Modi to inaugurate Kempe Gowda statue
Modi is arriving on November 11 to inaugurate a 108-feet bronze statue of Kempe Gowda at the international airport in Bengaluru, which is also named after him. The founder of Bengaluru city, Kempe Gowda, is a revered icon of the Vokkaliga community. Image: Twitter

BJP faces Vokkaliga hurdle in Karnataka even as Cong, JD(S) enjoy edge

Breaking into the Vokkaliga bastion is not easy; the community is highly politicised, resourceful, and organised, not easily swayed by emotions, and knows where its interests lie

The BJP is making an all-out attempt to woo Vokkaligas in Karnataka and has roped in Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lead the charge personally. At about 11 per cent of the population, Vokkaligas are a huge vote bank that has eluded BJP so far.

Modi is arriving on November 11 to inaugurate a 108-feet bronze statue of Kempe Gowda at the international airport in Bengaluru, which is also named after him. The founder of Bengaluru city, Kempe Gowda, is a revered icon of the Vokkaliga community.

Also read: Lingayats, Sangh Parivar lock horns over Vivekananda memorial in Mysuru

To drum up emotions for the event, the BJP is trying to redeploy the tactics honed by it during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. A team of high-profile ministers are heli-hopping different districts, collecting mrittika (‘sacred soil’) and bringing it back in pots to develop a garden at the site of the statue. Some of them are also conducting village-level ratha yatras in the Vokkaliga-dominated areas to ceremonially collect the mrittika.

Majority eluding BJP

Despite a huge saffron upsurge in the recent decades in Karnataka, the BJP has never won a majority on its own. It has come to power through coalitions or by poaching legislators, both of which have made its governments inherently unstable and controversial.

An important reason the BJP falls short of a majority is its failure to pick up substantial seats in the Old Mysore region, the districts where the Vokkaligas dominate and keep it at an arm’s length. In the nearly 60 Vokkaliga-dominated constituencies, the party has not crossed 10 MLAs in the last three elections. It knows that unless it picks up more seats here, a comfortable majority in Karnataka is an elusive dream.

But breaking into the Vokkaliga bastion is not easy.  The community is highly politicised, resourceful, and organised, not easily swayed by emotions, and knows where its interests lie.

Also read: 2023 Karnataka polls – BJP goes all out to woo Vokkaligas and OBCs

As the latest entrant to the Vokkaliga politics, the BJP has to contend with two existing heavyweights. The JD(S), the family fortress of Deve Gowda and sons, has been getting a rising share of community votes in the recent elections. The Congress has waned in contrast. But, Vokkaliga strongman DK Shiva Kumar is at the helm of the state unit. Many in the community believe that he has a shot at becoming the chief minister and are warming up to the party again.

JD(S): Default choice of Vokkaligas

The JD(S) traces its pedigree to the Janata Party of the 1970s. Since then, the party has steadily mutated, periodically jettisoning other leaders and communities, and currently thrives mainly on its Vokkaliga vote bank. A constant factor has been the overarching presence of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, who has kept a tight leash on the party and managed to pass it on to his family.

The defining moments of this century’s Karnataka politics unfolded in the truncated 12th Assembly between 2004 and 2007, which started as a Congress-JD(S) coalition under Chief Minister Dharam Singh. After an internal power struggle, Deputy CM Siddaramiah left JD(S) and shifted to the Congress, taking the backward and minority voters along with him.

HD Kumaraswamy (HDK) pulled down the Dharam Singh government and became CM with the support of the BJP. But, after a 20 month-long stint, he refused to honour a deal to hand over power to his deputy Yediyurappa. As a dumped Yediyurappa became a rallying point for all Lingayats, Vokkaligas also slowly consolidated behind JD(S) in response.

Also read: BJP’s trust deficit with Lingayats may give Congress a chance in Karnataka

In the 2008, 2013 and 2019 elections, the JD(S) tally in the Vokkaliga areas steadily increased from 17 to 23 to 29. In the core Vokkaliga districts of Mandya, Hassan, Ramanagara and Bangalore rural, the party has been sweeping most of the seats, indicating the mood of the Vokkaligas.

Big wins

In the Old Mysore region, JD(S) not just wins, but wins big. Between 2013 and 2018 the average winning margin of JD(S) MLAs shot up from 14,429 votes to 21,138 votes, showing the party was getting a higher share of the community votes. The whopping 46.4 per cent increase in JD(S) MLAs’ average winning margin in Old Mysore area is significantly higher than any region in Karnataka.

Observers say the JD(S) is preparing better than before to face the 2023 elections. It has strengthened the party organisation, especially at the booth level, and is all set to launch a ratha yatra of its own and announce candidates for 100 seats well ahead of other parties.

