How the BJP-JD(S) combine in Karnataka benefited from dominant caste consolidation

Published : Jun 17, 2024 18:28 IST - 7 MINS READ

Former Prime Minister and JD(S) chief H.D. Deve Gowda with former Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in Bengaluru on March 29.

Former Prime Minister and JD(S) chief H.D. Deve Gowda with former Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in Bengaluru on March 29. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

The catalyst behind the coalition’s synergy was a tacit understanding between the elites of the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas.

Victories in Indian elections are often contingent on how political parties draw support from disparate caste groups and communities to form winning social coalitions. In the wake of the recently concluded Lok Sabha election results, it is clear that one such old coalition has been renewed in Karnataka.

By forging a new combine under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Bharatiya Janata Party along with the Janata Dal (Secular) won 19—17 for the BJP and 2 for the JD(S)—of the State’s 28 Lok Sabha seats. The catalyst behind the coalition’s synergy was a tacit understanding between the elites of Karnataka’s two dominant castes: the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas. A political analyst, who did not wish to be named because of his closeness to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, went to the extent of terming the results as a “dominant-caste revolt against the Congress”. Social Justice Minister H.C. Mahadevappa also put this baldly when he stated in a press conference: “We [the Congress] were certain of winning in at least 17-18 constituencies but we lost because of the BJP-JD(S) alliance. The dominant castes stood by the NDA in Karnataka.”

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The Congress, which banked heavily on its implementation of the “five guarantees”, was restricted to only nine seats, well below its expectations. To some extent, the party also failed to counter-mobilise the AHINDA grouping (a Kannada acronym that represents the agglomeration of religious minorities, backward castes, and Dalits), leading to a curb in its potential surge. This will set the alarm bells ringing for the Congress, as a post-election analysis of Legislative Assembly leads showed that the BJP-JD(S) alliance prevailed in 142 Assembly segments out of the total 224. The BJP and JD(S), which contested separately in the 2023 Assembly election, won only in 66 and 18 constituencies respectively whereas the Congress triumphed in 135. Although Karnataka has a pattern of voting differently at the State and national levels with the BJP surging ahead of the Congress in Lok Sabha contests, this is a worrying development for the Congress.

JD(S)‘ survival instinct

Since its founding in 1999, the JD(S) has played a key role in Karnataka politics with its steady support, ensuring that it often ended up playing the role of kingmaker. But the drubbing that it received last year came as a rude shock to the party which, consequently, began to experience an existential crisis. According to Jyothi, assistant professor of English at the University of Tumkur, the JD(S) had the potential to emerge as a strong regional party in Karnataka but faltered because “it failed to cultivate party cadres in leadership positions, devolved into a party dominated by a single influential family [that of former Prime Minister and party chief H.D. Deve Gowda] and increasingly projected itself as a Vokkaliga-centric party”.

Thus, having erred in its political approach, the JD(S)’ survival instinct kicked in and it desperately needed the alliance with the BJP to remain relevant. With Muslim support having moved en masse to the Congress since the rise of Siddaramaiah, any ideological compunctions that may have deterred this alliance were also jettisoned. For the BJP, which has been striving to gain a foothold in the Old Mysore region (synonymous with the rural hinterland of south Karnataka) for several decades, the alliance was also instrumental in garnering new support for itself.

President Draupadi Murmu administering the oath of office to H.D. Kumaraswamy during the swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on June 9. Many political observers did not miss the significance of the JD(S) leader being the first non-BJP Minister to be sworn in.

President Draupadi Murmu administering the oath of office to H.D. Kumaraswamy during the swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on June 9. Many political observers did not miss the significance of the JD(S) leader being the first non-BJP Minister to be sworn in. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

Drawing most of its support from the Lingayats who form large chunks of the electorate in north and central Karnataka, the BJP also gained at least 6 to 7 seats in south Karnataka because a significant segment of the Vokkaliga community gave its strategic backing thanks to the JD(S). Many political observers did not miss the significance of the JD(S)‘ H.D. Kumaraswamy being the ninth Cabinet Minister (and the first non-BJP Minister) to be sworn in along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 9.

Muzaffar Assadi, a retired professor of political science at Mysore University, commented that this coalition of the dominant castes was not a new development in Karnataka. “After the unification of Karnataka in 1956, these two dominant castes prevailed in the politics of the State. A shift took place only in the 1970s with the rise of D. Devraj Urs who ruptured the potency of this coalition as the backward castes consolidated around him,” he said.

