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BJP Takes to Caste Conventions in Build-up to 2018 Karnataka Elections

Deepa Balakrishnan | CNN-News18 deepab18

First published: November 26, 2016, 10:27 PM IST | Updated: November 26, 2016
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BJP Takes to Caste Conventions in Build-up to 2018 Karnataka Elections
File photo of Karnataka BJP President BS Yedyurappa. (CNN NEWS18)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is all set to hold its biggest Convention of Members of the Backward Castes in Karnataka on Sunday. In another chest-thumping exercise, Karnataka BJP president B S Yeddyurappa will remind these communities of his contributions during his tenure as the chief minister of the state between 2008 and 2011.

The chest-thumping is necessary for BJP because the party, which primarily projected itself as the face of the 'majority' Lingayat community, has realised over the past few months that Lingayats are not the numerically biggest community in Karnataka and hence they are now finally trying to bark up the right tree.

BJP national president Amit Shah will inaugurate the convention, which is expected to attract at least 250,000 people.

"We will show our strength among backward castes, show it to the JDS and the Congress, which have so far called themselves the 'secular' and 'pro-backward castes' parties (respectively)," says B J Puttaswamy, president of the OBC Morcha of the BJP, "because OBCs can twist the political scenario in the next election."

The party's concern for the OBCs comes amidst the Congress-ruled state government's attempt to do a socio-economic and education census of all castes in Karnataka. The 'caste census', as it has been dubbed, was conducted between April-May 2015 but the results are yet to be made official.

However, leaked reports have estimated the population of SC/ STs and OBCs to be much higher than that of Lingayats and Vokkaligas (Gowdas), the two communities were believed to be dominant castes hitherto, making about 35 percent of the population.

The government census 'leaked' data, however, puts the dominant castes' combined number at 17-18 percent. The Backward Classes Commission, which did the survey, disses these reports as being inaccurate. The commission is yet to put out its data officially, 18 months since the survey was carried out.

In fact, the commission is worried that mere release of statistics could become a political tool for all parties, and hence, the data has been held back so that appropriate recommendations could be made for programmes that will uplift certain communities. (Census 2011 says SC/ STs combined constitute about 24 per cent of Karnataka's population, but there is no data on OBCs. This data on SC/ ST tallies with the leaked data.)

"The Lingayats are there in north Karnataka and Vokkaligas in the south, only in eight districts. The backwards castes are spread over all 224 Assembly constituencies. Our estimate is that OBC population is over 33 per cent," says Puttaswamy. Traditionally, the BJP has ridden on the popularity of B S Yeddyurappa, its most prominent Lingayat face.

In the past four months, the rise of a parallel head is another interesting development within Karnataka BJP. Former deputy chief minister K S Eshwarappa, of the OBC Kuruba caste, has formed what he calls the 'Sangolli Rayanna Brigade.'

BJP has distanced itself from this brigade with national leaders persuading Eshwarappa away from the brigade's activities. While there was a brief lull for a few weeks, the brigade has become active again now, much to the chagrin of Yeddyurappa and his coterie.

With both Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa staking claims to the OBC space, BJP’s promises to these communities are something to look forward to. Dr Chandan Gowda, a political analyst and researcher at the Azim Premji University, feels Eshwarappa perhaps sees himself as party's most prominent OBC face and could have more bargaining power if the BJP comes to power in 2018. "The work of attracting OBCs with small grants for building auditoriums or convention centres began when Yeddyurappa was CM, and Sunday’s event is a continuation of that,” Gowda says, adding, “This convention is a move to expand its OBC support base.”

He also points out that the Scheduled Tribes' rally held in Raichur (North Karnataka) last month was also a part of this expansion of the party's reach-out to other (non-Lingayat) communities.

The 2018 Assembly election, in all likelihood, will be based on who cracks the caste matrix to their best advantage. The BJP has always prided itself on an early start and this too is a part of its build-up to 2018.

Does wooing each community signal a shift from the party's earlier campaigns that rested entirely on the Modi-wave? The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were majorly fought on the Modi/development plank and that paid rich dividends with BJP winning 17 of the 28 MP seats in Karnataka. However, Delhi and Bihar have perhaps led the party to accept that the durability of the PM's appeal is not something it can bank on.

The Congress government -- led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, from the OBC Kuruba community -- feels it has an upper hand as it has always relied on its pro-OBC policies and will launch more programmes based on the census results, once they are out.

"When they were in power, they did not show any commitment toward social justice. We will combat them easily on this because we show our commitment (by tailor-made programmes for these communities) in our action and our programmes... Not just in conventions, which too, we will eventually do," says AICC spokesperson Dinesh Gundu Rao.

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