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BJP chief Amit Shah with Nirmalananda Swamiji (right), Union minister Ananth Kumar (second from right), and Karnataka BJP chief B.S. Yeduyurappa (third from right) at the Adichunchanagiri Mutt near Bengaluru on Sunday. Photo: PTI
BJP chief Amit Shah with Nirmalananda Swamiji (right), Union minister Ananth Kumar (second from right), and Karnataka BJP chief B.S. Yeduyurappa (third from right) at the Adichunchanagiri Mutt near Bengaluru on Sunday. Photo: PTI

BJP trying new caste equations ahead of Karnataka elections in 2018

BJP is focusing on caste groups other than the Lingayats, like the Vokkaligas, to boost its chances against Congress in Karnataka elections next year

Bengaluru: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national president Amit Shah on Sunday continued his political outreach programme in Karnataka with a meeting of senior priests of the Adichunchanagiri—the spiritual headquarters of the Vokkaliga, who are believed to be the second largest caste group in Karnataka after the Lingayat.

Analysts say that BJP is focusing on groups other than the Lingayats because it is trying new caste combinations ahead of assembly elections due in 2018.

The move is aimed at boosting the chances of BJP in two aspects: create a Lingayat-Vokkaliga vote bank and erode the support base of the Janata Dal (Secular), a regional party run by Vokkaliga strongmen like former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and former Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy.

“The visit is one more effort to make the party more acceptable to the Vokkaligas," said Chandan Gowda, a professor of Sociology at the Azim Premji University.

The JD(S) and Congress with leaders like D.K. Shivakumar have kept the Vokkaligas—an other backward class (OBC)—support base intact for decades as the Lingayats have traditionally supported the BJP on account of former BJP chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa a Lingayat leader. The visit to Adichunchanagiri Mutt is also aimed at calming the Vokkaligas after outrage over the income tax department raids on Karnataka energy minister D.K. Shivakumar, a leader from the community, analysts say.

Before Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA (acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) movement, the popular caste combinations for politicians were Brahmins-Lingayats, Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes, OBC and Muslims, analysts say.

Harish Ramaswamy, a political analyst and professor of political science at the Karnatak University, Dharwad said that post the reigniting, earlier this year, of the separate minority religion status demand by the Lingayats and its fallout with the Veerashaiva (a sub sect of Hinduism) community, BJP is looking to replicate the Uttar Pradesh model by attempting to unite traditional and unrecognized OBCs groups.

Attempts by the state BJP to reach out to OBCs was diluted by the infighting between Yeddyurappa and K.S. Eshwarappa, the BJP leader of the opposition in the legislative council.

“The Lingayat-OBC combination is a difficult one to pull off. Lingayat-Vokkaliga might be much easier," Narendar Pani, political analyst and professor of social science at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) said.

Getting the entire Lingayat-Vokkaliga support base could boost the chances of BJP, which has only 40 seats in the 224-seat assembly and force the JD(S) to side with BJP in a possible post-poll alliance despite a bitter falling out during their earlier coalition in 2006, Pani said.

To be sure, the majority of Karnataka’s chief ministers since Independence have been from the Lingayat or Vokkaliga community—a narrative challenged by Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA campaign.

Leaked findings of caste census of 2015 slashes the proportion of Lingayats from around 15-16% to around 9% and the Vokkaligas from 14% to around 8%, making the Dalits the single biggest group at around 24%, explaining Siddaramaiah’s urgency to get the group’s backing, analysts say. The government has denied the authenticity of the leaks.

Shah’s outreach to the Vokkaligas and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to Lingayats show that the national leadership of the BJP is leaving nothing in the hands of the state unit to achieve its goal of making Karnataka part of “Congress Mukt Bharat".

But with the five years of BJP’s first government in south India (2008-13) under Yeddyurappa ending disastrously (the state had three chief ministers in those five years with Yeddyurappa named in multiple corruption cases including illegal mining), it remains to be seen if the Modi-Shah combination can work its charm to bring the party back in power in a state considered to be key to the saffron party’s expansion plans in the south.

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