Karnataka: Is PM Modi's Kempegowda Statue Inauguration Meant To Woo Vokkaligas?

After the Lingayats, the Vokkaligas constitute a major vote bank for the ruling BJP in Karnataka assembly elections.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Bengaluru on 11 November, 2022 to unveil the 108-feet statue of Kempegowda, a chieftain under the Vijayanagara Empire who built the city of Bengaluru in the 16th century. This move by the Karnataka government led by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is being seen as an attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to woo the Vokkaliga voters a few months before the election scheduled for 2023. 

However, with reports of poor infrastructure, lack of developmental work, and flooding continuing to emerge from the Silicon Valley of India, the Congress feels that the people of the state, including the Vokkaliga community members, would not back the governing BJP in the coming elections. Vokkaligas are a dominant caste group in the state and they form at least 14 percent of the state's population.

The Quint spoke to top leaders of the BJP to understand how the party is consolidating the support of this community and what it intends to convey by dedicating a heritage area for the founder of Bengaluru city –Kempegowda, a Vokkaliga icon.


Vokkaliga Votes Split Ahead of 2023 Election in Karnataka

The old-Mysuru region which is dominated by the Vokkaliga community, spreads across 11 districts and accounts for 89 Assembly segments in Karnataka. Traditionally seen as the stronghold of the Congress and JD(S), this region is witnessing a triangular fight since the elections in 2018, with the Vokkaliga votes also experiencing a huge split.

The census data complied by Siddaramaiah government which has not been made public but was leaked to the media in 2018, indicate that Scheduled Castes (SCs) account for 19.5 percent of the total population of the state, followed by Muslims (16 percent), Lingayats (14 percent) and Vokkaligas (14 percent). 

Earlier in 2013, the Congress was the most successful party winning 29 seats. JD(S) won 23 seats and the BJP secured only one seat in core Old-Mysuru region, which includes the districts of Chitradurga, Tumakuru, Chikkaballapura, Kolar, Ramanagara, Mandya, Mysuru, Chamarajanagara, and Hassan. 

Given that the Old-Mysuru region is mostly populated by Dalits and Vokkaligas, the Congress which assumed to win most number of seats in the region, lost 12 seats. On the contrary, BJP gained 9 seats and the JD(S) gained 4 seats.

In 2018, the BJP  fell short of a few seats to form majority in the state. However, with the support of 17 defecting Congress and JD(S) MLAs, the BJP formed the government under the leadership of BS Yediyurappa in 2019. Now, with the reins being in Basavaraj Bommai’s hands, the ruling BJP appears to have the confidence to cross the required majority in the upcoming elections. 

In an interaction with The Quint, about BJP’s plan to build a Kempegowda statue and consolidate the Vokkaliga vote-bank, national general secretary of the BJP CT Ravi said, "Contrary to what Congress does, we are uniting everybody in the name of Hindutva. We are identifying local community leaders who follow the ideology of Hindutva and people are electing them over the candidates picked by Congress or JD(S). We have been successful in Chikkamagaluru, Mysore, Chikkaballapura and other districts, where not just Vokkaligas, but people of all communities have supported us."

However, political scientist Prof Sandeep Shastri opines otherwise. After having observed the state’s electoral patterns for over two decades, Prof Shastri feels that all parties in Karnataka are engaged in competitive appeasement. He also notes that the split in Vokkaliga votes to be an important factor for the BJP or the Congress to plan the next course of action.

"Every party would like to have a rainbow coalition of as many social groups as possible. This is what is always referred to as social arithmetic and caste calculus. While, the Lingayat community has generally favoured the BJP in the past elections, and the Vokkaliga community has seen a three-way divide. So have the Dalits. Now, I think the aim of the BJP is to consolidate these two groups."
Prof Sandeep Shastri, Political Scientist

Why Is BJP Invoking Kempegowda Now?

Until recently, Kempegowda's legacy was only popular among the Vokkaliga community, which was being harnessed by leaders like DK Shivakumar of the Congress and HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S). Now, the BJP, which is trying to make inroads into the old-Mysuru region has also been invoking the legacy of the man who built the city of Bengaluru to woo the Vokkaligas.

The wooing of Vokkaligas into the Hindutva ideology and reimagining Kempegowda's legacy comes at a time when Congress is repeatedly asserting the contributions made by Tipu Sultan in the state of Mysore.

The BJP has found itself without a 'hero.' each time the Congress celebrated Tipu Jayanti to garner the support of Muslims in Southern Karnataka.

In an interaction with The Quint, political scientist Prof Sandeep Shastri said, "Being in power, the BJP sees opportunity coming their way with the installation of Kempegowda’s statue. There maybe be symbolism involved in the installation. One cannot deny that fact. However, as you know, elections and rhetoric has a lot to do with symbolism."

Now, with the Bommai government's decision to have Kempegowda’s statue in Bengaluru airport, political pundits are seeing this as a strategy to assert a Hindu symbol, as an alternative to Tipu Sultan in Karnataka, that could turn beneficial for the governing party.

The BJP government in Karnataka has invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to unveil the statue in the second week of November. This is along with inauguration of the newly built terminal at the International Airport in Bengaluru

Speaking to The Quint, Health Minister K Sudhakar said, "It is paramount for us to educate the young generation about the contributions of the great man who built this city and make them aware of the rich heritage of this beautiful city. It is our duty to create monuments which make the future generations aware and informed about the greatness of Nadaprabhu Kempegowda and his legacy."

In conversation with The Quint, making a sharp critique of the plans made by the BJP, Karnataka Congress Chief DK Shivakumar said, "What kind of tribute is this? The Bengaluru built by Kempegowda and many others after him is in poor condition today. Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai wants to get sacred mud from all the districts of Karnataka for this project. He is not realising that they are polluting the very soil that they stand on today."

Terming Bommai administration's decision to unveil the statue just months prior to the elections, the KPCC president also claimed that BJP's attempts to woo the community would result in a disaster. 

"This attempt is nothing but optics. They have never walked in footsteps of people who wished to build a community. People know what the truth is. The saffron party's agenda of appropriating Vokkaligas and Kempegowda will not bear any fruit," he added.

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