In what comes as a shot in the arm for the Congress ahead of the Karnataka Assembly elections, prominent Dalit leaders, especially from Scheduled Castes “Left Hand” who had consolidated in favour of the BJP in previous polls, joined the party on Tuesday, 21 March.
For the Congress, which has been struggling to win back voters from SC (Left hand) community, a host of leaders from the group joining the party is crucial to strengthening its Dalit vote bank.
It comes as a fillip to the party that was already working towards wooing Dalit communities in Karnataka with the elevation of Mallikarjun Kharge — a Dalit political icon from the state — as Congress president.
Traditionally, the numerically somewhat smaller SC (Right hand) has been a dependable vote bank for the Congress, while the BJP, since its significant emergence in Karnataka in the mid-1990s, has managed to woo the numerically larger SC Left communities.
Related: Sea of blue gathers to demand reservations for SCs
Who are the leaders joining the Congress?
Prominent faces of SC Left communities, leaders who have spearheaded the agitation for SC internal reservation, are now set to contest on Congress tickets in the upcoming Assembly elections, making the party hopeful of winning over the formidable SC (Left hand).
“Having fought for the rights of SC castes deemed ‘untouchable’, especially the Madiga community, for over 30 years, we have decided to join the Congress on their assurance of larger political representation for SC Left hand candidates and implementation of internal reservation,” Ambanna Arolikar, state leader of the Madiga Reservation Horata Samithi (MRHS), told South First.
“We have in the past backed the BJP when the Congress didn’t keep its promise. But this time around, the BJP has failed to deliver on its promises,” added Arolikar, who has been spearheading the continued protests demanding SC internal reservations at Freedom Park in Bengaluru since November last year.
Along with Arolikar, 16 SC Left leader from organisations like the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS) and the Madiga Dandora, Adijambava Janasangha, joined the Congress. “Hennur Srinivas, Mareesh Nagannavar, Sanna Marenna, Venkatesh Alur, A Narasimhamurthy, B Mariswamy Kottur, Muralidhara Melinamani, Muralidhara Melinamani, Bidar Vijayakumar, Thimmappa Alkur, Chitradurga Rajanna, Uduchappa Yellappa Malagi, Munikrishnaiah, Yellappa Goramagolla and Maruti Siddappa Rangapuri are joining from SC Left communities. Former bureaucrat H P Sudham Das has brought us together,” Arolikar added.
The new inductions also include Congress’ traditional dependable vote bank of SC Right, with five district level leaders, including former Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) state president B Gopal joining the party.
Related: Karnataka gives in-principle nod to up SC/ST quota by 6%
SC Left, SC Right and ‘touchable’ communities
In Karnataka, Dalits are prominently (and politically) divided into two major groups — the SC Right hand and SC Left hand.
It is, however, a third group that includes “touchable” sub-castes like Bhovi and Lambani that have greater political representation.
This group is also seen to have benefited the most out of reservations, followed by SC Right groups, leaving the numerically larger and socio-economically most vulnerable SC Left groups deprived of opportunities.
Hence, the demand from SC Left groups for internal reservation is stronger.
Informal assessments suggest that Scheduled Castes make up nearly 20 percent of Karnataka’s population, making them the single-most numerically significant caste group. The formidable Dalit community is, however, divided into 101 castes and sub-castes.
Related: Absurdity of quota demands, tall promises in poll-bound Karnataka
AJ Sadashiva Commission report
The Justice AJ Sadashiva Commission, which was set up in 2005 by the then Congress-JD(S) government and submitted its report to the then BJP government in 2012, had broadly divided the SC communities into four categories, based on socio-economic status, vulnerability, representation in education, jobs, etc:
- Holeyas and 24 other castes (deemed Right hand “untouchable”)
- Madigas and 29 other related castes (Left hand “untouchable’)
- Non-Holeya and non-Madiga “untouchable” castes
- Other “touchable” castes like Lambani, Bhovi, etc.
The commission itself was set up to look into internal reservations for SCs. The committee’s report is yet to be tabled in the Karnataka Assembly, but its content has been discussed in the public domain to demand internal reservation within the SC quota to ensure the most vulnerable sections of the community get benefits.
SC community, a formidable political force
Currently, of the 224 Assembly constituencies in Karnataka, 36 are reserved for SC candidates, and 15 for ST candidates.
Such is the sway of Dalit and ST communities over electoral outcomes, that the Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government in Karnataka was compelled in December last year to hike reservations for SC and ST communities by two and four percent, respectively.
The hike, however, breaches the 50 percent ceiling on reservation and the process to Constitutionally validate the hike is yet to be taken up. The BJP has been a big beneficiary of SC (Left hand) vote bank over the years.
“We have asked Congress to give tickets to 14 candidates from Madiga and related communities (SC Left) and 14 tickets to Chalavadis and related communities (SC Right). The rest of the eight tickets for reserved constituencies can go to ‘touchable’ groups. I would like to contest from either Haveri, Aurad or Shirahatti,” said Ambanna Arolikar, adding that for far too long political parties had only been prioritising “touchable” groups among SCs.
By putting SC Left leaders like former union minister Ramesh Jigajinagi, incumbent minister in Karnataka Govind Karjol in politically powerful positions, the BJP over the years has consistently managed to keep the SC Left vote bank appeased.
Congress’ political preference for SC Right groups over the years had increasingly alienated the SC Left. Despite leaders like former Union Minister KH Muniyappa and former Karnataka minister H Anjaneya in Congress regimes, the party had not been able to woo back SC Left voters. From former Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara to incumbent AICC President Mallikarjun Kharge, several prominent Dalit leaders of Congress hail from SC Right communities.
Not a homogenous group
Political analyst Prof Narendar Pani agrees on the political representation front.
“Cutting across parties, a big number of Dalit legislators are from communities like Bhovi or Lambani/Banjara. As caste groups, neither the Left nor the Right seem to definitely back one single party; a lot depends on the candidate,” Prof Pani told South First.
“Moreover, parties must also not look at SC Right or SC Left as homogenous groups. There are specific sub-caste divisions within, and each sub-caste and community is distinct,” he added, pointing to how BJP targeted the Lambani/Banjara community specifically during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Karnataka on 19 January.
SC Left hand is estimated to make up around 60 lakh voters in Karnataka, while SC Right hand is estimated to make up 55 lakhs.
“We are a decisive voter force in some 120 seats. There is not a single constituency, including general constituencies, where there are no Madigas. You will find at least 35,000 voters from the community in all seats,” Arolikar claimed, insisting that the community will consolidate on issues and internal reservation was one that is centre to their struggles.
With leaders from SC Left hand group joining the party and Mallikarjun Kharge — a prominent Dalit leader from SC Right himself leading the party — the Congress hopes to strengthen its AHINDA (Kannada acronym for Minorities, Backward Classes and Dalits) poll pitch.