Yeddyurappa has forced the BJP’s hand and got a Lingayat to replace Sadananda Gowda as chief minister. That portends a brazenly casteist election and a fractured mandate ten months from now
Karnataka has just entered a frighteningly divisive phase. With Jagadish Shettar geting the chief minister’s position for being a Lingayat—BJP president Nitin Gadkari said so— other politicians are making vociferous demands for berths only on the strength of their caste.
With the BJP’s decision to replace Sadananda Gowda, a chief minister who faced no personal corruption charge, the party has antagonised his caste, the Vokkaligas. In fact, the change of guard is fuelling a frantic realignment of political forces on brazenly casteist lines.
The run-up to the 2013 assembly elections isn’t looking good from the perspective of the big parties. While B S Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu are giving sleepless nights to the BJP, the Congress is in disarray as it watches new caste formations threaten its traditional vote banks.
In numbers, recent estimates indicate that Dalits are the biggest bloc in Karnataka, followed by Lingayats, Muslims, Vokkaligas, Kurubas, and OBCs. (The projection is based on latest estimates, which are unofficial and not reflected in the chart below). Yet, despite their demographic strength, the Dalits have never had a single chief minister from their ranks.
But Lingayats, a pre-dominantly agricultural and trading caste that forms the second largest group, routinely mobilise their forces to garner political benefits. With Yeddyurappa at the helm, the BJP had come to be seen as a party where Lingayats dominate. The early Congress years had the Lingayat Nijalingappa and Veerendra Patil as chief ministers, but in recent decades, the caste has felt sidelined within that party.
When the BJP had to sack Yeddyurappa from the chief minister’s post, it brought in Sadananda Gowda, a Vokkaliga, in his place. That had left many Lingayats jittery, and a disgruntled Yeddyurappa cannily capitalised on the confusion by projecting himself as the saviour of the community. He has now forced party leaders into changing Sadananda Gowda and bringing in another Lingayat, Jagadish Shettar, to the top post.
But there’s no guarantee yet that Yeddyurappa will stay within the party. Now that he has tasted blood, he will continue to make more and more demands on party elders. If he breaks away and forms a new party, a significant chunk of the Lingayat vote could go his way.
As for Deve Gowda, he is looking at winning about 30-35 seats in a 224-member assembly. That will make him indispensable to any party that wants to form a government. His calculation, if sources are to be believed, is to make his son Revanna chief minister of a coalition government. South Karnataka is the stronghold of the JD(S), and Deve Gowda and his other politically active son Kumaraswamy are seen as representatives of the Vokkaligas.
The third leader engaged in caste consolidation is Sriramulu, right-hand man of G Janardhana Reddy, the mining lord now in jail. Reddy is playing an interesting game. His brothers continue to be in the BJP, while his protégé Sriramulu is out mobilising support for a new party, the BSR Congress. While most people know that BSR stands for B Sriramulu, the party is presenting itself as representing the badava (poor man), shramika (labourer) and raitha (farmer).
With the support of Bellary mining lords, Sriramulu is the richest among those now trying to carve out a group that can participate in government formation. He is confident he can win 10 to 15 seats, and is projecting himself as a leader of the STs and the underdeveloped north Karnataka region. Sriramulu is a Valmiki, and his 54-day padayatra, now in progress, passes along a region populated by people of his community, as well as caste groups allied to it.
The Congress, with its fragmented leadership, isn’t doing much to capitalise on the voter’s need for a party that represents multiple interests. This is the projection for 2013: At least three regional groups will split the vote and make minor gains, but will enjoy a disproportionate amount of power because no government can come to power without their support