After Lingayats, restive Dalit voters in Karnataka turn against BJP

Though Dalits may see Congress as the lesser evil, there are other multiple factors at play in this election

Dalits, 2023 Karnataka assembly elections
Anti-incumbency against the Basavaraj Bommai government is more pronounced among the Dalit voters

On April 20, a union of 12 influential Dalit groups, Aikya Horata Samiti, declared support for the Congress party in the forthcoming 2023 Karnataka Assembly elections. This presents a significant setback for the BJP, which is already battling to hold on to its core Lingayat vote bank.

To consolidate its support among Dalits, BJP proposed to hike reservation for Scheduled Caster (SC) communities from 15 to 17 per cent. It also proposed to implement a longstanding demand for ‘internal reservation’ or to split up the reservation quota among the different castes of the Dalit community.

While the electoral outcome of BJP’s reservation gambit is yet to play out, the Aikya Horata Samiti’s campaign against the party does not come as a surprise. It had organised a huge convention in Bengaluru last December drawing over a lakh Dalits to ‘resist the cultural aggression of the Sangh Parivar’.

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A key leader of the Samiti, Indudara Honnpura, says they declared ‘conditional’ support to the Congress in the larger interest of safeguarding the Constitution and the privileges it guarantees for the Dalits. “You can at least fight with the Congress. That option does not exist with BJP which is taking away civil liberties and the space for dissidence,” he says.

Mobilising silently

At 17.5 per cent of the population, Dalits form the largest community in Karnataka. But they are socially diverse, scattered across the state, impoverished and mostly live in rural areas or urban slums. So, the impact of the Dalit union’s pro-Congress call on actual voting remains an open question.

The 12 organisations have tens of thousands of members across the state and are led by well-recognised leaders, who have cut their teeth in popular struggles, over the decades. They have also come under the banner of Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS), an iconic protest movement that started in the 1970s. Though the DSS has fragmented over the years it still strikes an emotional chord with Dalits all over the state.

Honnapura says the Samiti mobilised Dalit opinion at the grassroots for months before declaring support for the Congress. One thousand four hundred activists were drawn from all the 224 constituencies in the state and trained at workshops in Bengaluru. The idea was to reach out to Dalits in every village and slum using neighbourhood networks of friends and relations, effectively mimicking a pet strategy of Sangh Parivar.

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“We are focusing on 63 constituencies where Congress lost narrowly by 1,000 to 3,000 votes. We are working quietly to swing the Dalit votes here. Our campaign is not high decibel, we are digging a quiet furrow like an earthworm,” says Honnapura.

The campaign has not gone unnoticed. In Chikkaballapur, a Dalit leader, BN Gangadhar, held a press meet and criticised the Samiti’s support for the Congress saying he had not been consulted. He also declared support for the Karnataka state health and family welfare minister K Sudhakar, who is the BJP’s candidate for the constituency.

A source close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) dismissed the union leaders as leftists without any mass base. “We have hiked reservation for Dalits and met the longstanding demand for internal quota. That is the key issue for Dalits in the election,” he says.

Internal reservation

Dalits in Karnataka are grouped into Left Hand (LH), Right Hand (RH), Touchable and other castes. LH and RH castes together form 65 per cent of the community. The Touchable group, led by castes such as Bhovis and Lambanis, constitute over 23 per cent of the Dalit population.

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LH castes, the most impoverished and deprived Dalit segment, have been agitating for internal reservation for decades saying better off groups have cornered the quota benefits. The issue has bitterly split the Dalit community, as other sections including the RH castes have opposed internal reservation in the past.

As the agitation intensified over the last year, in the last week of March, just before the Election Commission announced the poll dates, the BJP at the state sent a proposal to the Union government to split the Dalit quota internally: 6 per cent for LH castes, 5.5 per cent for RH castes, 4.5 per cent for Touchable castes and 1 per cent for the rest.

BJP insiders contend that after the decision on internal reservation, LH castes, which are already perceived as pro-BJP, would consolidate further. The RH castes, which are usually better educated and ideologically opposed to the Sangh Parivar, may also drift towards the party, they say.

Honnapura says RH castes are angry with the 5.5 per cent reservation earmarked for them. “According to the 2011 census, their population is larger than the LH castes but in the proposal they are getting a lesser share of the quota,” he adds.

Left Hand castes sceptical

The response of the LH castes is mixed, as many remain sceptical. The president of Madiga Reservation Horata Samiti (MRHS), Shivaraya Akkarki, one of the leaders of the months-long agitation for internal reservation, says BJP’s intentions are suspect.

“BJP proposes to split the enhanced 17 per cent reservation, which does not have any legal validity. If it was serious it could have sent the proposal six months ago and prompted the central government to act by now,” he says.

“The last minute announcement on internal reservation is just for votes. In 2018, we had advised LH caste members to vote against the Congress, as the party had failed to act on our demand. But this time we are neutral and have left voting to the wisdom of the individuals,” he adds.

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But an LH caste government employee from Holalkere says his community is obliged to vote for BJP. “If BJP loses badly no other party will dare to take up the internal reservation issue,” he says. He expects Dalit votes to go to BJP in North Karnataka, as LH castes are prominent in the region. “But in Central and Southern Karnataka where the DSS is strong, its support for Congress will have an impact,” he says.

Though a BJP supporter, he personally plans to vote for Congress because it has given ticket to a LH candidate, Anjaneya, in the Holalkere constituency.

Touchable castes upset

The Touchable castes, meanwhile, are up in arms over internal reservation. Lambanis, traditionally strong supporters of the BJP, are leading aggressive protests, mobilising Bhovis and other castes,  which have lost out in the proposal for internal reservation.

