At a press conference on October 9 in New Delhi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi emphatically stated that the Congress endorsed the idea of a nationwide caste census, but sitting next to him was Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who has not yet revealed the data from his government’s 2015 socio-economic survey, which also recorded caste.
When questioned, Siddaramaiah said: “By the time our term [2013-2018] was over, the report was not ready. Then, a [Congress-Janata Dal (S)] coalition government took over after 2018. The caste census report was ready, but the coalition government’s Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy, did not receive it…. I have requested the present chairman [of the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes, or KSCBC] to submit the report to the government.”
Jayaprakash Hegde, Chairman, KSCBC, has said the report will be submitted in November. With this, Karnataka will become the second State after Bihar to have data on caste demographics.
To understand the reasons for this delay in the report’s submission, a brief background will be useful. In the Karnataka Assembly election of 2013, Siddaramaiah stormed to power on the back of support from the AHINDA (Kannada abbreviation for Minorities, Backward Castes, and Dalits) communities.
To consolidate his support within this bloc, Siddaramaiah asked the KSCBC to conduct a house-to-house social and educational survey in 2015. The survey also recorded caste data, as Siddaramaiah argued that the data would help the planning of welfare schemes.
Siddaramaiah had, in fact, first mooted the idea of a caste census in 2005 as Deputy Chief Minister from the Janata Dal (Secular) in a coalition government with the Congress. For Siddaramaiah, who belongs to the backward Kuruba caste, cultivating the backward communities is inextricably linked with his own fate. Despite there always having been tall Vokkaliga and Lingayat leaders in the Congress, the party has never secured enough votes from these communities since the 1990s as, in the three-party system that emerged after that, the Vokkaligas largely supported the JD(S) while the Lingayats voted BJP.
Siddaramaiah forged ahead with the caste census despite objections from the political opposition, powerful caste-based associations such as Veerashaiva Mahasabha (representing the Lingayats), the Vokkaligara Sangha, and even his own Lingayat and Vokkaliga partymen.
When the survey was done, there was a clamour for and against revealing its contents, but leaked data showed that Lingayat and Vokkaliga numbers were much lower than what was believed. This led to the two communities threatening to launch agitations if the report was tabled in the Assembly. The report was thus kept on hold. Although Siddaramaiah, as Leader of the Opposition, often said that he would reveal the survey findings as soon as the Congress came to power, he continued to dawdle even after his party’s emphatic victory in May, probably because he was trying to buy time until the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
With the Congress now using the Bihar survey as an election gambit, Siddaramaiah will probably reveal the data. If the numbers indeed show lower numbers for the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, Karnataka politics is in for an interesting churn. It could have major ramifications on the political dominance of these two communities and also lead to demands by other backward castes for a greater proportionate share in democratic institutions.