However, recent developments indicate the Congress may now be adopting a more inclusive approach and is looking beyond Lingayat-Vokkaliga-led and dominant communities-led politics, according to Harish Ramaswamy, political analyst and professor at the Karnataka University, Dharwad. For instance, the appointment G. Parameshwara, who is from the Dalit community, as Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president.
Analysts believe that the 2015 caste census—yet to be made public—is a major reason why backward classes, especially Dalits, are being given more prominence.
The leaked findings of the caste census nearly halves the Lingayat population 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%.
“It’s no longer possible to get away with these numbers," said Narendar Pani, Bengaluru-based political analyst and professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), talking of large communities.
The state government which conducted the caste census—the first since 1932—has denied the authenticity of the leaked findings but has been wary about releasing the actual report as majority communities have threatened to protest against it.
Also Read: Karnataka caste census report may open Pandora’s Box
Karnataka has had the longest rule under the Congress of nearly 50 years, but the state has had only five chief ministers from other backward classes, and none from the Dalit or minority community.
“For a long time, small communities went unrepresented even though identity politics were on the rise," Ramaswamy says of Congress’s political practice which pandered to the Lingayat-Vokkaliga narrative and was unable to ward off the “feudal party" tag.
Though chief minister Siddaramaiah, who is from the Kuruba community, backed former ITBT minister S.R. Patil, a Lingayat, for the post of KPCC president, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) decided to retain the services of Parameshwara.
Siddaramaiah’s choice had a clear agenda—split the Lingayat community votes that were largely seen swaying towards former chief minister B.S.Yeddyurappa.
However, a new post of a second working president was carved out to accommodate Patil who will look at north Karnataka, while his counterpart, Dinesh Gundu Rao (a Brahmin), will concentrate on the south.
Retaining Parameshwara had other reasons too.
His removal and replacement by a Lingayat would have been seen as veering towards the traditional narrative. Especially since Siddaramaiah stormed into power with his AHINDA (acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) support base.
A senior Congress leader dismissed this claim. “Even if he (Parameshwara) is replaced, there would still be equitable distribution to all communities," the leader, requesting anonymity, on 29 May, two days before the AICC announced Parameshwara as KPCC president.
According to him, Mallikarjun Kharge, a Karnataka Congress leader from the Dalit community, was made leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, and that was enough.
However, Parameshwara said his appointment was not “just about my caste". He said the Congress never believed in the caste system but only in equal opportunity. “It just happens, you can’t throw away a system," he added.
Though analysts said that caste cannot be done away with, they added that recognition to smaller caste groups would set Congress apart from opposition parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is led by a Lingayat, while the Janata Dal (secular) is led by Vokkaligas.
But this alone may not make the cut to stop the BJP juggernaut in 2018.
Pani of NIAS said that no party or person had taken on the combined force of Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities, even though there was some isolation of Lingayats under former chief minister Devaraj Urs.
Like the rest of the country, government welfare initiatives for backward classes communities have increased in Karnataka. From 2014-15 to May 2017, the state government has allocated over Rs7,900 crore for the welfare of backward classes and related projects, according to data from the social welfare and backward classes ministry.