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Siddaramaiah's caste census in Karnataka may lead to a social upheaval and a disaster for Congress

There is a twinkle in Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's eyes these days. The smile on his face is a trifle mischievous, and you can't miss the new angle of his chin that betrays nothing but cocksure confidence.

That's because Siddaramaiah thinks he has hit upon a secret recipe for ensuring a landslide victory for the ruling Congress in the next year’s Assembly elections. He believes he can disprove the entire lot of doomsayers who are predicting a rout for the Congress and a big victory for the BJP in 2018.

But there is a problem. Siddaramaiah's recipe is the worst-kept secret in Karnataka’s politics.

Simply put, his remedy for the crisis-ridden party in the state is this: he wants to release soon the report of a caste census which will show that the state’s two dominant upper castes—Lingayats and Vokkaligas—account for smaller proportions of the population than previous estimates and that the Dalits are, in fact, the single largest group.

Siddaramaiah, who belongs to the backward caste of Kurubas, believes that the revelations of the census will entitle Dalits and backward castes to enhanced reservations, more election tickets and other benefits, all of which will make them so grateful to the Congress that they will vote for the party en bloc. He imagines that minorities too will join the fun and will be attracted to the Congress, like iron filings to a magnet.

 Siddaramaiahs caste census in Karnataka may lead to a social upheaval and a disaster for Congress

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. PTU

The chief minister commissioned a “socio-economic caste census” in April 2015, the first such exercise after 1931, at a cost of about Rs 150 crore. This involved dispatching some 1.3 lakh enumerators to 1.4 crore homes across Karnataka. But he has not released its report so far, partly because he was under pressure from upper caste Congress leaders and ministers, and partly because he wanted to do it closer to the 2018 election to reap maximum advantage.

The caste census is part of Siddaramaiah’s long-cherished dream of metamorphosing himself into the state’s unmatched “ahinda” leader. Ahinda is the Kannada acronym for Alpa sankhyatara, Hindulida, Dalit (minorities, backward castes and Dalits). The only ones to call him an ahinda leader so far are himself and the coterie that surrounds him. Last year, he declared he was an ahinda Chief Minister. Not even the ahinda communities were impressed.

Siddaramaiah is not deterred by the utter flop of Mayawati’s “social engineering”, Akhilesh Yadav’s caste calculations in Uttar Pradesh and other such ridiculous gimmicks by other leaders elsewhere. Nor is he willing to learn from the recent UP assembly poll that caste-based calculations and machinations alone will ensure electoral victories.

The Chief Minister’s appeasement of minorities, backward classes and Dalits with largesse extended through successive budgets hasn’t overly impressed them so far. In fact, there are indications that some Dalits and backward classes have been moving away from the Congress and towards the BJP, though its state president BS Yedyurappa is an upper-caste Lingayat.

But Siddaramaiah is made of sterner stuff, and he won’t give up. He is bent upon going down in the history as the tallest leader of the downtrodden who ever walked on this planet. If he hasn’t yet become an ahinda champion till now, he intends to become one soon with the release of the caste census report.

He seems to believe that one sure way to appease lower castes is to do the opposite to the upper castes. While continuing to bend backwards to please lower castes, he is also hell-bent on annoying upper castes, by telling them that their numbers are smaller than previously thought.

For a long time now, Lingayats have been estimated to be up to 17 percent of the population, and Vokkaligas, about 12 per cent.

Together, they make up less than a quarter of Karnataka’s population even according to these figures, but they have been accounting for about half the members of the state’s assembly and a disproportionate number of ministers.

According to details of Siddaramaiah’s census, leaked to media last year, Lingayats constitute only 9.8 per cent of the population and Vokkaligas, 8.2 per cent. The leak raised hackles of the two communities, who fear that the new figures will deny them the share of political power they have already usurped. If officially released and confirmed, these figures are likely to cause nothing short of a rebellion from the two castes against the ruling Congress from within the party and outside.

This doesn’t seem to perturb Siddaramaiah, though it should. While upper castes may gang up against the Congress, there is no guarantee that the lower castes will unite to support the party either. Dalits and backward castes include a long list of castes and sub-castes, who compete among themselves for bigger and bigger slice of reservations. The census may come up with a new set of population figures even for these castes, different from the current ones, leading to a demand for reworking of the current reservation levels.

The whole issue can lead to social and political upheavals of the unpredictable kind. In all likelihood, the accuracy of the census itself will be challenged by affected communities. Officials admit that many homes were not visited by enumerators and the survey was not as complete as it should have been.

And yet, Siddaramaiah’s clarion call to minorities, backward classes and Dalits to rally behind the Congress is getting louder as the 2018 elections near. Siddaramaiah has a booming baritone that most politicians envy, but a 500-watt surround-sound voice is of little use if it has no convincing message to broadcast. He is smiling, yes. But the smiles of BJP leaders in Karnataka are broader.

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Updated Date: Apr 04, 2017 15:55:39 IST