In the fractious caste-based politics of Karnataka, the historic rivalry between Lingayats and Vokkaligas has dictated the trajectory of State politics, with both these dominant castes having disproportionately high political representation relative to their population. Informal estimates put the populations of Lingayats and Vokkaligas at around 14-16 per cent and 10-11 per cent respectively of Karnataka’s total population, but MLAs belonging to these two castes won roughly half the seats (out of 224) in the 2018 Assembly election in the State.
While Lingayats are influential in north and central Karnataka, Vokkaligas, a peasant caste, are dominant in 11 districts in south Karnataka with an emphatic political presence in Hassan, Mandya, Ramanagara, and Bengaluru Rural districts. Even though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to establish a strong base across Karnataka over the past three decades, it is perceived to be a Lingayat-backed party and the Vokkaliga-dominated parts of south Karnataka or ”Old Mysore” (as this region is also known because it is contiguous with the former borders of the princely state of Mysore) have, largely, remained impervious to its influence. The region, apart from its urban pockets where the BJP has a considerable base, has traditionally elected MLAs from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) [JD(S)].
In the BJP’s calculations, it must make inroads in this region in the run up to the Assembly election slated for April/May 2023 in order to win a simple majority. Since 2004, with the exception of the Congress in 2013, no party has won a simple majority in Assembly elections in Karnataka.
Sugarcane is the major agricultural crop in south Karnataka. Irrigated by the bounty of the Cauvery river, swathes of sugarcane fields dominate the landscape across this region. Frontline caught up with N.L. Krishna, 51, a sugarcane farmer based in Nagarakere village of Maddur taluk in Mandya district, who was on his way to his field. “Members of the Vokkaliga community are not loyal to one political party and vote intelligently based on who has the potential to become the Chief Minister,” he said. “There will be an improvement in the vote share of the BJP here because of gestures such as the installation of Kempegowda’s statue and the organised way in which the party’s cadre is going about its work, but it will not be able to win any seats,” he added.
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Busloads of Vokkaligas from Nagarakere and other villages in Maddur taluk were ferried to the Kempegowda International Airport located on the outskirts of Bengaluru on November 11 for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unveiling of the 108-foot-tall bronze statue of Kempegowda. The highly publicised event was the BJP’s most aggressive attempt yet at reaching out to the Vokkaligas; Kempegowda,who was a vassal of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 16th century and is credited with founding Bengaluru, is considered to be an icon for the Vokkaligas. The unveiling was preceded by the party’s concerted campaign to collect “mrittika” (“holy soil”) from 22,000 locations across the State.
Of the seven MLAs in Mandya district, six are Vokkaligas; the seventh is a reserved seat. All seven MLAs who won in 2018 belonged to the JD(S) of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, which is now led by his son and former Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy. One of these seven MLAs, K.C. Narayana Gowda representing K.R. Pet, switched over to the BJP in 2019 and managed to retain his seat in the subsequent byelection, the saffron party’s first win in the Vokkaliga bastion.
While Krishna was not optimistic about the BJP’s chances at increasing its tally in south Karnataka, Chikkamoge Gowda, 41, who runs a chicken stall in neighbouring Ajjihalli village was more sanguine. Gowda is an enthusiastic supporter of the BJP and the reasons that he gave for this was that the “BJP works for the nation, for the country’s security, and Hindu dharma”. But he also acknowledged that, while the party would make gains, “there is a lack of local leadership groomed within the party, which is the main problem for the BJP. Most of the BJP leaders here have come from the Congress and the JD(S).”
A crowd that had gathered around Gowda took potshots at him, asking him what the BJP has done for Vokkaligas or sugarcane farmers. An exasperated Gowda said, “This is the problem of Vokkaligas; they can never think beyond their caste. If all Hindus become one, then there would have never been invaders like the Mughals and the British.”
N.S. Jagadeesh Nagarakere, 42, a sugarcane farmer who is a Vokkaliga, was confident that the BJP’s attempt at communalising the Vokkaligas would not work. “The BJP’s attempts to use emotive issues such as the hijab, halal, and Tipu Sultan will not work here as Muslims are an intrinsic part of our village society. Traditionally, Muslims are blacksmiths and we rely on them to shoe our cattle’s hooves.”
