It comes as a bit of a surprise when Deva Nayak, an elderly, tribal shopkeeper in Beerihundi village of the Chamundeshwari assembly constituency, criticises the state government’s “Anna Bhagya”, or free foodgrains, scheme for the poor.
Congressman and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah grew up in a Kuruba, or shepherd, household in Beerihundi village, and Chamundeshwari and Badami are the two seats he is contesting from in the upcoming assembly polls.
“Siddaramaiah has worked only for his people (Kurubas). They are the biggest beneficiaries of the ‘Bhagya’ scheme,” Deva Nayak says with some bitterness, and adds that the scheme had made people lazy.
The 60-year-old tribal shopkeeper owns a couple of hectares of farmland, two submersible pumps, which he rents out, and a shop, which does good business, on the state highway.
This criticism of “Anna Bhagya”, particularly from the landed among the tribals and Dalits, the castes which have been its principal beneficiaries, comes up often in the Mysuru, Hassan and Mandya belt of southern Karnataka.
The landed Vokkaligas, Lingayat traders, the rural rich and middle classes of small towns do not tire of pointing at the pitfalls of the “Anna Bhagya” scheme.
“Earlier I could get workers to work on my farmland seven days a week. Now, because of ‘Anna Bhagya’ they work no more than three days a week, and sleep the rest of the week,” said Shantiah Gowda, a Vokkaliga in the Holenarsipura constituency in Hassan.
Contractors in urban centres of Hassan, Mandya and Mysuru have similar complaints. They say they have struggled to find cheap labour after the “Anna Bhagya” has been introduced.
In Beerihundi, most other tribals of the Nayak clan, let alone Kurubas, laud the government for the scheme.
In Hongere village, Shivanna, a Vokkaliga farmer, puts the issue in perspective. “We could have died in successive droughts but for the ‘Anna Bhagya’,” he says, resolving to vote for Siddaramaiah to show his gratitude.
Darshan, an engineering student who also helps his father with his provision store in Hassan, finds Siddaramaiah’s politics not that of a “jana nayaka”, or people’s leader. “He is wasting our money on schemes like the “Anna Bhagya”, which makes people lazy, and is also dividing society on caste lines. He has not done anything for the cities or creating jobs. (Narendra) Modi is a leader who is talking about development,” the 22-year-old says, and asserts all his friends think similarly about Modi.
Siddaramaiah isn’t exactly a polarising figure. But the Congress is faced with an incipient class divide in Karnataka. The relatively prosperous, cutting across caste lines, no longer think of the Congress in Karnataka as a party that can fulfil their aspirations.
If in the rest of India, the BJP, under Prime Minister Modi, has tried to reinvent itself as a party that thinks of the poor, in Karnataka it is the party of the aspirational classes. In stark contrast, the poor of even the intermediate castes, like Vokkaligas and Lingayats, particularly in remoter rural areas, laud Siddaramaiah.
This nascent class divide could give the BJP hope for a good performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but sleepless nights to the Congress leadership if it were to form the government again, in the months to come. With increasing urbanisation, Congress strategists say they would need to recast their image to appeal to urban voters.