On most days, there would be a bigger group of women crafting terracotta jewellery inside the thatched shed at a corner of Pothnal village, 65 kilometres from Raichur city. There are only four at the moment because the others have gone out to distribute pamphlets. The women have five election demands, all basic needs out of which health is top priority—in this region known for its high infant mortality rate, they want the vacant posts of doctors and nurses at government hospitals to be filled up immediately, and are also asking for better scanning facilities and neonatal intensive care units in taluk hospitals. Whichever candidate wins, these are our demands, says Chinnamma, president of the Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatane (JMS), a collective of women from the Madiga community—among the most backward of the scheduled castes in Karnataka. “And, if they don’t deliver, our next protest will be in front of the MLA’s house. We have done it before.”
Yet, among these women, as with the Madigas in general, it’s the larger issue of internal reservation that rankles. “It’s on everybody’s mind,” says Chinnamma. The Madigas, who are a large community, were counting on CM Siddaramaiah to see through their demand for internal quotas to put them on par with other SC communities. “But he hasn’t, and has just given us an assurance. Our Madiga votes are more in number. If we don’t get what we are due, why should we vote for them,” she asks. Does she feel the BJP will do it? “We don’t know who will. We might also press the khali (NOTA) button, we can’t say,” comes the cryptic reply.
Activist Hullur Kumaraswamy: “We’ll support the Congress’s Madiga candidates—and help others elsewhere.”
The divide between the Madigas and the state’s other large SC community, the Holeyas—known as the ‘left’ and ‘right’ groups respectively—goes back a long way. Karnataka’s Dalit electorate, it’s generally believed, is the largest voting bloc in terms of sheer numbers, but their vote is typically fragmented among different parties. So, even as the BJP faces Dalit anger elsewhere in the country, it’s eyeing their support in Karnataka; for instance, by giving more tickets to Madiga candidates than the Congress when the Madiga disappointment with Karnataka’s ruling party is quite apparent. Or by reminding voters, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi does in his election speeches, of how the Congress neglected to make Mallikarjun Kharge—who’s from the rival Holeya community—chief minister in 2013.
What appears, though, is a mixed picture. “We are angry with the Congress but even more so with the BJP. They are talking about amending the Constitution,” is how Hullur Kumaraswamy, an activist with the Madiga Reservation Horata Samiti in the central Karnataka district of Chitradurga, puts it. If the BJP is “cutting our throats,” the Congress is “giving us slow poison,” he says. Of course, the non-implementation of the Justice A.J. Sadashiva committee’s report on equitable distribution of reservation facilities among the scheduled castes is his main grouse against the Congress. The backwardness, he says, has also deprived his community of political significance. “Madigas don’t have money, so political parties tell us their prospects will be damaged if they give us tickets even in seats where our votes are decisive,” says Kumaraswamy, adding: “So we have come to a decision that we will make our community candidates win and defeat our rivals.” He’s referring to other Dalit communities like Holeya, Lambani and Bhovi. “Where Congress has given Madigas seats we will help them win. But where they haven’t, we will support others. This is politics, we too need to preserve our strength,” he says.
The Madigas didn’t go on the offensive in the past five years because chief minister Siddaramaiah was sympathetic to AHINDA (the Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits), he says. Of course, the Siddaramaiah government gave poor people several welfare schemes, he admits, “But that’s for everybody, we are not the only ones getting it. What we are asking for specifically is internal reservation.” The members of the Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatane in Raichur echo the sentiment. “On one count, the Congress gave us some gaurava (respect). But not implementing the Sadashiva committee report on internal reservation is wrong,” says Chinnamma. On the other hand, these women say, with the BJP there’s always the worry about communal issues.
The Madigas largely backed the Congress for many years, but political analysts say that others such as the Bahujan Samaj Party have eaten into that vote share over time. In this election, the BSP is contesting 18 seats in alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular). There are strong leaders from the community in both the Congress and the BJP, and even in the JD(S), according to Basavamurthy Madara Chennaiah Swami, the Chitradurga-based religious seer who BJP national president Amit Shah visited last month. “We’ll have to wait and watch which way they will take the community,” he says.
Congress’s Priyank Kharge campaigning in his seat, Chittapur
Such caste divisions have become pronounced this time, reckons political scientist Valerian Rodrigues. The internal reservation issue is a tricky one politically, not to mention the legal and constitutional bottlenecks. “If the Congress had instituted that, they would have faced huge turmoil from within the party. So, Siddaramaiah did not go to that. He had to carry the Dalit fold together if he was to have any chance of winning the elections,” he says.
“If the BJP had any real concern about Dalit leadership in the country, they should have given the status of Leader of the Opposition to Mr Kharge. Suddenly after four years, PM Modi has woken up to the fact that he (Kharge) was not made a Dalit CM,” says Priyank Kharge, 38, son of the veteran Congressman and a first-term MLA, now defending his father’s old assembly seat of Chittapur in Gulbarga. The Sadashiva commission report has been put forth for a legal opinion. “Nobody is against the report,” he says. “I don’t think the BJP has the right to comment about anything to do with Dalits in the country when they are being lynched in broad daylight and their ministers are doing ‘Dalit tourism’,” he says, arguing that the Congress’s Dalit support remains intact because it has delivered on promises. He points to the Karnataka Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan Act, 2013, which his government has brought in to increase the allocation of funds to the Dalit communities.
The Dalit political force, though strong, doesn’t help these communities because the vote is generally split among 5–6 parties, says veteran activist M. Venkataswamy, who is the candidate of the Republican Party of India (Athwale) in Kolar. Even while the three big parties don’t stand for Dalits, they will still inevitably capture power, he argues. “Compared to the previous three elections, Dalits will definitely have a big role in these polls,” he says, claiming that the Congress will face a setback in at least 30 seats that his party is contesting. In others, the JD(S)–BSP combine will hurt the party, he says. “The BJP is not our option. But wherever Dalits go against the Congress, the BJP will benefit. So because of the Dalit vote, we assume it will be a hung assembly,” he says.
The women’s collective in Pothnal, with around 1,000 members from 36 villages, offers a more down-to-earth view. Their group has been around for 18 years, giving women from landless Dalit families alternative employment and helping to educate their children. “What does it matter to the poor which party comes to power? Look at the panchayat polls: they beg and plead for votes and win. Then, they forget all about us,” says Chinnamma. “We tell people not to take money for votes. We want a solution to our problems. Will our lot improve with Rs 1000?” she asks. “That’s 8 anna (50 paise) daily...that’s our worth,” quips another.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Raichur