Karnataka elections: BJP banks on Vokkaliga leaders to break into opposition bastion
Like the Lingayats who hold the key to determine election results in large parts of the state, the Vokkaligas have the power to influence around 44 assembly seats spread over South Karnataka
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts to consolidate its position among the influential Vokkaliga community in the Devanahalli and Chikkballapura assembly constituencies hinges primarily on brining community leaders from other political outfits into the party’s fold. Both the assembly constituencies with a sizeable Vokkaliga population are the stronghold of the Janata Dal Secular or the JD(S); and the BJP wants a toehold. The party was hopeful that the recent reservation redistribution, which earmarked 2% additional reservation for the Vokkaliga would help it break into the opposition‘s bastion -- but with that decision on hold for now, the party is counting on the popularity of its candidates.
Like the Lingayats who hold the key to determine election results in large parts of the state, the Vokkaligas have the power to influence around 44 assembly seats spread over South Karnataka, parts of central Karnataka and Udupi districts.
In Chikkaballapura, the party’s nominee BN Bache Gowda’s win against former chief minister and Congress stalwart, Veerappa Moily in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls came as a shot in the arm for the BJP. While it lost the assembly seat in 2018, the subsequent defection by Congress leader K Sudhakar, who won the 2019 by-poll on the BJP ticket restored balance. Today, the party is hopeful of retaining the seat, owing to the popularity of Sudhakar, who holds the portfolio of health in the state. He’s pitted against the Congress’s Pradeep Eshwar Ayyar ‘PE’ and the JDS nominee KP Bachegowda.
In the constituency, people praise Sudhakar for being accessible. “He’s an educated man, he’s accessible, his office ensures people who come with complaints or requests are properly heard. He was equally popular when he was in the Congress,” said Muniraju, who runs a non-government organisation.
Other residents concede that BJP’s performance in the constituency rests on Sudhakar’s popularity and not on people’s affiliation for the party or the work that the state government likes to take credit for, such as incentives to farmers. In addition to the ₹6,000 given by the union government, under the PM Kisan Nidhi, the state government also gives ₹4,000 annually to farmers. High inflation however dominates the narrative.
“The BJP is not as good as the Congress and the JDS…look at how expensive everything is. They give money (under the PM Kisan Yojna) but is that sufficient, when the cost of labour, fertilisers, pesticides is going through roof? “asked Ashwath a farmer who grows grapes on the outskirts of the constituency.
Laxman GM who grows two varieties of grapes, the Bangalore Blue coveted by the wine makers and the Dilkhush, says the government has burdened farmers with high GST on fertilisers. “I pay high GST on pesticides, government talks of organic farming but there is no help, we don’t even get water and have to dig bore wells as deep as 1300 feet to get the minimum supply.”
Absence of cold storage facilities for grapes, has added to the woes of the farmers. “We are not getting more than ₹10 per kg for our produce, it doesn’t even cover costs…most of us grow pomegranates and keep cows to buttress our income,” Laxman adds.
In the adjoining SC reserved seat of Devanahalli, where the BJP has never won, the party’s bid to use Hindutva to rouse Vokkaliga pride found cheerleaders only among the ideological committed.
The party tried to invoke the Vokkaliga pride by celebrating two community chieftains Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda who they claimed played a pivotal role in killing Tipu Sultan, the once decorated ruler of Mysore now at the centre of a controversial debate over his alleged anti Hindu predilection. However, with subsequent questions about the very existence of the two Gowdas, and, if they existed, whether they killed Tipu, the party appears to have abandoned this approach.
A little over an hour’s drive from Bengaluru in Devanahalli is a memorial to mark the birthplace of Tipu Sultan, who earned the sobriquet of the “Tiger of Mysore” for valiantly fighting the British. An unpretentious stone slab announces it as the birthplace of Tipu Sultan born in 1751 AD.
“Here no one like this…calling Tipu bad. People live peacefully here, sometimes there is a fight between people of different caste, but that happens in other places. Government should not make people fight, “ said an auto driver outside the Chikkakere Sri Anjaneya Swamy temple that adjoins a Dargah near the entrance to the Devanahalli Fort, a few metres from Tipu’s birthplace.
Residents here complain about the lack of well-paying jobs . “Farmers want markets for selling fruit. We get power for just about 7 hours, water table is low,” said Muniyappa, who works on a farm. The area has cultivation of mango, pomelo, grapes and mud apples.
Chandan, a first-time voter who has a degree in commerce, saysthat while several industries have operations in the region, the younger, educated lot have to travel outside the constituency to earn well.
“There are many big names that operate from here, Reliance, Flipkart…but the wages are low,” he says. Most residents here say they are “torn” over who to support, since the MP is from the BJP (BN Bache Gowda) and the sitting MLA is the JDS’s Narayanan Swamy.
In the Congress camp, there is a flutter, since the party high command chose to field K.H. Muniyappa, despite the workers demanding a fresh face. “The fight is between the JDS and the BJP,” says Chandan.
The tussle between the state government and the farmers over the procurement of land for development projects that resulted in some farmers being detained by the police for disrupting Independence Day celebrations in 2022 is still a simmering issue.
“The government said they will bring big changes, but first they have to compensate the farmers properly,” said a resident, not wishing to be named. He said he owned about 10 acres of land, away from the project, but knows of farmers who will be affected by the procurement of land for Haralur Industrial project.
Professor of political science at the Bangalore University, SY Surendra Kumar said caste is a key factor for determining election outcome and the reason why the BJP’s strategy of polarisation did not work in the state. He said the attempt to valorise the Gowda chieftains and therefore the Vokkaligas was a ruse to divert attention from administrative lapses.
“The Tipu Sultan, controversy was an attempt to divert attention from governance, deficiencies, issues of corruption and not being able to provide welfare schemes to people. It was an attempt to consolidate the BJP’s position among the Vokkaligas by trying to introduce new faces,” he said.