Fragmented vote

Print edition : May 21, 2004
in Bangalore

THE notion of a "Dalit vote" or a "Muslim vote" - and in Karnataka, even the "Lingayat vote" - informs much journalistic writing and political analyses during elections. The assumption is that certain castes and religious communities, on account of a shared identity of religious, cultural or social disadvantage, vote en bloc for a party that they believe espouses their special interests. There was some justification for such an approach during the long phase of the Congress party's dominance of politics: Dalits and minorities did, except in those regions where the Left was strong, vote by and large for the Congress, which claimed to be secular and pro-poor. Today, the assumption that these distinct groups constitute a vote bank is somewhat simplistic. Although the last two decades have seen the rise in certain States of parties and leaders that claim to represent the special interests of specific caste groups such as Dalits, the voting patterns among such groups across the country do not show any uniformity or consistency.

Take Karnataka, for example. Muslims in Karnataka constitute around 13 per cent of the population (minorities as a whole constitute 15 per cent of the population, according to a socio-economic survey conducted by the State Minorities Commission in 1994). Perhaps the only voting practice that the community as a whole follows is the firm rejection of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite the recent overtures to the community by some central party leaders. In Karnataka, the strength and influence of the non-Congress centrist parties, notably the parties of the Janata Parivar, has ensured the splitting of the Muslim vote.

"Although Muslims tend to lean towards the Congress party because of its secular dispensation, in the 1980s they voted in a majority for the Janata Party and the Janata Dal," said Muhammad Moienuddin, a former Karnataka Minister who is currently Chairman of the Tipu Sultan Research Institute and Museum. "Over 95 per cent of Muslims now live in small towns and urban pockets where they run small businesses. Their votes tilt the balance in over 20 Assembly constituencies, where they constitute more than 20 per cent of the voters." According to Moienuddin, it was D. Devaraj Urs and Ramakrishna Hegde who were the first to woo consciously Dalits and Muslims as a counterbalance to the influence of the forward communities.

"I would not agree that Muslims in Karnataka constitute a vote bank," said S.N.H. Razvi, Secretary, Karnataka State Minorities Commission. "They have allegiances to different parties, except of course the BJP. This time too, their votes are going to be split among the non-BJP secular parties," he said. Karnataka is one of the few States where the Congress government has put its money where its mouth is in respect of its promises to Muslims. During the tenure of M. Veerappa Moily, the government legislated for 4 per cent reservation for Muslims (with an income ceiling of Rs.4 lakhs a year) in education and government jobs. "Even Mulayam Singh and Laloo Prasad Yadav have not done this," said K. Nazeer Hussain, a retired bureaucrat. "His government substantially increased funding for the Karnataka State Minorities Development Corporation, which has been able to start several income-generating schemes for minorities. Then the Directorate for Urdu and Other Minorities Language Institutions was set up. Of course, this funding was continued by subsequent Congress and Janata Dal governments."

At Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's rally in Kolar on April 16.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

THERE are interesting changes that are likely to have taken place in the voting pattern in the recent elections among the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.), which together account for around 24 per cent of the population. Although Dalits, like Muslims, traditionally voted for the Congress, significant inroads have been made into the Dalit vote by the Janata Dal. In the last few years the BJP, through its front organisations such as the Bajrang Dal, has been doing the groundwork for building its electoral base amongst Dalits. It has recruited Dalit youth in many of its mobilisations, the Bababudangiri campaign being a case in point.

"In the 1999 elections, the Congress won because of the Dalit and Backward Class vote in each constituency," said L. Hanumanthaiyya, a well-known Kannada writer who recently became a Member of the Legislative Council for the Congress. Hanumanthaiyya believes that in these elections too, around 80 per cent of Dalits have voted as a bloc for the Congress in most constituencies. He conceded that the widespread anti-government feeling was shared by Dalits but said that would not substantially affect the way they voted. "The Congress has not given the S.C.s and the S.T.s any popular programmes except for filling 10,000 vacancies in government jobs, a move which might attract some votes. But there is disillusionment among these sections because of the absence of any specific programmes for them," he said. However, since other parties cannot claim a better record, there may be no significant change in voting patterns amongst Dalits.

There is a high degree of social and political consciousness among Dalit youth, among whom a section has been attracted by the Hindutva slogan of the BJP. "Dalit youth are searching for leadership. In the traditional parties, vested interests ensure that there is no scope for Dalit youth. They therefore drift towards the BJP, which has been able to mesmerise them with the emotional issue of Hindutva and to involve them in all their programmes," said Hanumanthaiyya. The entry of S. Bangarappa, a senior backward classes leader, may change the voting equation in those areas where he has a following.

However, for all its efforts, the BJP in Karnataka, which is seen as a Brahmin party, is unlikely to make major electoral inroads into the Dalit vote.

In urban areas the Dalit vote is even more likely to get fragmented. "There is no such thing anymore as a Dalit vote," said Ruth Manorama, independent candidate for Bharatinagar constituency in Bangalore and a long-time activist on labour and women's issues. According to Manorama, the real issues of the area - sanitation, water and roads, for example - did not figure in the campaigns of most contestants. Sixty per cent of the voters in her constituency are Tamil speakers, and a substantial number of them are Dalits. "Dalits are a constituency but they do not vote together. In my constituency, for example, there are strong divisions within the Dalit community. In fact, there is even a section with a strong Dalit-Hindu identity that may vote for the BJP".

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