Congress sticks to caste algebra, ignores voter chemistry in Karnataka: Is Rahul Gandhi set for political harakiri?

Did anybody say that Congress learns from mistakes of the past?

Even after the political harakiri that Congress committed in the recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly election by banking only on caste equations, the party is in a hurry to make the same mistake again in Karnataka which goes to polls next year. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and his advisers seem to believe that the Kannadigas are only fit to 'caste' their votes, as they (Gandhi and his advisers) had foolishly hoped the UP voters would.

The changes that the party put to effect in the Karnataka unit on Wednesday confirm its continued reliance on the caste calculus as a recipe to win voters and sweep elections. The changes, which Gandhi evidently believes are masterstrokes in political management, were based on the recommendations of the new AICC general secretary in charge of Karnataka, KC Venugopal, who had met the caste-obsessed state leaders in Bengaluru over five days.

 Congress sticks to caste algebra, ignores voter chemistry in Karnataka: Is Rahul Gandhi set for political harakiri?

File image of Siddaramiah and Rahul Gandhi

Starting from Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, the party’s Karnataka leaders breathe, eat, sleep, and dream caste. Like wispy and whimpering apparitions, they roam the political stratosphere fooling themselves with the conviction that the victory is theirs for the taking in the 2018 polls, oblivious to the realities on the ground and unmindful of public disenchantment with the slow or non-existent development.

Development? Who cares? Just get the algebra of castes right. The party leadership believes it has got it right with the changes brought in on Wednesday.

Leaders chant the caste mantra

To begin with, the high command announced that the 2018 Assembly elections in Karnataka will be fought "under the leadership" of Siddaramaiah. The chief minister had evidently argued before central leaders that, as a leader of the backward Kuruba caste, he was the only one mighty enough to stop the BJP and the upper caste conspirators from crushing the party in Karnataka.

And there was the important question of whether the party should have a new, live wire state president in the run-up to the polls. But state home minister G Parameshwara, a Dalit who has been the state party president since October 2010, convinced Gandhi that his removal would spark an unprecedented Scheduled Castes uprising that would lead to party’s permanent destruction in the state. So, the high command said he would continue as the president, though he has been made to quit the cabinet.

Siddaramaiah had favoured former minister SR Patil, an upper caste Lingayat, as the party chief to cut to size state BJP president and chief-minister-in-waiting BS Yeddyurappa, who too belongs to the same Lingayat community. While not totally ignoring Patil, the party made him a working president (northern Karnataka). As a result, Dinesh Gundu Rao, a Brahmin and a bright spark in the party who has been the working president for the whole state, must now be content with only the southern half.

Energy minister DK Shivakumar, a leader of the other dominant caste of Vokkaligas, who was desperate to head the party claimed that he was just the man the central leadership needed to ensure a stunning victory in 2018. He thought he could persuade Vokkaligas to make a beeline for the EVMs and press the Congress button. He hoped it would teach the Vokkaliga leader and former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, who heads the Janata Dal (Secular), a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry.

But Siddaramaiah hadn’t agreed with Shivakumar’s perception of himself. So, the Vokkaliga home minister was consoled with the post of chairman of the Campaign Committee. This was to placate Siddaramaiah, Shivakumar and the Vokkaligas.

At the root of the party’s fixation with caste is Siddaramaiah’s desire to go down in Karnataka’s history as the tallest leader of the downtrodden, a title he is unwilling to let go to the likes of Parameshwara. Siddaramaiah, in fact, fashions himself as a leader of “Ahinda”, Kannada acronym for alpa sankhyatara, Hindulida and Dalit (minorities, backward castes and Dalits).

Caste census as a trump card

Two years ago, he even commissioned a caste census whose findings he will release, no doubt, at a politically opportune time. Though not officially disclosed, the data apparently found that the Dalits, not the Lingayats, constitute the biggest chunk of Karnataka’s population.

According to selective leaks to the media, the census discovered that Lingayats, who have always been estimated to be up to 17 percent of the state’s population are no more than 9.8 percent of the state population, and the Vokkaligas amount to only 8.2 percent and not 12 percent, as believed so far.

Not surprisingly, the recent visits by Yeddyurappa to Dalit homes to have food with them rattled Siddaramaiah. The Congress kicked up a ruckus by accusing Yeddyurappa of eating restaurant delivered food to Dalit homes but not what was cooked by them. This was followed by stomach-churning explanations that Yeddyurappa indeed ate Dalits' food; it was only because there wasn't enough food for the large number of BJP men who accompanied the Karnataka BJP president that additional supplies were ordered from restaurants.

In the Indian context, caste is surely a key factor in election strategies, but it has become the central thread that runs through the election narrative of the Congress in Karnataka with development figuring in brief interludes. An obsession with caste and communal algebra to the near exclusion of the chemistry that could work in the minds of voters in the form of trust they have in a party’s ability to change their lives could lead to unpredictable election results.

The Congress high command’s changes in the Karnataka unit, cosmetic at their best, not only attempt a fragile balancing act between castes but also reflect a policy of status quo-ism and a weak effort to keep up a pretence of unity. Besides, it was a feeble exercise in political gymnastics, designed to keep all the faction leaders with conflicting personal agendas happy.

But a please-all policy may end up pleasing none, and that could mean big trouble for Congress. For the party, trouble in Karnataka means losing the only state in the south that it rules. And that means, once again, the Congress will end up with only one big state in India to rule: Punjab, which it recently won.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

Your guide to the latest cricket World Cup stories, analysis, reports, opinions, live updates and scores on Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates throughout the ongoing event in England and Wales.

Updated Date: Jun 03, 2017 08:46:41 IST