Battle for Karnataka: What strategy is the Congress working on to beat BJP?

Aditi Phadnis
What is the strategy that the Congress needs to adopt in Karnataka, to retain the only government it has in an important state?

The party has itself indicated the direction in which it wants to go. Caste is going to be central to its calculations. In this context, what did it do right in 2013 that propelled it to power?

It relied on the Ahinda formation, the coalition of Dalits, backward castes, and minorities (Alpa Sankhyata, Hindulida, and Dalit, hence Ahinda). Political analysts have often written about Dalit-backed or socialist political parties forming the Ahinda combination as an election strategy.

Consider the data below. It indicates (in the absence of a caste census which was commissioned by the state government but an authoritative version is yet to come out), how the party deployed its caste appeal. Despite the much-vaunted backward class credentials of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah who is from the shepherd caste, tiny but influential and not populous enough to threaten the other castes, the Congress fielded 52 candidates but could win only 28. It is the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes which came to its rescue, with a strike rate of over 60 per cent between the two of them.

The Vokkaligas did not vote for the Congress and the Muslims had their doubts about them.

Congress MLAs: The 2013 assembly elections

Caste Contested Won
Lingayat 44 29
Vokkaliga 44 19
Backward class 52 28
Muslim 19 9
Christian 2 2
Jain 3 2
Schedule Caste 36 17
Schedule Tribe 17 11

A lot has changed since then. Both BJP President Amit Shah and chief minister designate BS Yeddyurappa have been wooing Dalits with a passion. Yeddyurappa’s constant refrain is that while the Congress government has allocated money for the development of scheduled castes, (allocations amount to around Rs 60,000 crore) much of the money has been returned unutilized. Yeddyurappa has been spending time with Dalits in social gatherings – dining with them, participating in functions and feting them.

The Dalit bloc in Karnataka has 101 castes and they are categorised into five sections-touchables or Chalavadis (identified as right hand in Kannada to indicate they are touchables), untouchables or Madigas (who are called left hand to indicate they are untouchables), Bovis, Lambanis and 97 microscopic minorities. Though there is no proper study on the Dalit voting pattern, Chalavadis had drifted towards the Congress when Indira Gandhi was leading the party. The Madigas moved to the BJP in early 2000 along with Ramakrishna Hegde who made a special effort to identify politically with them.

However, despite the BJP’s best efforts, there are elements within it who don’t agree with this feting of Dalits. Anantkumar Hegde, 49, a five-term Lok Sabha lawmaker from the Uttara Kannada constituency in Karnataka, said at a public function in December: "Some people say the Constitution says secular and you must accept it. We will respect the Constitution, but the Constitution has changed several times and it will change in the future too. We are here to change the Constitution and we'll change it."

Many Dalit intellectuals interpreted that to mean that reservations may be done away with.

He also urged people to "claim with pride that they are Muslim, Christian, Lingayat, Brahmin, or Hindu". Party president Amit Shah was faced with questions over Hegde’s remarks and dismissed them, saying that was not the BJP’s view.

However, given that Ahinda could threaten the BJP, the list of nominees released by the party later this week will really reveal what its caste strategy is going to be.

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