The fine print of Karnataka caste census - Hindustan Times

The fine print of Karnataka caste census

Mar 08, 2024 10:00 PM IST

The BJP and Congress have different approaches in the elections – the former will reach out to Lingayats and Vokkaligas, whereas the latter may go hyper-local

The submission of what is popularly called the caste census in Karnataka just before the parliamentary elections has brought to the fore the two very different poll strategies of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has predictably targeted the study as being unscientific, suggesting it expects to benefit by rallying behind the Opposition to the report from the two dominant communities in the state: Lingayats and Vokkaligas. By choosing not to postpone the submission of the report till after the elections, the Congress clearly has its own plans.

Karnataka State Permanent Backward Classes Commission chairman K Jayaprakash Hegde submitted a voluminous report on the caste survey to CM Siddaramaiah on Thursday. (ANI) PREMIUM
Karnataka State Permanent Backward Classes Commission chairman K Jayaprakash Hegde submitted a voluminous report on the caste survey to CM Siddaramaiah on Thursday. (ANI)

When seen from an aggregate view of castes in the state, the BJP’s strategy is easy to understand. To come near repeating its sweeping victory in the state in 2019, it needs to get back the support of the Lingayats that it lost in the assembly elections. In addition, it hopes to make inroads into the Vokkaligas by aligning with the party most associated with that caste, the Janata Dal (Secular). The submission of the caste census provided the BJP with a significant issue to demonstrate its support for the two dominant castes.

The position of the Siddaramaiah government has more to do with the way reservations have panned out in Karnataka. When princely state Mysore introduced reservations for the first time in India in 1921, it made a sharp distinction between the proportion of seats reserved and the share of the population that would be eligible for reservations. While it limited the proportion of seats that were to be reserved, it made as much as 96% of the population eligible for reservations. The support for the backward communities took the form of their getting a greater share of the seats than their share of the population. In contrast, the forward communities would get a lower proportion of seats than their share of the population.

This inclusive approach to reservations ensured it did not generate the resistance that the Mandal Commission was to later face elsewhere in the country. It also required periodic reviews to estimate the population and socioeconomic status of each community at different points in time. This task was carried out by the backward class commissions.

Typically, the reports of the backward class commissions were followed by intense political negotiations, often spilling over to the streets. The results of these negotiations did not, by their very nature, leave everyone happy, but the conflicts were reduced to a point where the changed distribution of reserved seats could be put on the back burner.

The Socio-economic and Educational Survey — to give the report its full name — can be seen as the latest in the series of reports of backward class commissions. Unlike some of the earlier reports that specified the share of each community in seats and jobs, this report, by all accounts, seems to be confined to presenting data that is to be interpreted. This opens the field for negotiations between different caste groups.

It is in response to these caste-based negotiations that the BJP and the Congress have taken different courses. The BJP has aligned behind one set of castes, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas. It has tasted political success with the Lingayats before and it hopes its position on the caste census will help it make a major breakthrough with the Vokkaligas. The political benefit the party hopes to gain depends not just on the numerical strength of these castes, but on their economic and social dominance allowing them to influence other smaller castes as well.

The strategy of the Congress has been to internalise the negotiations. The leaders of different castes in the Congress have all championed the positions adopted by their caste organisations. Even though the chief minister (CM) has ensured the report has been submitted, the leader of the Lingayat opposition to the report is one of the senior-most leaders of the Congress. Deputy CM DK Shivakumar has also joined other Vokkaligas in signing a petition against the report. At election time, each of these leaders can be expected to take the positions presented by their caste organisations rather than the overall position of the Congress party.

The different approaches of the BJP and the Congress to the caste census are bound to be reflected in their electoral strategies. The BJP can be expected to develop a cohesive strategy aimed at linking the socioeconomic and political clout of the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats to the larger Modi narrative. They may even believe that this strategy would rely so much on the party and the prime minister that local candidates would not matter very much. Such an approach could allow them to make some of the Union ministers, who are currently in the Rajya Sabha, candidates in the Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress, on the other hand, would need to go completely local. With each of its leaders aggressively supporting the interests of their castes, it would need to work out the caste dynamics for each constituency. As each of its leaders targets their respective caste constituencies the party is unlikely to speak in one voice. And the differences may not even be confined to the caste census.

The battle between a cohesive BJP and a more dissonant Congress would tell us a great deal about the mind of the voter in Karnataka. Voters who are concerned primarily with national and international issues would seek cohesiveness, while others with more local preoccupations may take a closer look at the caste alliances the Congress finally manages to generate. In the approach to the parliamentary elections, there will be much rhetoric over whether the caste census is scientific, but its real influence will be a backdrop for much more complex political negotiations.

Narendar Pani is professor and dean, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal

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