Why Lingayats and Vokkaligas joined hands

A. Narayana, a political commentator associated with Azim Premji University, stated: “Lingayats and Vokkaligas came together in 1985 and 1994 under the umbrella of the Janata Party and the Janata Dal respectively and this consolidation led to their victories in the State Assembly. The Congress also managed to gain the support of both these castes in 1999 under the leadership of S.M. Krishna.” After that period though, the elites of both these dominant castes have not been part of a single pre-election alliance or social grouping until the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

In the chequerboard that is Karnataka’s politics, Lingayats and Vokkaligas have often been at loggerheads with each other. But Narayana argues that the presence of Siddaramaiah, who belongs to a backward caste known as the Kurubas, “gave them a common reason to come together as Siddaramaiah is a strong OBC leader”. Narayana also pointed out that if one were to look at Karnataka’s political history, this unassailable and exigent coalition of the dominant castes follows the political resurgence of the OBCs. “There was an OBC resurgence in the 1970s followed by Lingayats and Vokkaligas coming together. This again happened in the early 1990s when the Congress appointed two back-to-back OBC Chief Ministers [S. Bangarappa and M. Veerappa Moily] and we see this once again in 2024 when some sort of consolidation of the backward castes happened around Siddaramaiah in last year’s election.”

In the lead-up to the Lok Sabha election, some political commentators were sceptical as to whether the BJP-JD(S) alliance would fructify. But for Shivasundar, a political columnist for the Kannada newspaper Vartha Bharathi, the alliance’s success was not surprising, with the concomitant transfer of votes taking place smoothly. “If you compare what happened in 2019 when the Congress-JD(S) alliance failed completely, and 2024, when the BJP-JD(S) alliance worked very well, you can see that the JD(S) is operating in an anti-Congress, and further, in an anti-Siddaramaiah, space. The Congress-JD(S) alliance was contradictory whereas the BJP-JD(S) alliance is complimentary.”

To buttress his point, Shivasundar also pointed to the massive margins of the victories of the BJP candidates in south Karnataka. In Bengaluru Rural for instance, where the Congress’ D.K. Suresh, the brother of Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar, was pitted against Dr C.N. Manjunath from the BJP (he is also the son-in-law of Deve Gowda), the victory margin of Manjunath was 2.69 lakh votes, which clearly displayed the Vokkaliga consolidation behind the NDA. The story was similar in other Vokkaliga-dominated constituencies of south Karnataka where the BJP candidates won with handsome margins.

Is Hindutva creeping in?

When asked whether this also means that the communal ideology of Hindutva has pervaded the Vokkaliga psyche, Shivasundar said: “There are different phases in the BJP’s communalism project linked to the Hindutva ideology. The social location of Vokkaligas, and even Lingayats, is that they are feudal lords. By their class character, they are anti-Dalit; and Muslims are considered Shudras, so in that sense, there is a kind of alienation of the Muslims. This makes them inclined towards the pride of social hierarchy and Brahminism, which makes them amenable to comply with the project of Hindutva. This shift has been taking place among Vokkaligas for a long time, gaining speed after the prime ministership of Narendra Modi, and was evident even in 2018 when the slogan was: ‘Kumaraswamy for CM and Modi for PM’.”

Also Read | ‘NDA has won, but BJP has lost’:’s H.V. Vasu on 2024 Lok Sabha election

Despite this consolidation of the Lingayats and a section of the Vokkaligas in the NDA’s favour, the Congress could have still managed to win a few more seats if there had been a counter-consolidation of the AHINDA bloc behind it. But this failed to materialise as among the bloc’s distinct components, Muslims largely and even Dalits to some extent stood by the Congress but the OBCs, barring Kurubas, failed to lend their support. C.S. Dwarkanath, the chief spokesperson of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, said: “Apart from the Kuruba community, the OBCs have not stood with the Congress. We failed in our strategy of social engineering.”

B.S. Shivanna, chairman of the Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Thinkers’ Forum, said: “For the Congress to win, AHINDA must see itself as a united bloc, and constituents within it must not be jealous of other communities within the bloc. There is no unity among AHINDA leaders whereas Lingayat and Vokkaliga leaders are organised even across parties. They [the dominant castes] are generations ahead of AHINDA in terms of their organisational capabilities.”

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