Their vociferous protest started immediately after the proposal was announced and furious protesters attacked Yeddiyurappa’s house in Shikaripura. Though the violence has abated, the protests continue and BJP candidates are being heckled in their tandas or villages. Lambanis have also threatened to boycott the elections and vowed not to allow BJP candidates inside their villages.

Basavaraja Naik, vice-president of Karnataka Banjara Rakshana Vedike, says in the previous elections Lambanis votes split 60:40 in favour of BJP. “This may reverse now in favour of the Congress. Lambanis may vote for their caste candidates from BJP, but elsewhere the party may face their anger,” he says.

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Shivarudriah Swamy, a Bhovi activist, says the Bhovi vote also would similarly swing against the BJP.  The Banjara-Bhovi vote would work against the BJP in Chitradurga, Shivamogga, Davanagere and other crucial districts, according to him.

To placate the Lambani voters, BJP has given 10 tickets for them, a steep hike from 6 in 2018. The Congress tickets for the community have stayed constant at 5 in these two elections.

Distribution of tickets

The distribution of tickets by parties indicates how they seek to woo specific communities.

The tickets given by both the BJP and the Congress in the 36 reserved constituencies do not show any dramatic shifts when compared to the 2018 election.

BJP has given 11 and 8 tickets to LH and RH castes in this election, according to media reports. The numbers were 11 and 7 tickets in 2018. Congress has given 10 and 15 tickets to LH and RH castes in this election. The numbers were 8 and 15 in 2018.

Janata Dal (Secular), which also gets a sizable chunk of Dalit votes, has given 3 and 10 tickets to LH and RH castes.

The near status quo in the ticket distribution indicates that the parties do not expect the internal reservation issue to have a significant impact on the Dalit voting outside the Lambani caste. Their tickets are by and large spread across the Dalit community as before.

Polarisation in Kalyana Karnataka

A significant exception to the pattern occurs in the northern region of Kalyana Karnataka,  which has eight reserved seats. The Congress has not given tickets to any LH candidate here and the BJP’s tickets completely miss the RH candidates.

The polarisation between LH and RH castes in this region has two explanations. The Indian National Congress president Mallikarjuna Kharge, an influential RH leader, hails from the region and his community is expected to rally behind him.

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In the previous elections the LH candidates standing on a Congress ticket have failed to win any seat, probably prompting the party to focus on potential winners. BJP may have responded by excluding the RH candidates to consolidate LH votes. But outside Kalyana Karnataka there is no sign of such polarisation hinting that Dalits may vote the way they have done in the previous elections.

How Dalits vote

The results of the 36 reserved constituencies are usually in sync with the larger political climate in the state. For instance, BJP grew stronger between 2004 to 2008 elections and the party’s tally in these constituencies moved up from 13 to 22.

In the 2013 election, which the Congress won, BJP tally slumped to 6 seats and Congress tally jumped from eight seats in 2008 to 17 seats. The Congress lost the 2018 elections but not very badly. BJP’s reserved seats increased to 16 but Congress held on to 13 seats due to the popular welfare measures taken by outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah.

Dalits have an ambivalent relationship with Siddaramaiah. While they acknowledge his commitment to social justice and to the poor, they resent him for not acting on the internal reservation demand and for his power struggle with Dalit leaders such as Mallikarjun Kharge, G Parameshwara and Srinivas Prasad.

Animesh Gundur, a lawyer from Koppala, says it is a fallacy to think that different Dalit castes have pledged their votes for Congress or BJP. “Votes of any Dalit caste are spread across parties. They vote according to the prevailing conditions,” he asserts.

“In 2018, internal reservation was an emotional issue for many Dalit castes and they voted against the Congress, which had failed to implement it. But this time, there are doubts about BJP’s proposal, so it will not fetch them votes,” he adds.

Anti-incumbency kicks in

The anti-incumbency against the Basavaraj Bommai government is more pronounced among the Dalit voters. A lecturer at a government college in Mysuru says unemployment, inflation, winding down of pro-poor welfare measures such as the Indira canteen and free rice scheme are hurting Dalits badly, who are the poorest section of the society.

Honnapura says the price hike of LPG cylinders has put Dalit families under financial stress. “Large families may need one or two refill cylinders a month. They can’t afford them nor can they go back to firewood or kerosene,” he says.

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There is also a widespread fear among Dalits that the Sangh parivar is out to undermine the Constitution and the benefits it guarantees for the Dalits. The loose talk of a few radical BJP leaders on the Constitution seems to have burned deep into the Dalit psyche. “The Sangh parivar may not dare to abolish the Constitution but will try to undermine it from within. Their behaviour adds to our doubts,” says the Mysuru lecturer.

There is constant talk among Dalits how the privatisation and contract employment in the government is making reservation ineffective.

Honnapura says BJP has slashed scholarships for Dalit children and free education is no longer available. “Even a BA degree costs ₹15 to 20,000 a year, which was free earlier,” he says.

Shift towards Congress

A few months ago, many observers had noted growing support among Dalits for Bahujan Samaj Party and Social Democratic Party of India, which provided an alternative to mainstream parties in the state. But, as elections approached, Dalits seem to have realised that the new alternatives would have to wait and are not viable for now.

“Dalits distrust mainstream parties but they are opting for the Congress in this election, as it is the lesser of the two evils,” says the lecturer.

He also notes that the pull of Hindutva and Modi charisma is waning among the Dalit youth. “Unlike the OBCs, Dalit youth are well networked with the intellectuals of the community, who are alert to the threat to the Constitution,” he adds.

And, as lawyer Gundur points out, “Dalits will vote for Congress in this election. It is a question of their survival.”