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Will pro-Dalit policy help Siddaramaiah in next year’s elections?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-07-2017 Sharan Poovanna

In his four years as Karnataka chief minister, Siddaramaiah has transitioned from being considered an “outsider” to one who is indispensable for the Congress party in the state. He has emerged as a champion for the backward and oppressed classes, political analysts say.

As Karnataka heads for elections next year, the oppressed classes—particularly the Dalits —have become the most sought-after by political parties like the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Members of scheduled castes/tribes are slowly warming up to Siddaramaiah even though oppressed sections’ support and trust for the Congress declined since Kanshi Ram’s (who later founded the Bahujan Samaj Party) exit.

“This is him taking control over the party. If (Congress party) decentralized, there is no one to challenge him,” Narendar Pani, political analyst and professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies said in an interview on Monday.

Siddaramaiah could become one of the handful of chief ministers to complete five years of their term in Karnataka. The Bengaluru Declaration, an eight-page blueprint intended to safeguard and promote the interest of backward classes, being used to consolidate the backward classes votes and calls to unite against “Hindutva forces”, further cements Siddaramaiah’s position in a party whose members, until last year, were eager to see him replaced.

Having established his credentials as an “alliance builder”, Siddaramaiah was successful in keeping the opposition parties embroiled in rhetoric, while promoting himself and his Ahinda (acronym for backward classes, minorities and Dalits) support base’s larger interests with his style of grassroots-level politics.

The call for ending manual scavenging has resonated with activists such as Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a group fighting to end the practice. The group has so far shied away from backing any political party.

Harish Ramaswamy, a political analyst and professor at the Karnataka University, says that the Bengaluru Declaration is a “signature statement” of the chief minister asserting his (and his government’s) control over the state.

Over the last four years as chief minister, Siddaramaiah brazenly displayed his welfare brand of politics with legislation such as Anna Bhagya (rice for poor), Ksheera Bhagya (milk for students), reservations in tender contracts, proposing to increase and expand the scope of reservations for backward classes aimed at gaining the confidence of the oppressed classes.

Siddaramaiah was one of six youngsters to be inducted into the cabinet by former Karnataka chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde in 1984.

“He was the least known and most rustic of the lot,” Pani says. Siddaramaiah’s grassroot connect, socialist sensibilities and simple personality made him appear more empathetic to oppressed classes than those hailing or promoting dominant caste politics.

Siddaramaiah is only one of five chief ministers in the history of Karnataka politics not to be part of the Lingayat or Vokkaliga community.

Siddaramaiah, who hails from the Kuruba community (classified as OBC), conducted a caste census in Karnataka (the previous such census was conducted in 1932) in 2015 to identify eligible classes that have lost out on benefits over the years. Leaked findings of the yet-to-be-released caste census also halves the population of dominant communities such as Lingayats and Vokkaligas (believed to account for around 30% of the population), which experts say would add teeth to the chief minister’s Ahinda platform.

Though the call for equality, fraternity and liberty of socially backward classes transcends Karnataka’s boundary, analysts remain divided on whether this could propel Siddaramaiah beyond state politics—at least for now.

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