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Karnataka: Caste in Politics Dominates But the Mosaic May be Changing

Tamanna Naseer
Apr 24, 2024
Vokkaligas and Lingayats dominate the caste-politics conversation, but the state has a substantial population of Muslims and Scheduled Castes. However, when it comes to ticket distribution the minority community is neglected in the general elections.

Tumkur/Bengaluru: As in other states of India, castes, sub-castes and casteism have dominated Karnataka’s electoral landscape and political history. More often than not, the road to power is paved with a raggedy tapestry of lacerated caste coalitions that are held together by political ambitions in the state.

In the ongoing 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has given tickets to three Vokkaligas and nine Lingayats out of the 25 seats in which the party is contesting, while the Congress has nominated six Vokkaligas and five Lingayats. The Janata Dal (Secular) gave tickets to two Vokkaligas out of its three seats. These two communities are seen as the most ‘dominant’ in the state’s politics and often are the fulcrum of any discussion around caste and power.

The state also has a substantial population of Muslims and Scheduled Castes. According to the 2011 Census, Muslims constitute 12.92% of the population in Karnataka. However, when it comes to ticket distribution, the minority community is neglected in the general elections in Karnataka.

Like the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress party has nominated only one Muslim candidate — Mansoor Khan from Bengaluru Central — and the BJP and JD(S) have not nominated any.

There are five SC reserved constituencies in which the Congress party has given tickets to two SC Left and three SC Right candidates, while the BJP has nominated two SC Left, one SC Right and one candidate belonging to the Lambani community. The JD(S) has fielded one Bhovi candidate in the only reserved seat – Kolar – which was given to it as a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The effect of prominent leaders

The influence of the Vokkaligas and Lingayat caste and sub-castes in Karnataka’s political landscape is evident in all the three regions of the state — Old Mysuru, North Karnataka and the coastal belt.

For the BJP, the strong support base of former chief minister and senior leader B.S. Yediyurappa has ensured that the Lingayat voters largely remain with the party in this general election. Yediyurappa belongs to the Banajiga Lingayat sub-sect (traditionally engaged in business). He has been the tallest leader of the community and so the BJP has been the party of choice for them. However, things seem to be in a flux recently after the BJP inexplicably replaced Yediyurappa with Basavaraj Bommai as chief minister in 2021.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Interestingly, Bommai also happens to be a Lingayat. This was a calculated move by the party to avoid upsetting the community. Since then, the party has been in an overdrive not to upset the apple cart.

Yediyurappa’s son B.Y. Vijayendra has been named as the Karnataka BJP president in November 2023 and another son, B.Y. Raghavendra, has been renominated  from the Shivamogga Lok Sabha seat despite opposition by local leaders like K.S. Eshwarappa, who has now been expelled from the party. This showcases the power and influence of one family over both the community and the BJP.

In comparison to Yediyurappa’s popularity, the impact of Congress Lingayat heavyweights like state minister M.B. Patil and senior leader Shamanur Shivashankarappa is limited to Bijapur and Davangere, respectively, and the regions surrounding these districts at most.

Unlike the Lingayats, the Vokkaliga population has traditionally supported the JD(S), and the Congress in some pockets.

In the 2024 general elections, a section of the Vokkaliga community seems to be siding with the Congress due to the increasing popularity of Karnataka deputy chief minister D.K. Shivakumar coupled with their disappointment with the JD(S) for aligning with the BJP.

Notably, special efforts are being made by both JD(S) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda and his son H.D. Kumaraswamy to sway the Vokkaliga community with an emotional appeal. It may be Deve Gowda’s last election as the party leader and for Kumaraswamy, it might be his final chance to salvage a sinking ship.

JD(S) has also boldly shifted away from “secular” narratives and has seamlessly adopted the themes of “national development”, “love jihad” and “Ram Temple”, and is relying almost completely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘image’ to help them sail through. As a result of the increasing grassroots mobilisation by the JD(S) leadership, some Vokkaliga voters who are still undecided might end up voting for the BJP-JD(S) alliance.

“The caste arithmetic isn’t a one-plus-one question. In the assembly election last year, we have noticed that the Congress has been able to make major inroads in the Vokkaliga vote base, unlike previously when we used to notice a one-third division between the Congress, JD(S) and BJP voters,” Sandeep Shastri, political observer and national coordinator of the Lokniti Network, said.

“Moreover, I’m not sure whether the efforts of the JD(S) and BJP leaders will actually work and the cadre and grassroots level supporters will agree (to support each other),” Shastri added.

In Karnataka, former chief minister Devaraj Urs who belonged to the backward Arasu community had made an attempt to mobilise the minorities, backward classes and Dalits and coined the term AHINDA in 1970s — which stands for Alpasankhyataru (minorities), Hindulidavaru (backward classes) and Dalitaru (Dalits).

With Siddaramaiah, a Kuruba leader, becoming the chief minister of the state in 2013 and 2024 and the increasing stature of Mallikarjun Kharge in national affairs, AHINDA politics has been reinvigorated in the state by the grand old party.

Siddaramaiah and other Congress leaders campaigning. Photo: Tamanna Naseer

Although Siddaramaiah represents the Varuna constituency which is a part of the Chamarajanagar Lok Sabha constituency, his influence is not limited to the Old Mysuru region only. Serving as a chief minister for the second time, Siddaramaiah has managed to become a mass leader in the state owing to his superior oratory skills, targeted and direct attacks at the Union government, and his refusal to move away from projecting himself as a backward class leader in general and a Kuruba politician in particular.

