The Vokkaligas are one of the two dominant communities in Karnataka, the other being the Lingayats | PTI file photo

Karnataka parties up quota game as castes clamour for more quota benefits

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Parties in Karnataka, which have always banked on community appeasement and polarisation politics to get votes, have found greener pastures in the politics of reservation, ahead of the Assembly polls next year. Recent demonstrations and protests by influential caste-based communities, demanding more quota or crossover to a different reservation category, are helping political parties to use the issue to woo voters from communities which are outside their traditional domain.

Major political parties including the BJP, JD(S) and Congress are looking to appease key communities and castes including the Vokkaliga, the Lingayats, the Kurubas and the Eedigas which have been demanding to switch to categories like Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC) and 2A to get more benefits of reservation.

Also read: Karnataka: Not big on loyalties, Dalit voters keep parties guessing

This, notwithstanding the fact that there are several downtrodden and microscopic communities in the 2A, SC and ST categories that have no voice or strength or representation to get the actual benefits of caste reservations.

Looking beyond strongholds

Although the BJP is primarily backed by the Lingayats in North Karnataka, it is facing a setback in the region due to the fading clout of BS Yediyurappa and is hence trying to woo the Panchamasalis, a sub-sect of Lingayats to get more political representation. The party also plans to cut into the traditional votes of opponent parties among the Vokkaligas and Kurubas.

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 108-ft statue of 16th century Vokkaliga chieftain Kempegowda in Bengaluru in what was called his party’s big move to appeal to the voters in the community. Deve Gowda-led JD(S) traditionally enjoys the support of the community.

Vokkaligas who consider Deve Gowda their supreme leader are the reason the JD(S) has been able to gain a noteworthy chunk of MLAs and enjoy the position of ‘kingmaker’. The BJP is targeting to weaken the JD(S) voter base, especially in the Old Mysuru region by projecting leaders like R Ashok, Dr CN Ashwatha Narayana and Ashwatha Narayana. The saffron party also successfully poached prominent Vokkaliga leaders from the Congress and the JD(S) leaders like ST Somashekhar, Dr K Sudhakar, and Narayana Gowda to strengthen its presence in the community.

Wooing lost castes, minorities back

The Congress, at the same time, is trying to utilise the Panchamasalis’ rift with the BJP while simultaneously attempting to strengthen its voter base among the OBCs, and SC/STs.

Political analysts say the BJP is rattled by the fact that the Panchamasali movement to get ST status is led by its own leaders including Basanagouda Patil Yatnal and Aravinda Bellada among others. The Congress has found it an opportune moment to woo back its lost Lingayat voters. The party lost the Lingayat vote base in 90s after it removed the then chief minister Veerendra Patil. The community also distanced itself from the party after Siddaramaiah failed in his attempts to get a separate religion status for the community when he was the chief minister, spoiling Congress’ prospects in the 2018 Assembly polls.

Also read: Karnataka: BJP fights for Cong’s Dalit pie with ‘internal reservation’ move

The electoral prospects of the Congress in the North Karnataka region will see a substantial change if it manages to get the support of the Panchamasalis, who have a big percentage within the Lingayat community.

The birthday bash of Siddaramaiah, a tall OBC leader, gave glimpses of the Congress strength among the community. Now the party looks to give a nudge to the demands of Panchamasali, Kurubas, and other categories to get OBC and ST reservation, especially when the ruling BJP is not in a position to appease them.

The JD(S), already backed by the Vokkaligas, is trying to eat into the Congress’ minority vote base.

The JD(S) which identifies as a secular party has traditionally supported the minorities. In the past, it defeated the Congress in the Old Mysuru region and North Karnataka by getting the votes of the Muslim community. However, it later lost credibility among the Muslim community after it formed a coalition government by joining hands with BJP in 2006. The JD(S) is famously accused of helping BJP spread its roots in the state by joining hands with it.

Even though the party’s Muslim support has now moved towards the Congress, the party is trying to get it back by latter’s voter base. It has appointed C M Ibrahim, a former aide of Siddaramaiah as the state president of JD(S), keeping Muslim voters in mind. The party also supports the ‘internal reservation’ of OBCs as a strategy of dividing the Congress vote base among Backward classes as the Kurubas (a dominant community in Old Mysuru) are supporting the Congress.

Castes demand bigger slice of reservation pie

The ambition of several leaders from sub-castes such as the Panchamasalis and communities like the Kuruba and Eediga to make a big name for themselves, has amplified the demand among these communities for more benefits of reservation. Respective mutts run by these communities are also making use of their religious influence in mobilising voters to spread the word.

The Panchamasalis are demanding the government to shift them from the 3B category of backward classes to the 2A category to get better educational and economic benefits.

The community has planned a mega rally in front of the state Assembly, Suvarna Soudha, in Belagavi on December 22 when the Assembly is in session, in support of their demand. As many as 25 lakh people from the community are expected to participate in the rally.

Kurubas, who are now in the 2A category want to move to the ST category to get more reservation benefits. In the past, they have organised several rallies to press for their demands and plan to take out one in January, just in the run up to the polls.

Also read: Karnataka: Surveys suggest Congress win, but Modi-Shah could change game

The Eediga community, the second most powerful community in the 2A category after Kurubas, are also holding several meetings in Bengaluru, Mangaluru and other prominent cities and plan to take out a foot march in support of their demand to be included in the ST category.

The vehement demands and protests by these communities have inspired smaller communities in the 2A category like the Kumbaras (potters), Devadigas and Samagaras to explore possibilities of demanding a similar switchover to more lucrative reservation categories. Kumbara leaders recently conducted a gathering in Bengaluru to discuss how smaller communities continue to languish in poverty while powerful communities, which are already enjoying the benefits of reservation, are demanding a bigger share now.

Smaller communities like the Kumbara, Balija, Banajiga, Moily, Ganigas and weavers don’t have political representation and thus are not equipped with pressurising techniques that the Lingayats or the Vokkaligas have.

However, now a few leaders in these communities are trying to bring awareness among their people on getting the benefits of reservation.
Vokkaligas’ line-up of demands

Among the many demands of the Vokkaligas is to include all its 115 sub-castes in the central OBC list and raise the reservation percentage of the community from four per cent to 12 per cent. The community plans a protest rally in support of their demands on January 23, 2023 in Bengaluru.

The Vokkaligas also want the Centre to create a block quota for them within the 10 per cent reservation set aside for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS).

JD(S) patriarch and former prime minister HD Devegowda also recently met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi to present the demand of the Kunchutiga community, a sub-caste of Vokkaligas, to be included in the OBC list of the Centre.

Also read: Karnataka-Maharashtra border row: Why BJP could gain politically in both states

An official with the Social Welfare department told The Federal that the Constitution aims to support every weaker section of society to get benefits. But the Upper Castes including Vokkaligas and Lingayats are trying to move down to get more benefits of the 2A category. At the same time, the Upper Castes in the 2A category are trying to move down to the ST category.

The irony is that the sub-castes in SC/STs and OBC, which have no political voice are neither getting the reservation facilities nor making demands for more reservations, the official said.

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