Karnataka polls: JD(S) locked in a dangerous caste game with BSP; credibility of both parties on the line

Sitting quietly under the shadow of a banyan tree at noon, a few elderly gentlemen greet us in Sigaranahalli village of Hassan district in Karnataka. "What is the breakup of the village?" we ask one. "The entire village is Vokkaliga," he casually responds. Except there are around 40 Dalit families living in the village for years. Right opposite the banyan tree, stands an old Basaveshwara temple that infamously hit headlines three years ago, when four Dalit women were not allowed to enter the temple by Vokkaligas. Further, they slapped them a fine of Rs 1,000 for having attempted to do so.

After newspapers reported the incident, the administration stepped in, and eventually two Dalit women entered the temple amid resistance and police protection. Disappointed that the temple had "lost its sanctity", Vokkaligas in the village abandoned the temple altogether. Vokkaliga is a dominant peasant caste of the Old Mysore region. It comprises of 12 percent of Karnataka’s population, and 53 of the MLAs in the current Assembly belong to the community, making it an influential one.

The temple in Sigaranahalli that was the subject of controversy. Firstpost/Parth MN

The temple in Sigaranahalli that was the subject of controversy. Firstpost/Parth MN

Most Vokkaligas are farmers, and the landless agricultural labourers working on their fields are Dalits. But the Vokkaliga-Dalit relationship, as the aforementioned incident indicates, goes a bit beyond the typically frosty one between an employer and employee. Vokkaligas are the backbone of the JD(S) — the party patriarch and former prime minister Deve Gowda belongs to the same community. JD(S) leader and Deve Gowda's son HD Kumaraswamy now rides the Vokkaliga wave.

However, the upcoming Assembly election is said to be a fight for existence for the JD(S). And the desperation to stay relevant makes strange bedfellows. In spite of the turbulent relationship between Vokkaligas and Dalits, JD(S) has forged an uneasy alliance with Mayawati's BSP in the hope of getting the incremental vote. Dalits comprise of 18 percent of the state’s vote share and as per the agreement, JD(S) will contest 184 seats, and BSP 20.

In the 2013 Assembly elections, in as many as nine constituencies, the BSP had polled more votes than the margin of JD(S)' loss. By forging an alliance, the party hopes to turn that around.

While the mathematics behind it is sound, the alliance could well backfire. The BSP cadres on the ground are stumped by Mayawati's decision. "We raised our voice against Vokkaliga oppression for all this while," says a BSP worker in Hassan on the condition of anonymity, adding, "Suddenly, we are asked to campaign for the JD(S). How are we supposed to face Dalit voters? Our old, loyal supporters are asking us uncomfortable questions, casting doubts on our integrity as we campaign for JD(S)."

Jayanti, who works in a coffee plantation in Hassan. Firstpost/Parth MN

Jayanti, who works in a coffee plantation in Hassan. Firstpost/Parth MN

The JD(S) will pull through in the constituencies where it is strong enough on its own. But in constituencies with tight contests, the alliance could push the crucial Dalit vote towards the Congress. Toiling in the coffee plantations of Shirgavara in Hassan, Jayanti, who makes Rs 220 a day, says she feels stabbed in the back by the alliance. "This was completely unexpected of Mayawati," she says, "The two parties have opposite attitudes. It is impossible for me to vote for JD(S). Plus, the sitting JD(S) MLA here has not even ensured adequate water or electricity."

At the same time, some loyal Mayawati supporters remain intact. In Gorur's Ambedkar Nagar, Kiran says the JD(S) MLA has been absolutely useless, "But we will vote for him because Behenji has said so." There are places where the alliance has gelled on the ground. Chamundeshwari, in the outskirts of Mysuru, for example, will surely pull some BSP votes towards JD(S). But in most places, it will not.

There is a sense that the BJP and JD(S) might be on to something. The BJP does not have much of a presence here. In fact, the fight in most of the Old Mysore region is between JD(S) and Congress, and to propel JD(S)' chances, BJP, in some constituencies, has palpably put forth a dummy candidate. In Chamundeshwari, where Siddaramaiah and JD(S)' GT Deve Gowda are locked in a photo finish, the electorate does not even know the name of the BJP candidate.

Thirty-year-old Siddaraju, who works as a teacher, says it is hypocrisy at its peak. "You ally with BSP officially, and have a tacit understanding with the BJP locally," he says, "It is shameless politics. Kumaraswamy has allied with the BJP earlier. What is the guarantee he will not do it again after using our votes?" The fear among many is that if the JD(S) is in a position to be kingmaker in case of a hung Assembly, it will dump BSP after using its name to get the crucial incremental vote that goes beyond Vokkaligas, and form the government with BJP.

Siddaraju. Firstpost/Parth MN

Siddaraju, a teacher. Firstpost/Parth MN

The BSP itself is not likely to win a single seat. In 2008, it had a vote share of 2.74 percent that dwindled down to 0.94 percent in 2013. The party has pinned its hopes of opening its account in Kollegala constituency in Chamrajnagar District. In 2013, it finished second with close to 37,000 votes, around 10,000 behind the Congress. Interestingly, the Vokkaligas in Kollegala, small in number as they may be, do not seem too keen on voting for a BSP candidate.

"The only benefit of the alliance is that we can now campaign in all areas," says the BSP worker from Hassan, "Earlier, we only campaigned in Scheduled Caste localities."

However, that has not been much of a consolation. "We had a support base among government servants. That too is wavering. Frustrated by the idea of canvassing for the JD(S), some of the booth workers of BSP are asking people to vote for the Congress in some places," he adds.

The JD(S), at best, will add a bit of vote share to its tally, and at worst, will end up pushing the BSP votes towards Congress. The bigger loser in this game is Mayawati, who stands to gain little at the cost of a lot. If the party fails to open its account, she might see her cadre disintegrate in Karnataka and it will go down as a tactical blunder. She can only hope, then, the perception damage does not spill over into Uttar Pradesh.

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Updated Date: May 10, 2018 08:28:16 IST

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