Five years ago, the BJP stormed to power in Karnataka by getting the caste equation right. The saffron party meticulously consolidated the votes of the Lingayats in the north, Bunts and Billavas in the south, plus the Scheduled Tribes to win 110 out of the 224 Assembly seats. However, as the 5 May election looms large, the party’s eroding support among the four communities is likely to result in a spectacular defeat.
Until 1994, the BJP counted the urban Brahmins and Banias as its traditional supporters and its vote share always remained at 10 percent. Barring 1983, when the BJP won 18 seats, the party failed to increase its vote share. Its fortunes changed for the better when it aligned with anti-Congress parties to form the Janata Parivar in 1994. When the Janata Party split into Janata Dal (United) led by Ramakrishna Hegde and Janata Dal (Secular) led by former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, the BJP put its weight behind the Hegde faction.
With Gowda cornering the Vokkaliga vote, Lingayats, the largest community in the state, backed Hegde, a Brahmin. By allying with the JD(U) in 1999, the BJP got a firm foothold in north Karnataka, considered the Lingayat belt, and its vote share rose to 20 percent, gaining 44 seats.
After the appointment of BS Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, as state BJP chief in 1988, the community allied with the saffron party. According to political analysts, another factor that pushed the Lingayats into the BJP’s arms was Rajiv Gandhi’s unceremonious removal of chief minister Veerendra Patil (a Lingayat). As a result, the BJP was able to increase its tally to 79 in 2004.
In 2007, the JD(S) refused to hand over the reins of the government to the BJP as per the power-sharing agreement. In the subsequent polls, Yeddyurappa portrayed the JD(S) betrayal as an insult to consolidate the votes of the Lingayats and other castes to bring the BJP to power.
Apart from winning 77 percent of the Lingayat votes in 2008, the BJP, through 20 years of communal polarisation, reaped rich rewards by gaining the votes of Billavas, Idigas and Bunts, the three main communities in the coastal belt.