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In Karnataka politics, caste matters
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April 21, 2008

When B S Yeddyurappa of the Bharatiya Janata Party was dumped by the Janata Dal-Secular barely a week after he assumed power, it was said it was not just a betrayal for the party, but of the entire Lingayat community.

The Lingayat community from which Yeddyurappa hails declared war against the JD-S which is headed by a Vokkaliga leader, terming it as the biggest betrayal of their lives. Amidst all the muck and drama of the worst ever political crisis witnessed by Karnataka, one thing became very clear -- caste equations would play and important role in the assembly election.

H D Deve Gowda, former prime minister and JD-S chieftain, saw that the support for Yeddyurappa was growing leaps and bounds. Initially Gowda took it easy as he had M P Prakash, a strong Lingayat leader, in his ranks. However, with Prakash parting ways and joining the Congress, Gowda realised that it was time he too used the caste card. Gowda decided to use the Vokkaliga card while making it clear that his community would rally behind the JD-S. The Congress too sensed that the elections would largely be fought on the caste factor and roped in S M Krishna, also a Vokkaliga leader, at the last minute.

At present in Karnataka, if one takes a close look at the manner in which the tickets are being distributed, it is clear that caste is being considered while handing out tickets.

The Lingayats and the Vokkaligas have been dominant in Karnataka since time immemorial and the tussle for power between these two communities is no secret. Karnataka has till date had five chief ministers from the Vokkaliga community, and six have been Lingayats. There were three CMs from the backward classes while Brahmins managed to hold the top spot in Karnataka twice. These statistics clearly show the dominance of both the Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka.

It is now evident that it these two communities will tip the scales once again in the forthcoming assembly elections. The Vokkaligas, who comprise 15 per cent of the 5 crore-odd population of Karnataka, are spread mainly across Bangalore, Mandya, Hassan, Mysore, Kolar and Chikamagalur. The Lingayats comprise 17 per cent of the population of Karnataka and are dominant in the central and northern parts of Karnataka.

The Dalits in Karnataka comprise 23 per cent of the population, Kurubas 8 per cent while the Muslims make up 10 per cent. The rest of the population comprises Christians and others.

Though the Dalits outnumber the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, it is the two communities that matter in the state's politics.

Over a period of time, it has been noticed that the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats vote for a leader and not a party. So if a chief ministerial candidate is from their community, they will vote for that person's party.

Moreover, there is a fear among both communities that the other will try and outsmart them. Hence a constant tussle between the two castes to ensure that their leader gets the top spot.

Taking this into consideration, parties nominate either a Vokkaliga or Lingayat as chief ministerial candidate. However, parties are also well aware that they will have to get their caste equations right.

The JD-S and the BJP, which are relying heavily on Vokkaliga and Lingayat votes, cannot be content doing just that. They will have to do more in order to ensure that some votes from the other castes too trickle in. During the last election, the JD-S wooed voters from the Vokkaliga, Muslim and Kuruba communities. The same combination was used during the 1994 polls which the party won by a huge margin. This combination worked for them in 2004 polls too where they managed over 50 seats in the 224-member assembly.

However, there will be a slight change in strategy this time round. Siddaramaiah, a prominent Kuruba leader, has quit the JD-S. A senior JD-S leader says the strategy to woo the Muslim votes is by portraying Abdul Azeem and Zameer Ahmed as leading candidates in the JD-S.

The BJP on the other hand is being projected as a party of Lingayats. They are aware that there is no competent Lingayat leader in the state other than B S Yeddyurappa. The last of the strong Lingayat leaders in Karnataka politics were J H Patel from the JD-S and Veerendra Patil from the Congress, both of whom went on become chief ministers.

M P Prakash is a part of the Jangam sub-caste of Lingayats which makes up 3 per cent of the community in Karnataka. Jangam basically is a priestly class within the Lingayats and the rest of the community do not identify too much with this sub-caste.

The BJP think-tank says they have realised their blunder during the 2004 elections when Yeddyurappa was not portrayed as the CM candidate. This resulted in several Lingayat voters staying away from the BJP. The BJP fell short of the majority mark by 23 seats. This time the party wants to capitalise on the fact that there is no other strong Lingayat leader in any other party. The BJP also plans to rely on the Brahmin votes. There is also a sizeable population from outside the state, especially in Bangalore and other urban areas. The BJP will try hard to woo them too.

The Congress on the other hand has decided that it would not portray a CM candidate as it would disturb its caste equations. Will it be Krishna, Mallikarjuna Kharge, a Dalit leader, or Siddaramaiah as the next CM if the Congress comes to power? This question even the Congress is not in a position to answer as of now.

The irony of the Congress in Karnataka is that if Kharge is portrayed as the CM candidate then the upper castes are unlikely to vote for them. If Krishna is in the fray then the Dalits will not vote for the party. Siddaramaiah is an assured vote puller in the Kuruba belt and there is a doubt whether he would make an impact with the rest of the electorate.

Krishna was brought in to woo the Bangalore voter, but he also has a very important job on hand. Since he is a Vokkaliga, a major chunk of the responsibility for breaking the vote bank away from the JD-S would be on him.

The Congress is also battling hard with the JD-S to grab a share of the Muslim votes, and plans to use the services of former Union ministers C K Jaffer Sharief and C M Ibrahim for the same.

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