Deve Gowda, the patriarch

A huge advantage the JD(S) enjoys is the emotional bond Deve Gowda and his younger son HDK share with the Vokkaligas. Deve Gowda entered the Assembly in 1962 and completed half -a-century of relentless politics this year. He towers over other politicians and the talk that this could be the 89-year-old leader’s last election strikes a chord with the Vokkaligas.

The accessible HDK enjoys a good rapport with ordinary Vokkaligas. They see him as a possible CM candidate if the election results in a hung assembly.

Due to fragmentation of votes, coalitions are always a possibility in Karnataka and that gives a perpetual advantage to the JD(S). Whenever the Congress or the BJP fall short of majority, the 30-odd JD(S) MLAs become a coveted asset, and HDK usually bargains the top job for himself.

In September, top leaders from all parties made a beeline to check on Deve Gowda, who was reportedly suffering from knee pain. Chief Minister Basavaraja Bommai paid a visit along with six cabinet ministers. One of the ministers, R Ashok, went twice —  once on his own and then with the CM’s delegation. The list of leaders who met Deve Gowda to discuss his knee pain included Yeddiyurappa and Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Also read: After Siddaramaiah, Yediyurappa visits ailing Deve Gowda; CM Bommai next

Even Siddaramiah, the man whose rivalry with the Gowda clan is the stuff legends are made of, led a delegation to the ailing leader’s home.

What could work against JD(S)

Two factors threaten the JD(S) hold on the Vokkaligas. There is a widespread criticism within the community that the JD(S) puts the Gowda family interest above everything else. Two of Deve Gowda’s sons are MLAs, a grandson is an MP and another is an MLC. A third grandson lost a Lok Sabha election in 2019 and is now likely to contest for an MLA seat. A daughter- in-law is an MLA and another is politically active and waiting in the wings to contest.

Family members not only corner prized seats, they also allegedly interfere in the constituencies of their MLAs and direct the disbursement of developmental funds sanctioned by the government. The family also allegedly does not like any other party leader developing a mass base on his own. “There is a regular exodus of disgruntled popular leaders to the Congress or the BJP,” said B Raghava, a political analyst.

Recently, Deve Gowda made peace with a popular party leader in Mysuru, who was engaged in a long running battle with HDK. But two highly regarded leaders in Hassan, the clan’s home district, are reportedly heading for the Congress.

A close associate of Prajwal Revanna, the MP grandson of Deve Gowda, defended the family’s approach to politics, saying JD(S) MLAs lack loyalty. “None can question DK Shivakumar’s loyalty to the Congress. He sticks to the party even in lean times and at any personal cost. That is not the case with many of our MLAs; they need just a small trigger to shift loyalty. So we have to run a tight ship,” he said. “People in different constituencies know Gowda family members personally. So, when they approach us directly, the MLAs feel bypassed.”

The second thing that may stem the flow of Vokkaliga votes to the JD(S) is the fast-emerging DK Shivakumar factor.

Congress: Back in reckoning

Since the early days when it was a broad grouping of different castes, the Congress has always enjoyed a significant chunk of Vokkaliga support.

In the 2004 election, which saw the ouster of a Vokkaliga Chief Minister SM Krishna, 38 per cent of the community votes went to the Congress and 43 per cent to the JD(S), according to a National Election Survey. In 2008, probably due to the continued influence of Krishna, 32 per cent of Vokkaligas voted for the Congress and 34 per cent for the JD(S).

Also read: Yediyurappa-like strong Lingayat leader eludes BJP in Karnataka

But with Vokkaligas moving towards JD(S) after the Yediyurappa incident, the support for the Congress fell significantly. The number of Congress MLAs fell from 26 to 17 between 2008 and 2019 in the Old Mysore region.

This trend may now reverse thanks to DK Shivakumar campaigning aggressively as the state Congress president and positioning himself as the potential CM. “Vokkaligas smell a chance to gain power through him and are looking at the Congress more favourably,” said an English lecturer at Mysore University.

Despite a long stint in power, Shivakumar has struggled to grow beyond the eight constituencies in Bangalore rural and Ramanagara area, which adjoin his home base in Kanakapura. In the 2018 elections, the Congress won only three and JD(S) won five of these seats. “The Vokkaliga politics is intensely competitive and each constituency is fiercely defended. It is not at all easy to get the community’s acceptance,” added the lecturer.

The only time the community came out in full force for Shivakumar was when he was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a money laundering case in 2019.

The Shivakumar factor

Shivakumar is seen as a better organiser and more resourceful than any other Vokkaliga leader, including the Deve Gowda clan. Unlike the cool-headed HDK, who likes to identify with the common man, Shivakumar is seen as short tempered and arrogant. But his rise to the top of the state Congress hierarchy has impressed many Vokkaligas, who do not want to miss a chance of claiming the CM’s post for the community.

