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Karnataka’s wait for a Dalit CM continues: Why Congress passed up the chance to break with the past

Before the Siddaramaiah-led Congress Karnataka government was sworn in on Saturday, a television debate took the rare turn of discussing the question of the state missing out on a Dalit chief minister once again. With the state never having had a Dalit CM, the debate veered to the topic of whether political parties were going by the caste playbook in keeping Dalits away from the post or whether Dalit leaders were not strong enough politically to stake claim.

While there has been a demand from Dalit communities in Karnataka to appoint one of their own as CM, the Congress, the BJP, and the Janata Dal (Secular) have passed up many opportunities to fulfil the demand and preferred to stick to the members of more dominant castes that seem far more united.

The Congress, which is considered to be the most closely allied with the interests of Scheduled Caste (SC) communities — its national president Mallikarjun Kharge is from a Dalit community — passed up opportunities to appoint a Dalit CM in 2004, 2013, and now after the recent elections.

The BJP has been attempting to pry SC support away from the Congress by providing political representation for the most backward of Dalits such as the Madigas. It has appointed leaders such as Govind Karjol and A Narayanaswamy to top ministerial posts in the state and the Centre. But in 2021 it too passed up an opportunity to appoint a Dalit CM when the party’s Lingayat strongman B S Yediyurappa was forced to step down from the post.

The JD(S) has claimed in the past that in 2004 and 2018 it was willing to see Kharge appointed as the CM during alliances with the Congress but its then ally faltered and preferred others — N Dharam Singh, a Rajput, in 2004 and H D Kumaraswamy, a Vokkaliga and son of JD(S) supremo H D Deve Gowda, in 2018.

While the JD(S) has never projected a Dalit CM, it has been able to win Dalit votes strategically with electoral alliances with parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is seen as having helped the party in the 2018 election. The lack of an alliance with pro-Dalit parties this time is seen as having cost the party the support of SC communities.

“People have the desire for a Dalit CM but we have not raised it. There is nothing wrong in raising such a demand. The high command will take note of all these things. The Congress party will decide as per the situation and the capabilities of candidates,” said former Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) chief G Parameshwara who was the frontrunner to be CM in 2013 but lost out after he lost his seat even though the Congress won the election.

Parameshwara was in the race to be CM this time too following the Congress’s emphatic win, but he was overlooked as Siddaramaiah enjoys the support of a majority of the 135 MLAs of the party and the central leadership.

“We are disciplined soldiers of the party. We do not think it is necessary to lobby and bring pressure on the party since we trust the high command. The party leadership should understand which community is standing with the party and who is responsible for the big win,” Parameshwara said as his name emerged as a third CM probable amid a tussle for the post between Siddaramaiah and state Congress chief D K Shivakumar who is from the dominant Vokkaliga community.

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“This time the Dalit community, the Lingayat community, and the minorities have stood firmly with the Congress party. Among Dalits, out of a total of 51 seats (including 15 ST seats) we have won 35 and also in two general category seats. There is a total of 37 and there has been an effect of the Dalit support in other constituencies as well,” Parameshwara said when the CM question was still up in the air.

Unlike Parameshwara, Kharge has often countered questions about the first Dalit CM of Karnataka by insisting that he has never sought the post based on his caste and will welcome it if he were appointed based on his seniority and service in politics.

“I have never sought the CM’s post as a Dalit,” he said in 2018 when Siddaramaiah talked of the possibility of the state getting its first Dalit CM. “If people are ashamed to accept me as a leader, let them consider me a worker. I would welcome it if the party considers me for the top post based on my seniority and not my caste. There is no point in talking about it. It will happen if it has to happen.”

Ahead of the elections this time, Shivakumar broached the topic of Kharge becoming the CM by stating that he would be an acceptable candidate to him. In this statement, his detractors saw an attempt to reduce the focus on his Siddaramaiah. “Mallikarjun Kharge is an asset to the nation and the state,” said the current Deputy CM. “I will abide by any decision that the party takes. He has made many sacrifices for the party. He resigned at midnight as the opposition leader. From being a block leader he has become the national president of the Congress party. This can happen only in the Congress. I will work with happiness if he is made the CM.”

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There is speculation that Shivakumar after the polls also suggested that Kharge should come to Karnataka to become the new CM. The suggestion was made as an alternative solution amid his tussle with Siddaramaiah.

Siddaramaiah who belongs to the Other Backward Class (OBC) Kuruba community has identified himself as Dalit on occasions to earn the favour of SC groups. He is often considered the second-best alternative to a Dalit CM by sections of the SC community.

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With divisions existing within Dalit communities and a section of the community, the SC Left group, getting fewer social, economic, and political opportunities compared to the SC Right grouping (to which leaders such as Kharge and Parameshwara belong), the political support base of Dalits has been increasingly split between the Congress and the BJP.

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