The Complicated Caste Math Of Parties In Karnataka


Karnataka has 36 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and 15 for Scheduled Tribes.

In mid-April, the elections in Karnataka reached an odd inflection point. The Congress narrative pivoted to put forth a message that “Lingayat” voters had been betrayed because the BJP sidelined former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa and denied a party ticket to Jagadish Shettar. By offering sympathies to the two Lingayat leaders from the ruling party, the Congress party hoped to sway Lingayat voters who have traditionally aligned with the BJP.

Elsewhere in Southern Karnataka, the effort to reel in Vokkaligas – who traditionally align with the Janata Dal (Secular) or Congress – has seen the BJP extend reservations to the community, build mammoth statues of Vokkaliga ruler Kempegowda, and even push for the narrative that Vokkaligas figures had killed Tipu Sultan in the 17th century. 

Caste remains a big factor in the Karnataka election, with parties attempting social engineering at the constituency level to capture maximum votes. This is reflected most starkly in the candidates selected by parties.

Nearly 45% of the candidates picked by the Congress, BJP and JD(S) are from the Vokkaliga or Lingayat community. The BJP has the highest number of candidates from the Lingayat community; JD(S), whose leadership centres around HD Deve Gowda’s family, is dominated by Vokkaliga candidates.

Party strategists from across the spectrum agree that the candidates do not reflect the caste composition of the state – instead, they reflect the political dominance of certain castes in Karnataka’s politics. Karnataka has not released figures of a caste census conducted in 2017-18. However, unofficial estimates peg Lingayat voters anywhere at 14-18% of the population; and Vokkaliga population at 11-16% of the population.

The 2023 patterns are similar to that in 2018. For the second consecutive election, the BJP has not fielded a candidate from the Muslim or Christian community. In 2018, the Congress attempted to come back to power through their AHINDA strategy – a Kannada abbreviation for minorities, backward classes and Scheduled Castes. In 2023, just under a half of their candidates are from these sections of society.

Table: A caste breakdown of candidates in the Karnataka election

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A bulk of North Karnataka is Lingayat-dominated, while an overwhelming majority of Bengaluru and Southern Karnataka candidates are Vokkaliga. The proportion of Other Backward Castes is highest in Coastal Karnataka due to the presence of a large Billava population (by most estimates, almost two-thirds of the population). The BJP banks on the Hindutva vote and the popularity of Narendra Modi here. The Congress is hoping to use caste math against Hindutva by fielding Billava candidates in constituencies where the BJP candidate is from the numerically smaller, but politically more powerful Bunt community.

Region-wise list of caste representation in candidates in General constituencies

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When all three parties field candidates from the same caste

In 46 general constituencies in Karnataka, the Congress, BJP and JD(S) have fielded candidates of the same caste. Some 21 of these constituencies feature Lingayat candidates – a majority of these constituencies are in Northern Karnataka – and 25 constituencies have Vokkaliga candidates (all in Southern Karnataka). In Lingayat seats, most incumbents are from the BJP, while for Vokkaliga seats, it is the JD(S) that dominates.

46 general constituencies where BJP, JD(S) and Congress have fielded candidates of the same caste in 2023

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In Head to Heads:

This year, the Congress and the BJP – who are cumulatively expected to win the bulk of constituencies in the state – have fielded candidates from the same caste in 76 constituencies.

This is an uptick from 2018, when the Congress and BJP had fielded candidates of the same caste in 70 constituencies. Of these, BJP won 31 constituencies, the Congress won 22, and the JD(S) scooped up the rest, primarily in the Vokkaliga-dominated pockets of Southern Karnataka. 

In 33 seats where Lingayats from the Congress and the BJP went head-to-head, the BJP won 19 seats compared to the Congress’s 12. In 28 constituencies where the Congress and BJP fielded Vokkaliga candidates, the Congress won eight constituencies, BJP 6, and the rest was won by JD(S).

Table: Constituencies where parties are fielding candidates of the same caste

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Sub-caste vs Sub-caste

In mid-April, the BJP denied a party ticket to former deputy Chief Minister Laxman Savadi. The Congress jumped on the opportunity and offered him a seat. The Congress’s calculations rested on Savadi’s stature, not as a Lingayat leader but as a leader of a Lingayat sub-sect called the Ganigas. Similarly, with the entry of former BJP Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar, the Congress hopes to hold sway among a sub-sect of Lingayats called Banajigas. The Congress has fielded three Ganiga candidates and four Banajiga candidates.

The BJP’s influence is considered strongest among the Panchamshali Lingayats, a numerically dominant community within the Lingayat caste. The BJP has 18 candidates from this sub-caste, compared to 14 from the Congress. The BJP government’s recent announcement to increase the quota for the Lingayat community by 2% was meant to placate leaders of this sub-caste who had protested for 71 days to push for reservations for Lingayats.

The sub-sect caste calculation is perhaps most stark in seats reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates.

Karnataka has 36 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and 15 for Scheduled Tribes. The many communities of Scheduled Castes have been traditionally classified into four categories for internal reservations: ‘Left’ Scheduled Caste communities considered more oppressed; ‘Right’ Scheduled Caste communities who are largely agrarian; ‘Touchables’ that include the nomadic Lambani community; and others.

While the Lambani have traditionally voted for the BJP due to Yediyurappa’s influence; the Karnataka government’s recent decision to revise the internal reservations within the Scheduled Caste community yielded higher reservations to the ‘Left’ Scheduled Caste. The political calculation was it would help bring in votes from these communities.

Within the Scheduled Caste-reserved seats, the BJP has given 11 seats for candidates from the ‘Left’ sections and 10 from the ‘Lambani’ sections.

The Congress, on the other hand, has given 16 to the ‘Right’ Scheduled Caste (whose community includes Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge) and just five to the ‘Lambani’ sections.



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