BJP started its Dalit outreach programme with state unit chief' B.S. Yeddyurappa breaching the caste barrier by having food with several of them during his recent state-wide tour.
Once denied the right to a life of dignity and oppressed, socially and economically, the Dalit in Karnataka is being pampered beyond compare by every politician worth his salt, ahead of the 2018 Assembly. Not surprising considering that the community as a single bloc, accounts for nearly one crore of the state’s six crore plus population.
The rush for the Dalit vote has therefore begun in right earnest. The Congress has always projected itself as the champion of the Dalit cause and had considered them an inalienable vote bank till the ‘upper caste’ BJP started its Dalit outreach programme with state unit chief’ B.S. Yeddyurappa breaching the caste barrier by having food with several of them during his recent state wide tour. The grand culmination was a luncheon for 30 Dalit families which he arranged at his residence in Bengaluru on Monday last. Not stopping with this, party is planning Dalit Parivarthan rallies in December and January.
Has the BJP, once considered the ‘party of Brahmins and Banias’, made the crucial breakthrough into the hearts of the Dalits? Only the 2018 polls will tell.
As for CM Siddaramaiah, who has branded himself as the champion of AHINDA (a grouping of scheduled castes, OBCs and minorities), he is leaving no stone unturned to ensure the BJP does not run away with the Dalit vote. His argument: the Congress is the only choice for Dalits from the time of Indira Gandhi and former CM Devaraj Urs and even now. Having spent over Rs 60,000 crore in the last four years for Dalit empowerment through various programmes, Siddaramaiah seems sure of getting more Dalit votes than he did in 2013. The big question: Can he stop the Dalits from falling for the lure of the saffronists like they did in the UP polls giving the BJP a convincing victory?
Former BSP president B. Gopal who is touring the state to mobilise SC voters to launch his own party, has a different story to tell about the Dalit political narrative and whether they will prefer Yeddyurappa or Siddaramaiah this election. "To be frank with you, barring two to three per cent voters, the rest are vulnerable. We have leaders within political parties and in the community who can ‘manage’ votes. They work as mediators between Dalit voters and political parties. The fact that 1,960 Dalit organisations operate in Karnataka, speaks volumes of the uncertainties of Dalit politics. After the Eighties, Dalit vote management has been a permanent feature of the political spectrum in Karnataka. Therefore, there is no clear pattern with Dalits casting their votes freely."
The innumerable castes in the community and the rivalry for quotas and political benefits, have made it virtually impossible for any single leader or party to have his unchallenged sway. The Dalit bloc in Karnataka has 101 castes and they are categorised into five sections-touchables or Chalavadis (identified as right hand in Kannada to indicate they are touchables), untouchables or Madigas (who are called left hand to indicate they are untouchables), Bovis, Lambanis and 97 microscopic minorities. Though there is no proper study on the Dalit voting pattern, Chalavadis had drifted towards the Congress when Indira Gandhi was leading the party. As Mr Gopal puts it, "Realising that the ‘right’ are with the Congress, the Janata Party under late Ramakrishna Hegde in the early Eighties tried to woo the ‘left’ Madigas. When the Janata Parivar disintegrated, a large section of ‘left’ Madigas moved to the BJP in early 2000."
There is no unanimity between the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ over their strength, both claim they are the largest group within the SC bloc. A conservative estimate suggest that both communities have a population of 30-35 lakh each. Among the Chalavadis, 80-90% voters are associated with the Congress and the remaining votes are usually shared by the BJP and JD(S). Among the Madigas and Bovis, the BJP seems to have made inroads with a stranglehold over 50% voters. Not content with this, the party is eying 80% votes from this section in the coming elections besides wooing a large section of voters from the 97 microscopic minorities.
And why is the BJP so confident of drawing a large proportion of the Dalit vote, so evident from Yeddyurappa`s broad smile at his programmes? Party leaders know that playing the caste card has its own risks and more so in a fractured community like the Dalits, and feel Siddaramaiah may have alienated many in the Dalit camp with his aggressive posturing.
A senior Dalit officer who refused to come on record, explained this saying that since the ‘right’ touchables were associated with the Congress, it was quite natural that a large portion of budgetary allocation would have gone to them and the Lambanis who are in the SC bloc. The ‘left’ and other microscopic minorities would naturally feel let down by the Congress.
"Nearly eight-to-nine per cent of the total 17% of the SC population in the state seem to have got less benefits. This may turn out to be a major cause of worry for the ruling Congress," the officer said. These are precisely the voters the BJP wants to woo, a Dalit BJP leader said.
Who could explain the Dalit dilemma better than Siddalingaiah, a prominent Kannada poet and pioneering Dalit thinker? He along with Devanooru Mahadeva and B. Krishnappa established Dalit Sangharsha Samithi in the Seventies to give a voice to Dalits. Later, he became MLC twice.
"I personally feel the Dalits in Karnataka are very politically conscious. They know their economic and social needs and which leader works for them. The Dalits keep checking whether any political party or leader has done harm to their self respect or identity. Dalits are not a taken for granted lot. As I have observed, they think independently. They are so conscious that they can even discern the intent of a leader who speaks for Dalits."
"The problem with Dalits in Karnataka is the infighting among them. It has descended from castes to sub-castes now, there are even micro divisions within sub castes. Because of disunity, the Dalit movement has become very weak and as a result, they feel insecure and weak. No government has been able to comprehensively solve their problems. For this reason, Dalits as a bloc, have lost relevance in Karnataka politics. Unless, Dalits unite, agree to have marriages between the ‘left’ and ‘right’, integration cannot happen.
Siddalingaiah also made it clear that he did not want to get into a Siddaramaiah versus Yeddyurappa comparison. "I am someone who backs those who do good for the community. The present government has done wonderful work. But, there is a problem in implementation. That does not mean that Yeddyurappa was bad when he was CM. He too did good work for the community." Nine months from now, when politicians spread out into their constituencies doling out freebies and promises, they would be better off remembering that the Dalit vote has never looked so uncertain. That one vote in every six in every constituency, could make all the difference between victory and defeat.