driven Politics

The Old Mysore region, once a part of the Princely State of Mysore, is a big deal in the politics of Karnataka. This region, which accounts for close to half the MLAs of the state legislature, includes southern Karnataka and the Bengaluru region. Traditionally, it is a contest between the Congress and the Janata Party/Janata Dal.

Over the last two decades, the BJP has emerged as a key player in the Bengaluru region and has started making interesting forays into southern Karnataka. The Congress and the Janata Dal Secular (JDS) handed the BJP a golden opportunity to penetrate in the region when they formed an alliance during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP swept the region, barring a few seats that the Congress and the JDS were able to cling to.

Southern Karnataka has been a regular in the travel plans of the BJP's central leaders in recent months. Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped in at the weekend. It may be useful to record that the BJP's inability to secure a majority in Karnataka has much to do with Old Mysore. This region is made up of the dominant Vokkaliga caste and the non-dominant backward castes and Dalits. No electoral math for this region is complete without these influential caste groups. 

In recent years, the Vokkaliga vote has been split three-ways between the key players - Congress, BJP and JDS. The Lokniti-CSDS post poll data of past elections indicates that the JDS and the Congress would secure a major chunk of this vote, with the BJP corralling a small segment. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP did exceptionally well among the Vokkaliga voters.

The ruling party realises that its ability to swing the Vokkaliga vote is crucial to securing a majority. The BJP has assigned its frontline Vokkaliga leaders key regions to oversee during the campaign. The party's intense focus on Bengaluru, Tumkur, Mandya and Hassan needs to be viewed in this context.

The Vokkaliga community has been the main factor in keeping the JDS relevant in Karnataka politics. The JDS leadership is from this community, and it has pockets of influence in this region. After multiple splits in the party, the JDS now wins a huge chunk of its seats from this region. It faced a huge setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when it aligned with the Congress. Its patriarch, HD Deve Gowda, lost the Tumkur seat, considered to be a Vokkaliga stronghold. The coming elections will be a litmus test for the party to reassert its presence and at least retain its base in the region.

The Congress is making an all-out effort to pursue the Vokkaliga community. Its Karnataka chief, DK Shiva Kumar, is a Vokkaliga and his chief ministerial ambitions are hinged on his capacity to mobilise the votes of this dominant caste. In a straight contest with the BJP, the party is consciously projecting a Vokkaliga face in its top leadership spectrum. Shiva Kumar's ability to pull in votes is crucial to both his and the party's future. 

The non-dominant backward castes have always been a political force to reckon with, ever since D Devaraj Urs gave them a political voice and stature in the 1970s. Within all the three major political parties in the state, the non-dominant backward caste leadership has occupied key positions in the party as well in the cabinet, irrespective of who formed the government. During the 2013 Karnataka election, the "AHINDA" movement (alliance of non-dominant backward castes and Dalits) of Siddaramaiah helped galvanize support for the Congress and pushed it beyond the half-way mark. The Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey carried out during the 2018 state election indicated that the Congress's tally dropped sharply because of its sliding support among these groups. Siddaramaiah's aggressive campaign for the Congress as a former chief minister is aimed at winning back this vital group.

The BJP, too, is aggressively courting the non-dominant backward caste vote using multiple strategies. The focus on expanding the reservation pool and aligning this segment with the party's larger Hindutva agenda is part of this approach. As the BJP has had a traditionally strong presence among the Lingayats (the other dominant caste) the effort to build a new rainbow social coalition does have potential challenges. With its numerical strength, winning over a chunk of the community is crucial for a win, either by the Congress or the BJP.

The caste arithmetic is critical but political chemistry is equally so for cementing social coalitions. Parties that can successfully stitch up a caste coalition and seal it with strong political chemistry, will certainly have the edge.

(Dr. Sandeep Shastri is the National Coordinator of the Lokniti Network)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.