The Tipu factor
The reign of 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan has become contentious in Karnataka as members of the BJP have accused him of being a religious bigot. The ascendance of Tipu Sultan as a political talking point began after former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress commenced an annual celebration in 2015 to mark the birthday of the ruler who died fighting the British in 1799. The core of Tipu’s kingdom overlapped the areas that have a high concentration of Vokkaligas now.
A recent Kannada play, written by a playwright sympathetic to the BJP, portrayed two Vokkaliga soldiers as having killed the Muslim ruler. This is seen as an effort by the BJP to spread the ideology of Hindutva among Vokkaligas. Hindu right-wing organisations have also attempted to storm the Jama Masjid built during Tipu’s reign in his capital Srirangapatna (which is also in Mandya district), claiming that the mosque was built on the site of a temple.
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Political analysts such as Muzaffar Assadi of the University of Mysore said that the BJP’s attempts at communalising the Vokkaligas would only have limited impact. “The latest attempt by the BJP is to create two mythical Vokkaliga characters called Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda in a play as the persons who killed Tipu Sultan for the protection of Hindu dharma. They have also tried to create an aura for BJP as the party that gave prominence to Kempegowda. All this will have an impact only on a small section of Vokkaligas who I describe as ‘pant Vokkaligas’ (urban educated sections) and not on the ‘chaddi Vokkaligas’ (rural agriculturists). Rural Vokkaligas are more bothered about agricultural issues and for most of them, Deve Gowda is the patriarch of the community. Prominent Vokkaliga leaders of the BJP such as R. Ashoka, C.N. Ashwath Narayan, and Dr K. Sudhakar (all three are Ministers; Sudhakar moved to the BJP from the Congress in 2019) are pant Vokkaligas and they don’t have a large following among the rural Vokkaligas,” Assadi said.
A senior Mysuru-based Vokkaliga journalist with a leading Kannada newspaper spoke to Frontline on the condition of anonymity: “There is no chance that the BJP will increase its seats in Old Mysore. If we look beyond the urban seats in south Karnataka, they have only three seats in the Vokkaliga-dominated rural belt and they will lose all three in 2023. Even the JD(S) is looking weak and in this scenario, if the Congress declares D.K. Shivakumar (Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president) as its chief ministerial candidate, the Vokkaligas will rally behind the Congress.” There are mixed signals from within the party as to who will be its chief ministerial candidate with supporters of both Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah declaring that their leader will be the next Chief Minister.
A. Narayana, a political commentator who is associated with Azim Premji University, agreed that the “JD(S) is at its weakest point in its history”. He said it was “difficult to say whether the JD(S) voters will go back to the Congress or be lured by the BJP.” The BJP’s byelection victory in K.R. Pet in Mandya district in December 2019 amounted to a breaching of the JD(S)’s Vokkaliga fortress and was a huge morale booster for the party.
The JD(S), which is a Vokkaliga party that revolves around the halo of Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy, had been written off in the past but surprised observers by coming back strongly to play the role of kingmaker or even become the ‘king’ (Kumaraswamy had two truncated terms as Chief Minister, allying with the BJP and the Congress respectively). It has retained a vote share of 18 to 20 per cent over the past five elections. Soon after Modi unveiled Kempegowda’s statue, Kumaraswamy made a combative comment: “They [the BJP] believe that installing a statue will help them gain the votes of Vokkaligas. They are under an illusion.”
- While Lingayats are influential in north and central Karnataka, Vokkaligas, a peasant caste, are dominant in 11 districts in south Karnataka.
- Since 2004, with the exception of the Congress in 2013, no party has won a simple majority in Assembly elections in Karnataka.
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the 108-foot-tall bronze statue of Kempegowda at Kempegowda International Airport located on the outskirts of Bengaluru on November 11.
- The reign of 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan has become contentious in Karnataka as members of the BJP have accused him of being a religious bigot.
- A recent Kannada play, written by a playwright sympathetic to the BJP, portrayed two Vokkaliga soldiers as having killed the Muslim ruler.