Karnataka polls: JD(S) hopes Vokkaliga mobilisation will help party become kingmaker, if not king, in bi-polar election

When was the last time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a distant third in a three-way fight? A trip from Bengaluru to Mysuru, the Old Mysore region, gives out just such an impression. This is a Janata Dal (Secular) den, with the Congress giving the JD(S) a run for its money. It is densely populated by the Vokkaligas, a dominant peasant caste from the Old Mysore region, which comprises 12 percent of the state's population. Fifty-three out of the 225 MLAs in the current Assembly are Vokkaligas, making it an influential community.

The Vokkaligas form the backbone of the JD(S), with party patriarch and former prime minister HD Deve Gowda belonging to the community. His son HD Kumaraswamy now rides the Vokkaliga wave.

Local journalists on the ground say that though the Vokkaligas have always been a core vote base of the JD(S), their consolidation behind the party is more acute than it has ever been, largely due to the sense that this election would determine the future of the party. The JD(S) had two consecutive dismal performances in 2008 and 2013, where it secured 28 and 40 seats respectively. And in an increasingly bi-polar atmosphere, the party risks becoming irrelevant if it does not reach a respectable number this time around.

File image of HD Kumaraswamy. AFP

File image of HD Kumaraswamy. AFP

Another reason behind this mobilisation is that the Vokkaligas are unanimously infuriated with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. If you meet a person who calls Siddaramaiah "casteist", be assured s/he is a Vokkaliga. There is a view among the community that Siddaramaiah has deliberately ignored them in important bureaucratic posts and government jobs, while promoting his own Kuruba community, along with Muslims and Dalits. While the perception may or may not be true, JD(S) and Kumaraswamy have exploited it well, and the fact is that Siddaramaiah has done little to conquer the perception.

As a result, in a predominantly agrarian region, farm debts, suicides, lack of rainfall and the Cauvery row have all taken a backseat to the politics of caste.

The JD(S) is hoping that the increased concentration of the dominant community would help the conversion rate of vote share into seats, and it would be the kingmaker, as opinion polls are suggesting. However, party supporters believe Kumaraswamy can be king, not kingmaker.

There is also a sense that JD(S) and BJP could forge an alliance and form the government with Kumaraswamy at the helm, because more than Congress, the BJP is in a better position to offer Kumaraswamy the chief minister's post. Sacrificing BS Yeddyurappa would not be a tough call for the BJP, if it comes at a cost of snatching another state away from the Congress.

Even though Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy have categorically reiterated an alliance is out of the equation and that the party would opt for re-election in case of a hung Assembly, voters on the ground continue to harbour the possibility of a post-poll alliance. "These things are always said before the elections," they say.

It is further helped by the fact that JD(S)'s core vote base is smitten by Narendra Modi. "Modi for PM, Kumar anna for CM," is the crux of their preference. In fact, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP had 38 percent of the Vokkaliga votes ahead of JD(S) (31) and Congress (29).

However, the thumb rule of polarisation or consolidating votes of one constituency is that there is always a reverse mobilisation of another. The evident concentration of Vokkaligas in favour of JD(S) has significantly pushed the crucial 18 percent Dalit vote towards the Congress. Plus, the growing majoritarianism in the country indicates that the Muslim vote, which the JD(S) has enjoyed in the past, is also moving increasingly towards the Congress. It only means that Siddaramaiah would consolidate his traditional combination of AHINDA (Alpasankhyataru + Hindulidavaru Mattu Dalitaru, or Dalits, OBCs and Muslims).

Furthermore, Siddaramaiah's Ksheer Bhagya and Anna Bhagya schemes — where milk and food are made available for below poverty line cardholders at very cheap rates, much like in Tamil Nadu, ensures his popularity among the masses, making him a strong regional satrap.

It is not as if the JD(S) is unaware of this. To garner the incremental vote and to expand its penetration beyond one community, JD(S) has forged an uneasy alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), despite of the fact that Vokkaligas and Dalits have had a turbulent relationship, plagued with caste tensions. Which is why several Dalits, feeling backstabbed by Mayawati, are also inclined to favour Congress. BSP workers on the ground, too, are perplexed. They are forced to campaign for JD(S) candidates after having raised their voice against Vokkaliga oppression for years. Some of the BSP workers at the booth levels, in fact, are even asking voters to vote for the Congress.

In the 2013 Assembly elections, Congress had won 25 of the 55 seats in the Old Mysore region, while JD(S) bagged 23. The BJP only had two.

Perhaps realising the situation, BJP has tactically decided against putting in its entire might in Old Mysore, and is instead focussing on regions where it stands to gain more. There are several seats where BJP candidates are palpably weak, and it seems more like an attempt to propel JD(S)'s chances. The more JD(S) gains, the bigger a problem it would be for the Congress.

Reports of BJP's gains are coming in from the Lingayat dominated north Karnataka, and the coastal regionm, where religious polarisation has been brewing for a while, which makes it an ideal scenario for a photo finish. And in a situation like that, with all the three parties having their bases intact, it perhaps boils down to how much the Congress can eat into the JD(S)'s strongholds and grab the silent, floating vote. That would decide who takes the honours on 15 May.

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Updated Date: May 11, 2018 12:07:15 IST

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