Also read: Prestige Battles In Karnataka: How This Southern State Might Dent BJP’s Prospects 

What is also noteworthy in Karnataka is the presumed division in Dalit votes, as Dalit Right are assumed to be backing the Congress party while the Dalit Left supposedly side with the BJP. Understandably, this hypothesis doesn’t always prove to be true. Those individuals who were traditionally engaged in shoe making using leather are commonly termed as SC Left whereas SC Right are not limited to any profession as such in the southern state.

The prominent SC Right Congress leaders in Karnataka include Kharge and state ministers H.C. Mahadevappa, G. Parameshwara and Priyank Kharge (Mallikarjun Kharge’s son). Former cabinet minister K.H. Muniyappa is a popular SC Left Congress politician from the state.

“The SC Left used to either vote for the Janata Dal or the Congress party in the past. When the Janata Dal split in the state, Deve Gowda started expressing his dislike towards (former chief minister) Ramakrishna Hegde’s followers so they couldn’t see a future in the JD (S). Even (Mallikarjun) Kharge didn’t like the old Janata Dal leaders and then (Govind) Karjol, K.V. Shanappa and Ramesh Jigajinagi joined the BJP as they were friends with late BJP leader Ananth Kumar. With these SC Left leaders jumping to the BJP, their voters also drifted towards the saffron party,” Rajshekhar Hatagundi, a senior political columnist, said.

Karjol was a deputy chief minister during Yediyurappa’s tenure as a chief minister in 2019. He lost the assembly elections from his home turf Mudhol in Bagalkot district last year. The BJP has fielded Karjol from the Chitradurga constituency replacing incumbent MP and Union minister A. Narayanaswamy. It is unclear whether the move will benefit the saffron party as Karjol is considered an “outsider” in this seat even by his own local party leaders. Moreover, Congress nominee B.N. Chandrappa who won the seat in 2014 and lost in 2019 also belongs to the SC Left community and hails from Mudigere in neighbouring Chikkamagaluru district.

Regional caste factors

In the Old Mysuru region, which comprises of 11 constituencies including Tumkur, Kolar and three Bengaluru seats — Bengaluru North, Bengaluru South and Bengaluru Central — the influence of OBC communities like Thigala (especially in Tumkur and Bengaluru) and Uppara (especially in Chamrajnagar) is not negligible, while there is a prominent Vokkaliga dominance in almost every constituency.

In the Bengaluru Central seat, for instance, where the Congress party has fielded Mansoor Khan against BJP’s P.C. Mohan who belongs to the Balija community, there is a major chunk of Muslims, Christians and Balija voters. Whereas Bengaluru South which is represented by BJP’s Tejasvi Surya is dominated by Brahmins along with a sizeable number of Muslim and Vokkaliga voters. The Congress nominee against Surya is Sowmya Reddy. In Bengaluru North also there’s a mix of Thigala and Vokkaliga voters among other caste groups.

Commenting on the vote transfer and retention of voters from a particular caste in the case of the BJP, Shastri pointed out that usually if the voters of a group shift towards the saffron party then the support is retained by the BJP in Karnataka, in particular. However, that might not be the case with respect to the Vokkaliga votes, since an assertive Congress is seen as a “contender and factor” now.

“The BJP has aligned with the Lok Shakti party in the past for the Lingayat votes. Once the vote base is transferred even due to a coalition in the BJP’s case it remains with them. So they have formed a coalition with the JD(S) for the Vokkaliga votes in the state, particularly in the Old Mysuru region. Now, it’s not easy to predict if there will be a vote transfer and even if there’s a transfer then retention will be difficult in this case. The Congress party is a contender and factor now with respect to the Vokkaliga votes,” Shastri said.

Also read: Infightings and Changing Trends — Navigating Karnataka’s Electoral Complexities

Coastal Karnataka has become a BJP bastion in contemporary times due to the support of communities like Bunts, Billavas, Thigala, Vishwakarma and Balija. The Muslim and Vokkaliga population is sparsely spread across Dakshina Kannada, Udupi Chikkamagaluru and Uttara Kannada Lok Sabha seats.

“S. Bangarappa was a Congress chief minister and was a stalwart in state politics. He belonged to the Bilava community. Due to differences with (former Congress chief minister) S.M. Krishna, Bangarappa joined the BJP around 2004 and the Bilava voters also shifted towards the BJP and remained with them,” Hatagundi said.

For all the three parties in the fray, a critical test will be in the 14 constituencies in North Karnataka — further divided into Middle Karnataka, Hyderabad Karnataka and Bombay Karnataka — which are large both in terms of geography and caste arithmetic with the major presence of different backward communities like Eedigas and Kurbas.

“There is a large chunk of OBC Kuruba and Eediga voters in the North Karnataka region. Due to Siddaramaiah’s leadership, the Kurubas will most likely support the Congress but the other non-Lingayat, non-Vokkaliga and non-Kuruba voters might side with the BJP since the Congress party is increasingly been seen as a party for the Vokkaligas and Kurubas,” Shastri said.

Shifting ground in Karnataka

Given the various caste equations coupled with the  machinations of political parties, Karnataka is a difficult place for any election observer to predict trends. It is as much a challenge for the local leaders, who have to constantly forge new alliances whilst the old ones get diffused.

The BJP-JD(S) alliance is a formidable coalition of castes and ideologies, with many even terming it as a natural alliance given the Lingayats supporting the BJP are concentrated in North Karnataka whereas the Vokkaligas who are with the JD(S) are concentrated in South Karnataka. However, this would be an oversimplification.

The Congress party with its AHINDA politics is also attempting to make an umbrella coalition in the state by wooing Vokkaligas in the South under the leadership of Shivakumar, and is also attracting some Lingayat votes by nominating candidates from influential, affluent and feudal Lingayat families.

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