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Caste games in focus in Karnataka

Apart from supposedly boosting his image as the leader of the backward community, the findings of the census could also propel him to the chief minister’s post in the event the Congress comes to power in 2023, by pipping his arch rival, state Congress president, D K Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, to the post.

Tyagraj Sharma | Bengaluru |

 

In 2015 when the then Congress chief minister, Siddaramiah, initiated a caste census in Karnataka, the first since 1931 in the country, his objective was simple. He wanted to exploit the findings to reiterate his claim as the leader of the Dalits, backwards and minorities in the state.
For, he firmly believed that the population of the OBCs had outpaced that of the dominant communities like the Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Accordingly, Siddaramiah, a Kuruba, was confident that the census would put these majority sections in their place by revealing that their numbers had dipped sharply while those of the weaker classes, including the minorities, had risen sharply.
The census, he was convinced, would help the OBCs, in particular, to benefit through enhanced reservations, not to mention more election tickets and allied assistance, all of which would ultimately help him in particular, and the Congress in general, in the 2018 assembly polls.
Under the socio-economic caste census, as it was called, about 1.3 lakh enumerators collected data from nearly 1.4 crore homes and cost the exchequer about Rs 168 crore, going by available reports.
Significantly, the census was opposed by the dominant communities as they believed that it could cause a social upheaval, considering the vast number of castes in the state. The argument was simple: what if some of the castes which had been denied any major benefits in the past , suddenly came out on top, population wise, to the discomfort of others.
Above all, the Lingayats and Vokkaligas also feared that the census would lead to a dilution of their power, which was another reason for opposing it. A determined Siddaramiah, however, could not be denied as he ordered for the census to be undertaken.
Intriguingly, though, once the report was completed, Siddaramiah did not accept or publish it. His well wishers claimed that this was largely because of the pressure exercised by the Lingayat and Vokkaliga Congressmen. Others who know him better said that he was chary of engaging the monster which he was well aware he would end up releasing.
The end result, of course, was that the report remained in cold storage, till some leaked portions, predictably, made the dominant communities uncomfortable. According to these little slices, the authenticity of which remain under a cloud, the population of these dominant segments had plummeted to nine and eight per cent, respectively. This was against the current assumption of 17 to 18 per cent for the Lingayats and about 12 to 14 for the Vokkaligas.in
Naturally, this also led to a sharp reaction from these sections which organised a meeting involving their pontiffs and senior leaders in Bengaluru in 2016, protesting against the census and claiming that it was conducted in an ”unscientific way.” They also decided to file a writ petition in the High Court. According to them, the population of the Lingayats and Vokkaligas stood at about 1.5 crore and 1 crore, respectively. Yet, the 2015 census appeared to show that their numbers had dipped to 65 lakh and 55 lakh, respectively. It is another matter, as the critics put it, there is no authentic data for them to claim a dominant status, largely because the last caste census in the country was conducted in 1931.
Not surprisingly, though, the two communities even alleged that Siddaramiah had “managed the census” to show that the population of the OBCs had outpaced that of the majority communities while showing Muslims at second spot. “The idea was to corner the powerful Lingayats and Vokkaligas, albeit politically and socially, ” went the refrain.
In addition, there were allegations that the census was incomplete as the enumerators did not visit thousands of houses in Bengaluru, for one. The district commissioners, on their part, also did not furnish the required details. Under the circumstances, the census survey could not be accepted.
Meanwhile, following the mixed verdict in the 2018 assembly elections, the JDS-Congress government came to power under H D Kumaraswamy, the Vokkaliga leader. He was clearly in no mood to release the report. Surprisingly again, Siddaramiah kept quiet all along without protesting or uttering a word.
Yet, once the coalition government fell and the BJP managed to grab power under B S Yediyurappa in 2019, Siddaramiah was quick to renew his demand for the release and publication of the controversial report, but without much success.
Now, however, with a section of the opposition parties from Bihar pushing the Narendra Modi government for a caste census, Siddaramiah has upped the ante. This is not surprising because the state assembly polls are scheduled for 2023. Accordingly, he sees this as an ideal opportunity to mount pressure on the Basavaraj Bommai government during the assembly session, starting from 13 September.
While ostensibly seeking to bring the Congress back to power, he is acutely aware of the benefits that will come his way. Apart from supposedly boosting his image as the leader of the backward community, the findings of the census could also propel him to the chief minister’s post in the event the Congress comes to power in 2023, by pipping his arch rival, state Congress president, D K Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, to the post.
Shivakumar, it is worth remembering, also wears his ambition on his sleeve and is determined to get the top post in the event the Congress comes to power in the next elections. Witness, therefore, the sharp comments that the two Congress leaders have been exchanging while maintaining an appropriate public posture. Accordingly, the Vokkaliga leader would be the last person to want the census report to be made public as that would make his own position untenable, if the leaked portions are anything to go by.
In a related development, Siddaramiah has now been demanding a caste census every ten years, akin to the general census. Congress sources point out that he has been encouraged by the recent Constitutional amendment aimed at restoring the rights of the states and the Union Territories. Under this they can maintain their own list of OBCs.
The cynics, however, believe that such a census could open a can of worms as the party in power would, predictably, find it virtually impossible to meet the aspirations of the different caste groups.
Besides, the 2015 survey in Karnataka, it is learnt, compiled data on sub castes as well which revealed a growth in numbers. This could, political parties fear, result in greater demand for reservations, something that may be difficult to accommodate.
The Bommai government, in the meanwhile, would prefer to take a call on the caste census report depending on what the Centre decides following the plea by the politicians from Bihar, including NDA ally, chief minister, Nitish Kumar, to the Prime Minister.
It would not be out of place here to mention that the Yediyurappa government had declined permission to the planning and statistics department to access some details from the census. The officials believed that the data would help them in delivering and monitoring different government schemes. The denial had raised a storm at that time.