Around 30,000 people on Wednesday took part in coordinated protests in Bengaluru by Opposition parties and the powerful Vokkaliga community against the arrest of senior Congress leader and former Karnataka minister D.K. Shivakumar.
The Congress leader was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on 3 September in connection with a money laundering case.
Wednesday’s protests marked one of the largest popular mobilizations since the early 1990s by the Vokkaliga community, which is trying to reassert its dominance in the caste-driven politics of the state.
Influential seers from Vokkaliga mathas (monasteries), as well as other leaders are trying to portray Shivakumar as the victim of an alleged political vendetta targeted at Vokkaligas by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president and home minister Amit Shah.
“The message has gone to whoever it was supposed to. This is only a sample," Nanjavadhutha Mahaswamiji, a prominent seer of the community declared at Freedom Park, where the protests culminated after a 4km rally across the city.
Prominent leaders told demonstrators that former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), Shivakumar and the late Cafe Coffee Day founder V.G. Siddhartha had been targeted by the BJP by misusing central investigative agencies. This, they said, showed that there was a systematic targeting of the Vokkaliga community that has, in recent years, consolidated behind the JD(S).
The protests appear to have dented the BJP’s plans to end the dominance of the JD(S) in south Karnataka where Vokkaligas can influence the results in several constituencies.
“Essentially caste politics is being brought out in the open," said Narendar Pani, political analyst and faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.
“The Congress and the JD(S) are trying to portray the BJP as anti-Vokkaliga and it is likely that this will stick," Pani said.
The Congress, which has lost out on the support of the community since the 2018 assembly elections, is trying to regain some of it through the protests.
However, this will not be an easy task, according to political analysts and party leaders. Senior Congress leader Siddaramaiah had allegedly blocked proposals that Shivakumar be made the state president of the party, further fuelling anger in the community. The Vokkaligas also felt sidelined by Siddaramaiah during his term as chief minister from 2013-18. Siddaramaiah had commissioned a caste census in 2015 that had allegedly challenged the dominant caste narrative in Karnataka and gave more priority to marginalized classes and Kurubas, his own core support base.
In the absence of support from Vokkaligas and Lingayats, the party will be forced to depend on the highly fragmented Other Backward Classes.