That is just one of the many samples of the unravelling of Mr Siddaramaiah’s famed “AHINDA” grouping of Dalits, Muslims and backward castes which enabled him to defeat the BJP five years ago.Karnataka has 101 sub-castes Dalits who together form 20 percent of the state’s population. In local parlance and calculus, they are broadly divided between the Chalavadis, referred to as “Right Hand” and traditionally supporters of the Congress, and the Madigas or the “Left Hand”, who are larger in size, feel the Congress has blocked their political and economic empowerment to favour their rivals, and have for decades backed the BJP.
The Congress held onto its “Right Hand” base. But Mr Siddaramaiah’s overtures to the “Left Hand” fell totally flat. This, combined with a downsizing of the Congress’ limited popularity among upper castes scripted the party’s plunge in an election that has been entirely about caste.
The “Right Hand” Dalits have over the years backed the Congress as it promoted leaders from among them – former union minister Mallikarjun Kharge, for example, and, G Parameshwara, who is the party chief in Karnataka. Their prominence, allege “Left Hand” Dalits, is among wide-ranging evidence of how they are ignored and benefits of reservation, government jobs and seats in colleges, for example, are cornered by their rivals. To placate them, Mr inducted Madiga leaders in his cabinet, appointed several members of the community to key positions in state institutions and chose some of them as candidates for this election.”But there was an undercurrent of anger against the Congress for not implementing the Sadashiva Commission report-submitted in 2012 to the BJP government – which recommended internal reservation amongst the 101 scheduled castes based on their numbers,” said Dr L Hanumanthaiah, a Madiga, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka in March after being handpicked by Mr .
The report calling for prioritisation within sub-castes of Dalits would have benefited the Left Hand Madigas the most since they are the dominant group, he explained. “If Mr Siddaramaiah had acted on the report as soon as he came to power instead of reaching out to the community at the last minute, we would not have faced this rout. I blame him for the split in the Dalit vote, for not doing anything for so long,” he charged.
Meanwhile, the BJP stepped up its effort to consolidate the Madiga or Left Hand vote. Party chief Amit Shah in March visited the powerful Matt of Madhara Chennaiah in Chitradurga in Central Karnataka which saw its head seer endorsing the BJP. “We had a very rewarding meeting,” he told NDTV. “The BJP president has assured us that if the party came to power they would implement the Sadashiva Committee report and meet the longstanding demand of the Madiga community for internal reservation. This will definitely cost the Congress our support.” In Chitradurga district, where Dalits make up nearly 22% of the population and in other parts of central Karnataka, mutts, which are large seminaries, hold tremendous power. Here, the BJP won 21 of the 36 seats
In the adjoining districts of the Telugu-speaking Hyderabad Karnataka region (north-east Karnataka), which are culturally and linguistically distinct from central Karnataka, the BJP adopted a different strategy.
“The Congress talks of Dalits and their welfare, but didn’t make a Dalit the chief minister. Instead, they held a secret ballot and made a man who changed three parties (Janata Dal, JDS and Congress) their Chief Minister,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a rally. He was referring to 2013, when Mallikarjun Kharge was bested by Mr Siddaramaiah to become head of the Congress government. The PM’s remark was made in Mr Kharge’s constituency.
This one statement, many believe, cost the Congress heavily in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region: it won just 15 seats here as opposed to 25 in 2013.
The BJP ran the election with BS Yeddyurappa of the upper Lingayat caste as its presumptive Chief Minister. As his deputy, it picked tribal leader B Sriramulu, a move that upped its popularity among Dalits. Mr Sriramulu, who lost one of the two constituencies he contested, is a close aide of the infamous Reddy brothers, mining barons who are accused of giant corruption.
Since he came to power in 2014, the PM has tried to consolidate the scheduled castes behind the BJP so that it is no longer counted as a party powered by upper caste votes. From nominating a Dalit as president to building monuments to Dr Ambedkar, he has tried to convince backward castes that Hindutva ideology is not hostile to their survival and growth.
However, in Karnataka last year, Dalit anger erupted after union minister Anant Kumar Hegde, who is an upper caste leader from the state, said that the BJP was planning to amend the Constitution. This could impact the protection guaranteed to Dalits through affirmative action policies, the community feared. But the Congress failed to mobilise this anger in the election or link it to the vast Dalit anger across the country over a recent Supreme Court verdict that political parties say has weakened a key law that punishes discrimination against Dalits.
“On the other hand, the BJP was more successful in consolidating its upper caste constituency which had welcomed the Supreme Court order and increasingly views Dalit empowerment as a stumbling block to its own advancement,” claims Mavalli Shankar, an activist with a Dalit rights group called the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti.
This view is endorsed by Mr Hanumanthaiah who alleges that his party leaders did not speak up clearly and loudly against recent crimes against Dalits in states like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh because Congress campaigners stuck to their own script and region. “Nowhere did they campaign together, or condemn the violence with one voice, but stayed put in their own constituencies. When the Congress leadership itself appeared so divided, how did they expect to inspire confidence in the community and consolidate the Dalit vote?”
What will not ease the ache from this backlash among Dalits is that in trying to win their support, Mr Siddaramaiah ignored and alienated upper castes.
He called for the Lingayats, a rich caste, to be recognised as a minority religion. The gambit was to break the BJP’s hold over them. Instead, the Lingayats appear to agree with the BJP’s allegation that Mr Siddaramaiah’s tactic sought to divide a united Hindu society by carving out a separate standing for the Lingayats.
Mr Siddaramaiah has declared this his last election. The Congress is now attempting to form the government with regional party Janata Dal (Secular). Governor Vajubhai Vala has to decide whether to give the alliance a shot at proving its strength or whether that is the prerogative of Mr Yeddyurappa since the BJP won the most seats (but not an outright majority).
Till the result was known, there was talk of the likelihood of Mr Siddaramaiah being given national stature by his party if he broke Karnataka’s trend of never re-electing the incumbent. Today, a series of congressmen have laid the blame for their loss entirely on his decisions. It may be logical but it is the rude reality of his defeat.