“Vokkalikgas point out that there is a tradition of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) presidents becoming chief ministers,” said Ashok Ram, a senior journalist.

“It is hard to say how it will play out over the next few months. But the Vokkaliga vote share for Congress is likely to go up and Shivakumar is a definite factor in this election especially in his traditional areas of his influence,” he added.

This is bad news for the JD(S), as the Congress is also expected to get the votes of backward and minority groups, who also have a good presence in many Vokkaliga constituencies. As the JD(S) has joined hands with the BJP on many occasions, minorities do not trust it. So, even a small bump up in the Vokkaliga votes for the Congress may turn into a huge tailwind.

Shivakumar vs Siddaramaiah

But there are two factors that may spoil the Shivakumar party. Outside Vokkaligas, his colleague Siddaramiah is seen as the frontrunner to the CM’s post if the Congress wins. With a solid backward and minority base, Siddaramiah is a far bigger vote-catcher for the Congress than Shivakumar.

Siddaramiah enjoys a clean image and has an exemplary administrative record having submitted a record 18 budgets. In contrast, Shivakumar is usually seen as a power broker or a political strategist, whose administrative legacy is mostly about mobilising resources.

While filing his nomination in 2018, Shivakumar declared total assets of ₹840 crore, an eye-popping jump over the ₹251 crore he had declared in 2013. He also faces serious legal headaches and is under the scrutiny of Income Tax and ED officials. The ED has filed a chargesheet in a money laundering case and he is currently out on bail from a Delhi court, which has restrained him from leaving the country without permission.

Even Shivakumar’s staunch supporters agree that as a CM he would be a sitting duck for the central agencies in the present dispensation.

BJP: All-out push

The BJP has been making several overtures to woo the community, besides attempting a high-pitched mobilisation around the Kempe Gowda statue. It has deputed a team of four powerful Vokkaliga ministers to build the party in the Old Mysore districts.

The Sangh Parivar has been running a shrill campaign on many issues and Hindutva groups are currently agitating to worship at a mosque in Srirangapatna in Mandya district. They claim the Jamia Masjid was built on top of a Hanuman temple.

Also read: Scam-hit Karnataka BJP goes on offensive, unearths Congress-era scams

The BJP is also banking on the Modi factor, which has charmed sections of the Vokkaliga urban middle class, especially the youth. It remains to be seen if these moves are strong enough to wean votes away from the JD(S) or the Congress.

Mrittika backlash

Vokkaligas are happy about the Kempe Gowda statue but say it is unrealistic to expect them to shift loyalty over one event. The BJP’s attempt to turn the Kempe Gowda statue inauguration into a party event and draw political mileage is drawing widespread criticism. In at least two villages in Belur and Tiptur towns, villagers protested against mrittika collection vehicles, saying they were displaying photos of only BJP leaders.

“What has Modi got to do with this event? Why is former PM Deve Gowda’s photo missing?” asked protesters, who stopped state minister BC Nagesh from entering their village, Chikka Honnahalli near Tiptur.

HN Rakesh Gowda of the Rajya Vokkaligara Yuva Sene, a community organisation, said: “Most Vokkaligas are upset that photos of Adichunchanagiri Swami and Deve Gowda are missing from these events. Instead, they have photos of leaders who have sidelined Vokkaligas.”

Vokkaliga activists say BJP refused to make amends even after facing a backlash both in person and on social media. “Kempe Gowda is our symbol of self-respect. In the name of honouring him, they are insulting Vokkaligas,” said Rakesh Gowda.

Ineffective BJP ministers

The quartet of Vokkaliga BJP ministers have reportedly not made much headway in deepening the party in the Old Mysore districts. “The previous district in-charge minister of Mandya, Narayana Gowda, was limited to KR Pete, his own constituency. His replacement, Gopaliah, is inactive,” said a BJP politician, who had contested the district cooperative bank election in 2020.

Also read: Congress pushes to make corruption a key political narrative in poll-bound Karnataka

“Another minister, R Ashok, comes only during big events to hoist flags and then disappears. Shivakumar and his brother have tied up Ashwathnarayana in Ramanagara,” he added.

The Hindutva card also seems to have a limited appeal in the Vokkaliga districts. “Vokkaligas have a similar relationship with both Muslims and the Sangh Parivar. They are neither for them nor against them. They also do not have a history of conflict with Muslims,” aid Raghava.

“Many youngsters may be drawn to the Hindutva campaigns. But when it comes to voting, it may bring in only incremental benefits for BJP,” says Rakesh Gowda.

Many Vokkaliga BJP supporters have also turned sceptical. “The state BJP has not done much and is getting bad publicity for corruption. It has also become weak after removing Yediyurappa. In Karnataka, BJP votes may split,” said Diwakar, a senior software engineer and an ardent Modi follower.

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