State of play: Dalit rage, JD(S) ire… & a Siddu masterstroke

Oh! To be a fly on the wall… When BJP president Amit Shah met the seers, the ageing but still powerful 111-year-old Siddaganga matha swamiji and the equally sharp Mysore matha head and another 100 minor pontiffs last week, this time of the Veerashaiva-Lingayat religious persuasion… And days later, when Congress president Rahul Gandhi, came calling, bearing a 111 red roses for the seer…

Would the men in saffron have deconstructed the Lingayat conundrum for the political saffronist from Delhi who is finding it increasingly difficult to negotiate, not just the tongue twisting names of the leaders but Karnataka’s bewildering caste riddle and the treacherous waters unleashed by Siddaramaiah's Lingayat tsunami? 

The reassurance that followed, that the centre wasn’t going to rock the BJP’s sure-fire Lingayat votebank by dividing it has gone out, loud and clear, from Amit Shah to one and all. Prodded into it, was he? And will it stop the Lingayats from abandoning the BJP ship?

What could the swamijis have told Congress leaders, Rahul Gandhi and the Karnataka chief minister when they arrived at the matha doorstep? The Congress realises that there’s no telling which way Siddaramaiah’s poll ploy will actually play out. And whether the payoff will be restricted to the north and as the Lingayat trio of M.B.Patil-Vinay Kulkarni and the third spoke in their wheel – the chief architect of the ‘Lingayats are a separate religion’ movement – S.M. Jamdar, firmly believe, that a sizeable section of the Lingayats will abandon the BJP and back the Congress. 

Word is, senior leaders in the Congress who don’t completely buy into the ‘Lingayat shift away from the BJP’ trope, have advised the Congress top brass that the big button issue that Patil-Kulkarni-Jamdar had turned it into, should be given, if not a decent burial, at least a go-by, a back-pedalling. That probably explains why Rahul Gandhi adroitly batted away the Lingayat question when it was put to him by one very persistent young woman.

The seniors' advice is that only by talking it down, will the Congress be able to tamp down on the seething Lingayat-Veerashaiva anger that the BJP has so cleverly tapped into, to consolidate their main – and only – vote bank in the southern state that they allowed to slip out of their grasp. 

Siddaramaiah, is unlikely to do anything of that sort. This poll is his all or nothing gamble and the Lingayats hold the key to limiting the BJP to 70-odd seats. Anything more and the Congress will be sitting on the sidelines, leaving the door open for the JD(S) to decide who'll be CM. And Siddaramaiah's not going to have that!

The Congress’ core vote has always been the OBC-Dalit-Minorities and the CM's own community of Kurubas, who have been the recipient of much government largesse. Only with the ‘bhagyas’, and development programmes that, as Siddaramaiah says, is not aimed at one caste or another, can the Congress ensure its kitty doesn’t go down below the danger mark of a 100 +. The shortfall is expected to be in the region of about 10-15 seats, insiders say.  

Equally, the last thing the BJP needs is for their votes to dip any further. The 40 seats they won when B.S. Yeddyurappa deserted them, not forgotten. Or forgiven. Hence, the nervousness that one senses when talking to the men who matter. The BSY coterie is reportedly isolated in the party, with the whispered rift within the ranks of the top echelons in the state partly due to the Delhi fixation on BSY being the one-point solution to all ills. This, has the other stalwarts like Sadananda Gowda (however spotty his record as a minister at the centre) and Jagadish Shettar and BSY's Shivamogga rival,  K.S. Eshawarappa and the completely silent, near invisible Vokkaliga face, R. Ashok, all deeply unhappy at being told to play second fiddle. Not to mention the savvy Ananth Kumar, who, no doubt has proved himself to be as useful to Amit Shah as he once was to L.K.Advani and Arun Jaitley in decoding Karnataka; he maybe CM material as well.  The buzz, whatever Amit Shah says to the contrary in public, that BSY is only 
there to bring in the Lingayat vote hasn’t gone away. BSY’s grim, unsmiling avatar through this campaign, unlike his genial persona before, only fuels the rumour mills that all is not well. Add that to the inference that PM Modi is absent from the campaign because if the BJP ends up with egg on its face, he can't be blamed for it, and you can see where all this is going.

Karnataka is crucial for the BJP. Not least because the Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh assembly polls are all in BJP run states. It is in these states as much as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra where the danger posed by the Dalit anger that the fiery Jignesh Mewani is trying to stoke, in the hope that he can channel the Dalit vote away from the BJP, could be catastrophic in 2019. Across the country, Dalit anger is raging like wildfire. PM Modi’s claim on doing more to honour Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar was an attempt to douse that fire, given that Dalits are a force, with a 25% vote share across the country. Is this the Modi master-stroke? Will he play this card in Karnataka, because while the Congress has a section of the Dalits in its pocket in the state, a sizeable percentage of the SC-ST does lean towards the BJP. 

If that weren’t complicated enough, Siddaramaiah’s all out attack on the paterfamilias of the JD(S) H.D Deve Gowda, mystifying at first, given their father-son back story, is an equally Machiavellian move. By hammering home the point that the JD(S) is actually the BJP’s ‘B’ team, the Congress is ensuring once and for all, that nobody from the minority community, that is the Muslims who have leaned towards the JD(S) in sizeable numbers in the   districts where the JD(S) calls the shots across Mysuru, Mandya, Hassan, Tumakura, Chamarajnagar, Chitradurga and Chikkaballapur will vote for a party that is a front for the BJP. H.D.Kumaraswamy’s odd move to tap the sliver of the Vokkaliga community in the north not quite paying off either.

Second, behind the self-described ‘rustic persona’ of the chief minister is a man who has made deconstructing Mr Deve Gowda into an art form. Or a science. Refusing to play ball over the JD(S) Rajya Sabha nominee B.M. Farook in return for the proferred quid pro quo in the assembly polls was Siddaramaiah’s way of depriving the father-son of the chance to influence the post-poll conversation – and his future. Hence, HDD and HDK upping the ante in Chamundeshwari and Varuna, threatening to turn the Vokkaligas against him… 

That may be the least of  Siddaramaiah’s problems…Only that fly on the wall  knows if the Congress is ruminating on a possible Dalit chief minister…If it doesn’t win big..

(Neena Gopal is Resident Editor, Deccan Chronicle, Bengaluru)

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