In Karnataka, the core region of Mysore has 29 assembly segments which have a high concentration of Vokkaligas. The region is a known stronghold of the Janata Dal (Secular) led by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son, former chief minister, HD Kumaraswamy. In this area, there is a strong political significance of just being Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy.
Both are confined to their caste, Vokkaligas, who hold a considerable clout on the state’s political economy. In today’s context, they are seen as a possible spoiler who will never be a king but may ruin the chances of anybody’s becoming king. So long as this formulation persists, the myth of Deve Gowda-Kumaraswamy survives.
Will it or won’t it? This is a question that begs answer till the ballot boxes are opened on May 15. But there is little doubt that Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy are determinedly busy in perpetuating the political myth about themselves as kingmakers if not the kings themselves. No doubt, much of their political influence is drawn from this myth.
In a region where the Hindi blockbuster ‘Sholay’ acquires the status of a mythology, as the film was shot here in the hillocks of Ramanagar, adjacent to Bengaluru, the reality looks surreal while the surreal is taken as reality. If one travels across the region, it is quite evident that the Congress and the JD (S) are the dominant political forces here. For historical reasons, the Congress is still a party that can claim to have significant following across caste groups. For the older generation, Indira Gandhi is still an unforgettable icon. And Siddaramaiah, despite his many failings as chief minister, is not turning out to be a pushover.
Unlike his predecessor SM Krishna (who ultimately joined the BJP) and a Vokkaliga leader too, Siddaramaiah is a fulltime politician deeply engrossed in his vocation in his every action round the clock. And since the ascendancy of the BJP, he understood the necessities of cementing his social base by playing up the inherent contradictions of society. That is why he decided to declare the Lingayat social group as a distinct religion other than Hinduism.
But his influence over Vokkaligas is on the wane as he is perceived to be favouring his own caste, Kuruba, over Vokkaligas. Though both the castes are known for helping each other, any coalition of them appears to be too fragile. The BJP, on the other hand, made significant inroads into the Vokkaligas’ support base by roping in their Maths (religious seats) which are intricately linked to the Nath Sampradaya of the ascetic tradition of Gorakhnath peeth. This is why the Mahant of the latter, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, was deployed in the election campaign to win over this caste.
Since Karnataka’s social economy revolves around thousands of Maths that command overweening influence on different castes, Siddaramaiah desperately tried to win over various caste groups by currying favours on them, allocating them plots and encouraging their ritual practices. In essence, he has been trying to subsume Hindutva by encouraging “little traditions” of different caste groups. It appeared like a textbook sociological experiment of “subsuming larger traditions with little traditions”. Whether it will succeed or fail can be known only after the votes are counted.
Apparently much of Siddaramaiah’s strategy revolved around forging a rainbow social coalition that can neutralise not only anti-incumbency but also the effect of Hindutva. Towards the fag end of his term, he attempted to craft a social coalition of ‘AHINDA’ (comprising minority, OBCs and Dalits) by launching various welfare schemes. Some of these schemes are regarded as runaway successes, enabling Siddaramaiah to put up a stiff resistance to the rivals.
On the face of it, Karnataka assembly polls this time have sharpened caste identities thanks to the dogged pursuit of identity politics by all political players. Despite Siddaramaiah’s attempts to create division in the Lingayats, this social group is believed to be solidly backing the BJP as its chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa is the most influential Lingayat leader. Gone are the days when Ramakrishna Hegde, a Brahmin leader, used to have powerful influence across castes, particularly Lingayats, on account of his stature. Similarly, Siddaramaiah is banking essentially on Muslim-Kuruba unity that would ultimately be the driving force for other castes to align with the Congress.
In this region, the BJP has been a much less significant force given its internal factional feuds. In 2014 and even before, Yeddyurappa was marginalised thanks to internal bickering led by factions owing allegiance to LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar. Yeddyurappa floated his own party and reduced the BJP to a completely marginal force.
Of course, the BJP’s strategists were sharp enough to understand the potential of Yeddyurappa and roped him in as chief ministerial candidate. In posters all across the state, he is given more than adequate prominent along with Modi-Shah duo to emphasise his numero uno position within the party’s state unit. Given his background as a formidable farmer leader and his influence on the powerful Lingayats, the BJP is able to put up a stiff resistance to the Congress in nearly a third of constituencies out of 29 in the region.
But in this Vokkaliga-dominated region the psychological imprint of ‘Sholay’ is so strong that it is difficult to differentiate the real from the surreal. Like in the movie, underworld and filial loyalties are at premium while real issues concerning society at large are often expendable. Kumaraswamy has been solely banking on the region to win substantial votes from his own caste men and other social groups to emerge as a force who can tilt the balance in favour of either the Congress or the BJP. Perhaps that is the precise reason why Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only praised Deve Gowda in his public address but also avoided touring the region in order to keep future options open.
But there is a sting in the tale. In ‘Sholay’, comedian Asrani played the role of a maverick jailer who leads an impressive march past with his security guards and orders them, “Aadhe idhar jaao, aadhe udhar jaao aur baki mete saath aao (half of you go this side, and half on that side, the rest follow me)” – without realising that he is left with no one. Given the nationwide trend of the electorate’s mood to give decisive victory to a party in the election, there is a potential risk of Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy ending up like Asrani.
(Ajay Singh is working as editorial director of Governance Now, a fortnightly magazine on governance and policy issues. He earlier worked as executive editor in Firstpost and had served in various capacity in different newspapers and TV news channels)