The obvious view has to be that the Karnataka polls are crucial for the Congress to foil the alarming attrition in the party and its possible disintegration if it keeps losing elections in the states. But the question before the Karnataka voters is whether chief minister Siddaramaiah is earnest with his identity politics —of religion, caste and the Kannada language. If they believe he is, he could make history, overcome anti-incumbency and win another term. If they don’t, he has much to lose, for himself and his party too.

The Congress will look pretty silly if it fails to retain Karnataka because it had, until very recently, every possibility of doing it. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long distracted itself in quarrels between its petty leaders with monumental egos and abandoned even the pretence of being concerned about the state’s development. The Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), ever hopeful of playing decider in the case of a hung assembly, has not yet risen to a serious challenger role.

Had Siddaramaiah stayed the course with the “Karnataka — No.1 State" track, he would have headed for victory, even if an apathetic population might scarcely have agreed with his claims of achievement. His voters may have grumbled about the sluggishness of his government, but tolerated him as a good man.

But Siddaramaiah suddenly changed tack. From development, he decided to return to his old formula of AHINDA (the Kannada acronym for minorities, backward castes and Dalits). Admittedly, he never really had abandoned it. One of his first political moves as CM was to commission a caste survey in Karnataka. The stated cause was to get an accurate estimate of caste populations to help make equitable allocations for social justice.

But the purpose understood was that real caste numbers would end the domination of Vokkaligas, who form a large voting base for the JD(S), and Lingayat-Veerashaivas (for the BJP). The actual survey results have never been published, but leaked numbers hint that the populations of these communities are much lower than claimed earlier and that indeed AHINDA, led by Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations, make up the big majority.

It seems the survey results were so short of giving him confidence that Siddaramaiah formed an “expert panel" to see whether Lingayats and Veerashaivas are indeed of different religious persuasions. The panel recommended that the community be divided on religious lines, between those who abide solely on the teachings of Basavanna and those who mix these teachings with Hindu-Vedic Sanatana Dharma.The cabinet endorsed the report and recommended it to the centre for approval.

If the Lingayat-Veerashaivas believe Siddaramaiah settled a 900-year-old dispute, they can help him win; but if they suspect he broke a powerful community for votes they will punish him. Other communities will also be annoyed with all this pandering to caste and religious sentiments of just one community. So, it’s hard to call. The JD(S) will hope for a confused mandate. The BJP has another chance with 2019. For Siddaramaiah, it’s now or never.

Prakash Belawadi is a theatre, film, television and media personality, an activist, and a journalist from Bengaluru.

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