With an eye on the Karnataka Legislative Assembly election slated to take place in April or May this year, the ruling BJP government is planning to woo the two most powerful and dominant castes of the State, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas, by hiking the reservation provided to the two communities.
According to various informal estimates, the cumulative population of these two caste groups does not exceed 30 per cent, but it is a testimony to their influence that Lingayats and Vokkaligas are overrepresented in the Assembly and occupy roughly half of the 224 seats.
In rural Karnataka, members of these two communities are in command of social structures and the organisations representing them are adroit political lobbyists who ensure that politicians across party lines always keep these communities’ interests in mind.
The Lingayats and the Vokkaligas are also relatively more resource-rich when compared with other large social groups in Karnataka, partly because the mathas (religious monasteries) of these two caste groups run several institutions of higher education.
Both communities also have a significant population spread all over the State, except in the coastal region, which means that they play a major role in at least 150 Assembly seats, according to various election experts who have tracked Karnataka elections over the decades.
The two powerful castes have also successfully campaigned to ensure that the 2015 Karnataka ‘Social and Educational Survey’ has not been tabled in the Karnataka Assembly. Leaked portions of this ‘caste census’—a comprehensive survey that included each respondent’s caste—revealed that the population of Lingayats and Vokkaligas had been incorrectly estimated and that the two communities did not constitute more than 20 per cent of the State’s population.
While the Lingayats make up a significant number in a wide swathe of northern and central Karnataka, and are considered a loyal BJP vote bank, the saffron party is trying to aggressively breach the Vokkaliga bastions of south Karnataka, where the Janata Dal (Secular) remains the strongest party, followed by the Congress.
The BJP, with a mission to win more than 150 seats in the 224-member Assembly, is using a tried and tested strategy of enhancing reservations for the two castes in a bid to retain its vote share in the case of Lingayats and increase it in the case of Vokkaligas.
Like in other States, reservation is a vexed issue in Karnataka too. The formula demarcating reservation in employment and education was last formulated in Karnataka in 1994, when a 32 per cent reservation was provided for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), apart from the reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
This large OBC wedge was further subdivided into five thinner slices categorised as I, II (A), II (B), III (A) and III (B), under which different backward castes were subsumed based on the proportion of their populations, depending on the relative ‘backwardness’ of each group.
In the 1994 formulation, the subcastes of the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas enjoyed reservation of 4 and 5 per cent under categories III (A) and III (B) respectively.
A recent Lingayat demand for enhanced reservation was buoyed by the Panchamsalis, a major subcaste of that community. Basava Jaya Mruthyunjaya Swamiji, pontiff of the Panchamsali Peetha in Kudalasangama, has been leading the agitation on behalf of his subcaste for two years and has said that the Panchamsalis were mainly farmers and a socially, economically, and educationally backward community.
“The Panchamsalis have only one demand, which is that the community must be included in the II (A) category,” the pontiff said. “While we [the Panchamsalis] already have reservation under the III (B) category, our youth are competing with powerful communities for only five per cent of the reserved pool. If we are moved to the II (A) category [where the quantum of reservation is 15 per cent], our youth will have an advantage.”
If this demand were to be met, it would effectively mean that the Panchamsalis would move from a pool consisting of their fellow Lingayat caste members to compete in a pool with people from relatively ‘weaker’ castes.
The Vokkaliga reservation demand is of more recent origin.
The BJP has responded to the reservation demands favourably, possibly with an eye on votes. The Lingayats and the Vokkaligas have competed for political supremacy through Karnataka’s history and any concession given to one community would be seen as an affront to the other.
Eye on votes
Wading into Karnataka’s reservation politics is tricky as any change in the quantum of existing reservations would have immense ramifications for the election. The BJP is eager to retain Karnataka in the lead-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election as it is the only southern State where the party is in power.
Considering that the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas have both been clamouring for increased reservation, the Karnataka government came up with a delicate proposal to enhance the reservation of both castes by 2 per cent each.
At a news conference, Law Minister J.C. Madhuswamy said that the Cabinet had approved the hike based on an interim report from the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes (KSCBC).
He said that as per the proposal, the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) quota of 10 per cent in Karnataka would be reduced to 6 per cent as the eligible beneficiaries (such as Brahmins) did not constitute 10 per cent of the State’s population. The remainder from this 10 per cent, i.e. 4 per cent, would then be distributed among the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas.
Along with this, the existing categories of III (A) and III (B) would be abolished and two new categories of II (C) and II (D) would be created.
On the face of it, the proposal appears to be a potentially workable solution. It does not rejig the existing structure of reservation provided for the other castes and communities among the OBCs, which was a provocative demand from a few BJP members (such as Vijayapura MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, who wanted Muslims to be removed from the OBC list).
The proposal, however, has run into technical impediments as those provided with reservation under EWS cannot belong to a category that has already been provided with reservation.
C.S. Dwarakanath, former chairperson of KSCBC, said: “Reservation is provided under Article 15 (4) and 16 (4) of the Constitution to the socially and educationally backward sections of Indian society. An additional 10 per cent reservation was provided to Economically Weaker Sections of society after the 103rd Constitutional Amendment under Articles 15 (6) and 16 (6). People who are socially backward cannot be provided reservation under the EWS category, so this proposal to move Lingayats and Vokkaligas from the backward classes to the EWS category is not possible. The entire exercise is deceptive and the BJP is cheating the people keeping the upcoming election in mind. Reservation has been provided for the purpose of social justice and by attempting to provide reservation for these pampered sections of society, the BJP’s move can be termed as ‘social injustice’.”
Ravi Verma Kumar, senior advocate and former KSCBC chairperson, echoed the statement, stating that the BJP would not be able to provide reservation to Lingayats and Vokkaligas under the EWS. Speaking to Frontline, he said that it was simply impossible for this transfer to take place. “The Karnataka High Court has passed an interim stay order on January 13 restraining the State government and KSCBC from meddling with the reservation structure,” he added.
However, a day after the interim order, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said that his government was committed to increasing the reservation for Lingayats and Vokkaligas.
A final order on the issue is still pending before the High Court and it remains to be seen whether the State government will be able to implement its strategic decision to woo the powerful Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities.
- With an eye on the Karnataka Legislative Assembly election slated to take place this year, the ruling BJP government is planning to woo the two most powerful and dominant castes of the State, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas, by hiking the reservation for them.
- According to various informal estimates, the cumulative population of these two caste groups does not exceed 30 per cent of the State’s population.
- Both communities have a significant population spread all over the State, except in the coastal region, which means that they play a major role in at least 150 Assembly seats.
- The Karnataka government came up with a delicate proposal to enhance the reservation of both castes by 2 per cent each.
- The proposal has run into technical impediments as people provided with reservation under Economically Weaker Sections cannot belong to a category that has already been provided with reservation.