Amit Shah has little reason to be pleased with Srinivas Prasad. The former Karnataka revenue minister crossed over to the BJP in 2016 after he felt humiliated at the manner in which he was dropped from Siddaramaiah's cabinet. Prasad, a prominent Dalit leader from Mysuru, then contested the by-election from his Nanjungud constituency, determined to prove a point to Siddaramaiah. The BJP too expected to make inroads into the Dalit community, riding on Prasad's clout and popularity. But he lost by a margin of over 21,000 votes to the Congress candidate.
On Friday, at a meeting of Shah with Dalit leaders and activists, Prasad asked the BJP president to clarify the party's position on Anant Kumar Hegde, Union skill development minister. In December 2017, Hegde spoke about amending the Constitution drafted by BR Ambedkar. It created a furore and Hegde had to retract his statement in Parliament and apologise. But if what happened at the meeting organised by the BJP in Mysuru is anything to go by, the issue is far from dead for the community.
Prasad's request to Shah acted as a cue to create ruckus at the meeting, the kind of indiscipline you never witness at an Amit Shah meeting. BJP's Karnataka leaders found it difficult to restore order even as the media captured the embarrassing scenes on camera. Shah was forced to distance the party from Hegde's comments but even that did not bring down tempers.
"If you say you don't support Hegde's statement, why is he still in the Union Cabinet? If it is not the BJP's hidden agenda, why haven't you thrown him out?'' Chornalli Shivanna, convenor of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti for Mysuru asked Shah.
It was clear that this meeting did not go according to script. Though the BJP accused Siddaramaiah of having planted troublemakers in the meeting, it will realise the optics of Shah not being allowed to speak left a bad taste in the BJP mouth. It will also make it wary of political rivals trying to undermine its Dalit outreach effort.
For the past couple of years, the BJP has been engaged in reaching out to the Dalits, who constitute close to 18 percent of the six crore population of Karnataka. This included its chief ministerial face, BS Yeddyurappa visiting Dalit homes to eat with them.
The BJP's effort has been to dent Siddaramaiah's AHINDA vote bank (Kannada acronym that includes backward classes, Dalit and minorities) that was seen as having played a major role in the Congress party's victory in 2013. The strategy in particular has been to woo the Madigas, who are referred to as the 'Left' to indicate untouchables. The Chalavadis, identified as the 'Right' to suggest they are not untouchables, have traditionally been aligned with the Congress since the time of Indira Gandhi. The grouse among the Madigas is that the Chalavadis end up cornering a large part of the Dalit budgetary allocation pie.
Which is why Amit Shah's 45-minute long meeting with Madhara Chennaiah, the Dalit mutt seer in Chitradurga this week is significant. The BJP reportedly promised internal reservation in keeping with the Madiga population within the community. For years, the Madigas have been protesting, saying they should get between 8 and 10 percent of reservation benefits while they get much less. The BJP would hope to gain from the seer's influence in four districts of central Karnataka, which accounts for 26 Assembly seats.
The Congress guards its Dalit vote bank assiduously, even though it knows the Madiga vote could migrate to an extent. The Dalit factor was the reason why G Parameshwara retained his post as Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president even though there are murmurs over his hold over the community. His detractors have often called him a 'Press Conference Chief' but the Congress will hope senior Dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge, its Leader in the Lok Sabha who hails from Kalburgi in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, will cover the gap.
The importance of the Dalit vote is not lost on any party. Thirty-six of the 224 Assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes, but it is estimated that the community can determine the election result in up to 60 constituencies. In Karnataka, which has a reputation of throwing up a hung Assembly and not returning the same party to power since 1985, that is a significant number.
Into the mix comes the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is contesting the election in 20 seats in an alliance with the JD(S). Depending on the selection of candidates in individual constituencies, the BSP could take away a few thousand votes from either of the two main parties, affecting their chances in a close contest.
While the focus has largely been on the Lingayat vote, up for grabs since the Siddaramaiah government gave the community separate religion status, the Dalit vote could be the silent killer this summer.
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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2018 18:12:50 IST