In Karnataka, BJP’s Dalit outreach banks on policy, perception

Every place in Karnataka that Dr. BR Ambedkar has visited in his life is identified and developed. Not only that, mutts and institutions belonging to the Scheduled Castes will receive special government support. Many new hostels and an entrepreneurship program supported by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bengaluru for Scheduled Castes are in the works.

These are just some of the announcements made by Prime Minister Basavaraj Bommai earlier this month on the 2022-23 Karnataka Budget. The announcement comes in line with the BJP’s ongoing attempts to create a base of support among Dalits who are benefiting from the planned caste division that emerged in the state during the 2018 general election.

The Dalits make up about 24 percent of the state’s population in 101 caste groups.

The re-election of the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh has given the unity of the Saffron party in Karnataka some confidence that the party can rely on the Dalits.

“After the UP election, the SCs are on the brink,” says fellow MP N Mahesh. “And I’m trying to get them to go with the BJP.” Mahesh won the 2018 general election, becoming the only BSP MLA in Karnataka. He joined the BJP last year after being expelled from the BSP. “In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, we have the examples of Kolar and Chamarajanagar seats,” Mahesh says, referring to the consolidation of Dalit votes in favor of the BJP. “In the Old Mysuru region, most Dalits are the Holeyas, while the Kalyana Karnataka and Central Karnataka regions are dominated by the Madigas. The BJP has improved significantly.”

Traditionally, the SCs in Karnataka are divided into two groups: Dalit Left and Dalit Right.

The Dalit left, which identifies with former Deputy Prime Minister Jagjivan Ram, claims that the Dalit right, while small in numbers, reaped the bulk of the reservation benefits. The Dalit left’s call for the introduction of internal reservations among registered castes, as recommended by the Justice AJ Sadashiva Commission, remains unfulfilled. That anger was directed at Congress in 2018.

The result: Of the 35 assembly segments reserved for Dalits, the BJP ended up winning 17.

The BJP has sought to break Congress’ hold on the Ahinda, a Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits.

There is a perception that Congress has neglected Dalit rights – Rajya Sabha MP Mallikarjun Kharge and former MP CM G Parameshwara belong to this sect. The BJP has benefited from this by promoting figures such as Union Minister A Narayanaswamy, Minister of Water Resources Govind Karjol and MP Ramesh Jigajinagi, who belong to the Dalit left.

Also read: Caste Switching Dynamics

The BJP is making a massive imaging effort. Take for example the 2020 Bengaluru riots. The BJP projected the riots as an attack on a Dalit MP and the “failure” of Congress to support him, a plan advocated by the BJP’s National Secretary-General (Organization) BL Santhosh, was directed. Pulakeshinagar, MLA of Congress, Akhanda Srinivas Murthy, whose home was destroyed in the violence, is a member of the Bhovi congregation.

There are Dalit voters in almost all 224 parliamentary constituencies. “But the votes of the Dalit are decisive with at least 60 to 70 seats,” says Kudachi MP P Rajeev. Because of this spread, people like Rajeev are trying to unite the Dalits. “The whole ‘right versus left’ thing is a creation of Congress,” says Rajeev, a former police sub-inspector who is considered a rising star in the BJP. “We say that the local Hindus are Dalits.”

Bommai himself uses some political interventions to woo the Dalits.

In the new fiscal year, the BJP government is streamlining the Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan and the Tribal Sub-Plan (SCSP-TSP) which has an expense of Rs 28,234 crore. “In the past, salaries were included in expenses. We have now withheld salaries, which means SC/STs will receive more funding,” Rajeev points out.

But there is still work to be done, according to Mahesh, who says addressing the Dalits’ identity problem will not be enough.

“The government will get sympathy from the SCs if the law prohibiting the transfer of certain properties is changed,” he says. “In addition, the SCSP-TSP must remove the ‘assumed expenses’ clause that prevents SC/ST funds from being diverted.”

The Hijab controversy benefited the BJP to further break the Ahinda. And it can be used to bring voters under the Hindutva grips, which worked well in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “Some of the Dalits will be with the BJP and some will not. There are ambiguities,” says political scientist Muzaffar Assadi, dean of arts at the University of Mysore. Karnataka is still caste-bound, Assadi says, and that makes the BJP’s plan to bring voters under the Hindutva umbrella difficult.

“There are three phases for this,” explains Assadi. “The first phase deals with caste identity. The second phase involves moving away from caste identity. The third stage is Hindutva,” he says. “And we’re still in the first phase.”

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