Caste-class-religion factors in Karnataka elections


Has the Chief Election Commission abandoned its autonomy and independence and chosen to be co-opted as part of the BJP Team? The magazine ‘Outlook’ in a report by by Anisha Reddy shows that over 9,000 adults find themselves declared dead or moved out of the Shivajinagar constituency when, in truth,  they are alive and at home. People who resided in the same quarters for over four decades suddenly find themselves disenfranchised. The mischief mongers know the Muslim vote is firmly for the Congress and the only way to snatch it away is to falsify their ‘existence’! Election rolls cannot be changed based on allegations of one party- in this case the BJP. The pretext that there were inconsistencies in the electoral rolls of the Shivajinagar assembly constituency is but a dishonest politic construct.

This story is merely the tip of the iceberg. Religion is the bane of Indian politics. It existed prior to 2014.  But it has certainly worsened since 2014 and grows by horrid, cruel, and indiscriminate proportions since then. Anti-Muslim and Christian sentiment continues to echo in multiple forms. In parts of the country, governments unilaterally scrap reservations for Muslims.

Media reports suggest how, in Karnataka, elections can be won or lost with tacit support from the chief of a mutt. This does not suggest that all mutts take part in politics and direct their followers to vote for a specific party. There are mutts that openly initiate their followers to favour a party of their choice. Political leaders pay obeisance to leaders from the Chief of Mutts. Political leaders are even inclined to bend over backwards to be endorsed by the Chief of a Mutt. Mutts are able to curve huge masses of votes in Karnataka.  This is a trend that has assumed dominance in the last decade or so. In July 2019, when the H D Kumaraswamy-led government was faltering, certain pontiffs warned followers that they would not tolerate destabilization of one of their community leaders. Whenever there is a political crisis in Karnataka, seers of certain Mutts intervene to support one of their own caste and community.

There are more than 500 mutts in the state. About a dozen of these hold enormous sway over peoples thinking and decide which way voting must be done. They are powerful and hold in their assets land, crores of rupees, powerful institutions of various sorts- educational and medical, and can by a mere click of the fingers change the way an entire community will vote. Politicians have compounded this by doling out vast sums of money to the Mutts and, thus, find favour with them.

Religion and caste have reared their ugly head in the Karnataka election. The Congress has strongly suggested it would ban the Bajrang Dal. The BJP has sought to capitalize on this arguing that it is political vengeance and a counter strategy to allege Muslim-baiting. The upcoming election itself is a caste-religion see-saw battle. The Congress may have counted its chickens even before it is hatched and has, all but, declared victory. Every single opinion poll has authenticated the claim of a Congress victory. Pre-poll predictions can go awry. As a political humorist put it: “There are EVM machines to contend with”!

Meanwhile, CM Bommai has mucked up his chances and is a definite outsider to be leader even if he wins his own seat. Karnataka is going down the tube during his term after long holding its place as the most advanced State in the country. It remains to be seen if the high-pitch, yet last-minute heavy-weight campaign of Modi and Shah will make a difference. Most doubtful! Karnataka is not the Hindi belt where their kind of rhetoric works. Modi and Shah neither appreciate nor understand the mood of and culture of the Southern belt. Neither brought distinct or fresh messages. Nor did they seem to read the writing on the wall. Bommai has brought boredom and failures to governance. He has little in his report card to boast of as decent governance standards and accomplishments. Even devout BJP members view him as “weak and wavering”. It has been a lack luster period of time in office replete with reports of corruption, incompetence, and gross mismanagement.  By contrast, the Congress has a script which is rooted in the culture of Kannada politics and a campaign led by a Vokkaliga face – a huge asset in Karnataka caste-based politics. Add to that, the Congress has an accomplished, experienced, and articulate political strongman in the much-admired Siddaramaiah. He not only possesses a profound understanding of local political nuances, and a track record of hard-hitting and flawless administration, but is a Kannadiga inside-out.

Caste-religion is a see-saw and one will have to watch at what point the needle will stop after the election spin wheel stops. The Congress has shrewdly returned to the Mandal formula with the promise of attractive options for enhanced reservation quotas to 75%. Upper castes and the opposition will cry ‘foul’. ‘Mandal’ is a dominant category in the Congress’ political manifesto and will carry weight in the electorate of OBCs and SCs/STs.

Objectively speaking, politics that relies on exploiting caste-religion signifies a declining democracy. It politicizes caste. Politics must ideally be agenda oriented with justice as the cornerstone. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that caste identities in the political race integrate neighboring castes.  This creates consolidation in the strength of the weaker sections. The unifying potential of castes from weaker sections enhances their political bargaining power. Through such coalition building, caste allows for oppressed groups to make just and enhanced claims in the political process. A caveat is in order. Such coalitions should not obfuscate crucial questions of poverty, corruption and development.

The Karnataka results will have deep significance. The BJP rules a mere handful of States in the country. A defeat in Karnataka will leave it in the political wilderness of South India and begin a slide pre-2024.

Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator

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