Karnataka polls: Siddaramaiah goes quiet on caste and reservation, but it may be too little too late

Elections can jog memories. Politicians, for instance, may suddenly remember things that make citizens’ lives a hell, like presence of potholes on roads or absence of jobs. Elections can also bring on selective amnesia. This can mean sudden forgetfulness about things spoken or promised in the past.

File image of Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. Getty Images

File image of Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. Getty Images

It would appear that Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah is suffering a sudden loss of memory about two things which were till recently close to his heart:

1) A promise to hike caste reservations from 50 percent to 70 percent.

2) A bizarre caste census he carried out to find out which community accounts for what proportion of people.

To destroy the BJP in Karnataka, these two things were to be Siddaramaiah’s ultimate weapons like the Brahmastra and Sudarshana Chakra of Mahabharata. But the chief minister has apparently decided to junk these weapons like Emperor Asoka threw away his infamous sword after deciding it was an “evil” with potential to annihilate both the enemy and user.

One common reason for Siddaramaiah’s decision to forget about both the promised hike in the caste quota and the census is to minimise the damage he has inflicted on his party’s election prospects by advertising himself as a leader of only backward classes and minorities. He has also decided not to wax eloquent any longer on his decision to make the upper caste Lingayats a separate minority religion because he is confused over its impact on election.

On quotas, bluff and bluster

From 2016, Siddaramaiah was harping on raising the total reservations to 70 percent so that more sub-castes of SCs, STs and OBCs could benefit. His stoic silence over this now may also be the result of a lesson he learnt from December’s Gujarat Assembly elections. The Congress' promise to raise reservations in Gujarat and to extend quota benefits to Patidars brought the party no major windfall. It got the party a few more seats, but probably at the cost of votes of other communities. The writing on the wall is clear and bold: Pampering some castes can leave others seething.

Besides, it has become common knowledge among intended beneficiaries that such specious promises are no more than bluff and bluster, a charade and part of vote bank politics. It’s no secret that a state can no longer raise the total reservations beyond 50 percent (for Scheduled Castes/Tribes and Other Backward Classes together), a ceiling imposed by the Supreme Court.

One possible way to circumvent this limit is to persuade the Centre to include a state’s reservation scheme in the Constitution’s Ninth Schedule, like in the case of Tamil Nadu.

And it was unthinkable in the case of Gujarat — as it would be in case of Karnataka — to expect the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take the trouble of bringing about a constitutional amendment to provide legal cover for a state’s ridiculous reservation policy. It would be especially preposterous if it means the BJP helping the Congress expand its support base while facing the wrath of the Supreme Court at the same time.

Trailer out, but movie put off

For the first time in Karnataka since 1931, Siddaramaiah commissioned the caste census in April 2015. Some 1.3 lakh enumerators visited 1.4 crore homes and completed the project at a cost Rs 150 crore. Its report was never released, but according to details selectively leaked to media in 2016, Lingayats constitute 9.8 percent of the state’s population and Vokkaligas, 8.2 percent. Lingayats and Vokkaligas are currently estimated to be 17 percent and 12 percent of the populous respectively.

Siddaramaiah intended to establish that Karnataka’s two dominant castes were not as numerically powerful as thought and that Dalits were, in fact, the state’s single largest community at 18 percent, deserving maximum benefits.

The media leak of this census data amounted to something like the trailer of a movie whose release is permanently postponed by censors. Siddaramaiah chose not to release the report initially for fear of rubbing the two upper castes the wrong way. But he and his close supporters, however, blamed the delay in collating the massive data and kept insisting that it would be made public “soon”, before the Assembly election.

With less than three weeks to go for polling, there is no sign, not even a whisper, of the census. While Siddaramaiah was sure earlier that the census would send the chances of a Congress victory sky high, he now appears to have convinced himself the opposite is true.

With much pride, Siddaramaiah has been busy fashioning himself as an ‘Ahinda’ leader (Kannada acronym for Alpa sankhyatara, Hindulida, Dalit or minorities, backward castes and Dalits), but he now appears to have developed cold feet about using the caste card more than he should. The realisation that caste is a factor in elections but not the only one to influence voters may have dawned on him finally, but it may have come a bit late.

Siddaramaiah may yet walk away with a comfortable majority if he is lucky, but the reports of depleting support for the Congress, even if marginal, on account of his Ahinda obsession are not good news for him. As this report in The Times of India points out, for instance, though not all upper caste Vokkaligas are against Siddaramaiah, they have been increasingly hostile to the way he has been empowering his own backward Kuraba caste in southern districts. Also not music to Siddaramaiah’s ears are opinion polls, the latest of them by Times Now, which projects a hung Assembly.


Updated Date: Apr 25, 2018 21:31 PM

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