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Aditi Phadnis: Karnataka's caste of characters

Caste politics may result in an interesting stand off and much depends on Yeddyurappa

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

While the attention of the rest of the country is riveted on the states going for Assembly elections later this year, the only state in south India with a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is facing quiet upheavals.

Now that Makar Sankranti is over, time has run out for the BJP high command. Ousted Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa – who had been indicted in not just the illegal mining case but also illegal land dealings – had warned that the party must reinstate him before Makar Sankranti. That brought the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) out on the roads. Yeddyurappa was replaced by D V Sadananda Gowda as chief minister of Karnataka when the land scandal broke. But when Yeddyurappa came out of detention, he believed he would be given a place in the sun. The RSS had to step in. A day after RSS directed the Karnataka BJP unit to put an end to the internal squabbling over the leadership issue, Excise Minister M P Renukacharya, a Yeddyurappa loyalist, said Gowda was his CM but Yeddyurappa his leader. Renukacharya was quoted as having said he expected Gowda to “abide by the decision that was taken before Yeddyurappa stepped down” and make way for the former chief minister to be reinstated in the post after Makar Sankranti.

B S YeddyurappaGowda, the man with a permanent smile, has meanwhile done what his predecessor used to do when under pressure. He organised a Bhoota-Kola (spirit worship) at his ancestral home. The spirit Vishnumurthy, local newspapers reported, blessed Gowda and promised to back him “everywhere and forever”. Through the medium, a local priest, the spirit declared, “You need not fear when I’m with you.” The medium, who went into a trance for an hour, also had advice for the chief minister. “Be highly respectful to your mother, who is most important. Mother is God in human form,” the spirit was quoted as having said through the medium.

So apart from respect for his mother, how is Gowda going to use the spirit’s backing? There is indication that Gowda is trying to become his own man. He belongs to a Vokkaliga sub-caste that hails from Mangalore (most Vokkaligas are concentrated in the Hassan-Mandya region). When Yeddyurappa ran into trouble, he was the one who chose Gowda. Power in Karnataka has been wielded by the two dominant castes — Vokkaliga and Lingayat. While Gowda is a Vokkaliga, Yeddyurappa is a Lingayat and because they were not a threat to each other, they formed a power compact that worked well.

But now that Gowda has become chief minister and Yeddyurappa is on the outside, looking into the inside with his nose pressed against the door, he can see how Gowda could pose a challenge to him.

One source is the Janata Dal (Secular) or the JD(S). Dominated by Vokkaliga H D Deve Gowda and his sons, Kumaraswamy and Revanna, the JD(S) is desperate to come back to power.

Why is the JD(S) so important? In a house of 225, the BJP has 119 MLAs, the Congress has 71 and the JD(S) has only 26. But a majority of the MLAs in the BJP support Yeddyurappa.

What if the chatter that has engulfed Bengaluru were true that Yeddyurappa is thinking of forming a separate party? Earlier this week, the heads of 25 Veerashaiva mutts called on him to strengthen his hands. He is under pressure and knows it. He also knows that whatever Gowda might say, he isn’t lifting a little finger to help him out in his legal troubles.

Overtures to Gowda from H D Kumaraswamy cannot be ruled out. Though they are from the same caste there is no competition — because the regions are different. And it isn’t as if Kumaraswamy and the BJP are untouchables. They have collaborated in the past and it was Kumaraswamy’s refusal to let Yeddyurappa have his turn as chief minister that actually contributed to the BJP’s victory in the last Assembly elections — because voters were so sympathetic at the JD(S) managing to successfully swindle the BJP out of the chief ministership.

What Gowda lacks in terms of a mass base, Kumaraswamy makes up for. Gowda was a Lok Sabha MP (Udupi-Chikmagalur) when the crisis in Karnataka broke. He couldn’t find a seat to contest from and finally opted to come through the Legislative Council. Kumaraswamy worked hard during his chief ministership: he tried to create a base all through 2006, and local newspapers reported that he went to a Dalit colony near Mysore and stayed at the house of an “untouchable”. (He carried a Kurl-On mattress with him along with mineral water and a commode). The two together might gang up for tactical reasons, but all the other castes will also gang up — against them.

All this has the makings of an interesting stand-off in Karnataka. If the Congress plays its cards well, it also has the potential of puncturing the BJP’s base. The party isn’t doing much currently. If it stirs itself, Karnataka politics could see an entertaining turn in the months to come.

First Published: Sat, January 21 2012. 00:00 IST