“I AM A SERIOUS MAN,” says Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, forcing a smile for a photograph after a press conference in his home constituency, Kalaburagi, to announce the particulars of Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s public meeting at the Nutan Vidyalaya Grounds the following day. Serious does not begin to describe the 76-year-old Dalit leader’s state of mind at being singled out by the BJP, which is backing former Congressman and Chincholi MLA Umesh Jadhav with all its might against the veteran for a showdown aimed at shaking the foundations of the Congress in Karnataka. Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Kharge is the de facto leader of the opposition in a Lok Sabha where the Congress, the principal opposition party, falls 11 MPs short of a minimum strength of 10 per cent of the House to appoint one. In the past four years, he has emerged as a critic of the Narendra Modi Government’s legislative process and the BJP’s careening nationalist campaign, traded barbs with the Prime Minister, and sent so many dissent notes that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley alleged earlier this year, on the issue of the appointment of the CBI director, that Kharge had diminished the “value and credibility” of dissent. “I knew they had set their sights on me. I would expect nothing less,” says Kharge, whose down- home persona belies his stature in the party. “The BJP hopes to add me to the list of casualties in its campaign against free speech.” At least thrice in his 48-year-long career, Mallikarjun Kharge yielded the chief minister’s chair to other aspirants. He is in no mood to give up his MP seat now, not after winning elections 11 times in a row—nine to Assembly seats and two to the Lok Sabha. The stakes this time are higher, involving a possible shot at the Prime Ministerial post. The contest in Gulbarga is also, admittedly, an analog of his campaign against the BJP. “I am fighting an ideological battle against the BJP. If someone can uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and redeem Indian democracy, it is the Congress,” he says, speaking to Open. “When Modiji calls himself a lower caste chaiwala , my counter-argument is that if I set up a tea stall, no one will come, not even you. This is the difference between you and I. This is why I must campaign against an autocratic regime that recklessly amends the Constitution, the refuge of the downtrodden.”
The battle for Karnataka begins at Kalaburagi, where Modi and Rahul Gandhi have each addressed dusty rallies in the run-up to the General Election. The reserved constituency in backward Hyderabad-Karnataka from where Kharge seeks a third term has eight Assembly segments. The Assembly election last year saw the Congress tally in the district fall from seven to four and the party’s half-century-long reign in Gurmitkal, a constituency represented by Kharge for eight terms, come to an ignominious end with ex- Congress MLA Baburao Chinchansur’s defeat at the hands of JDS leader Naganagouda Kandkur. To further loosen the Congress’ grip over the district, the BJP has been actively wooing rebel leaders and realising the collateral gain of saddling Kharge with charges of nepotism. Accused of favouring his son Priyank, Minister for Social Welfare and MLA from Chittapur, at great cost to senior leaders and ministerial aspirants in the region, Kharge has been squarely blamed for defections to the BJP including that of Jadhav, Chinsansur and ex-MLA Malikayya Guttedar. Forty-year-old Priyank Kharge, the youngest to be inducted into the Congress- JDS government as Minister in-charge of IT-BT—which he transformed into the Department of Innovation and Technology—says the BJP has nothing else to attack them with. “The BJP has only been able to attract leaders who have lost the confidence of the people. It hasn’t groomed a second line of leadership. The Congress here not only nurtured senior leaders like the late Dharam Singh and Qamarul Islam, and my father, it also has a strong second line,” he says. In the last Lok Sabha polls, amidst a Modi wave that helped the BJP bag 17 of the 28 constituencies, Mallikarjun Kharge improved his margin from Gulbarga by over 60,000, beating the BJP’s Revu Naik Belamagi by 74,733 votes. It was his reward for batting for special status to Hyderabad-Karnataka under Article 371(J) of the Constitution by way of an amendment brought in by the UPA in 2012. Aimed at promoting inclusive growth in six north-eastern districts of Kalaburagi, Yadgir, Bellary, Bidar, Raichur and Koppal, the legislation has created over 30,000 government jobs since 2013; 10,000 teachers are in the process of being recruited in these districts. In the past five years, the number of medical and engineering seats in Kalaburgi have also burgeoned, from a few hundred to 4,000 and 6,000 seats, respectively. In the 2018 polls, the benefits reaped under Article 371(J) worked to hedge the Congress’ bet on wooing the Lingayats by dangling the possibility of recognising their faith as a separate religion. The Congress won 21 out of the 40 Assembly seats in Hyderabad-Karnataka in 2018, as against 18 in 2013. The present Congress-JDS government, however, is accused of favouring south Karnataka and neglecting the northeast, where politics is dominated by Lingayats and SCs. In fact, after several protests over the neglect of the region in the last Budget session, and a demand for separate statehood endorsed by BJP ST leader from Ballari B Sriramulu, the state government decided to move nine state-level offices to locations in Hyderabad-Karnataka and Mumbai-Karnataka.
The present Congress-JDS government is accused of favouring South Karnataka and neglecting the Northeast, where politics is dominated by the Lingayats and Scheduled Castes
“The Congress has been silent on a lot of local issues, while claiming credit for Article 371(J),” says Umesh Jadhav, who joined the BJP amid fanfare on March 6th in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I sanctioned 15,000 houses under the Ambedkar Nivas Yojna, but the money was not released. We have problems here that the Congress pretends don’t exist. Telangana occupies some of our border lands and this issue should be dealt with on a war footing.” Jadhav denies being a beneficiary of Operation Lotus 3.0. “We are not bonded labourers. I am a third-generation Congressman. They pushed me out. The first time I contested, I had the highest lead in Gulbarga district. But I have come to realise that I cannot be effective as long as I was in the Congress,” says Jadhav, who is set to be the Lambada foil to Kharge’s Ambedkarite appeal. “Support for Dr Jadhav transcends communities,” says Baburao Chinchansur, introducing the candidate to Madiga supporters at his house in Kalaburagi. “He is Modi’s own candidate. He will focus on the Sadashiva Ayoga report if elected and ensure justice is done,” he tells them. The report, submitted to the state government in 2012, had recommended a just redistribution of reservation among SC communities based on population and is pending review and further action. The lack of parity in reservations and political representation among the SCs of Karnataka, classified into ‘right’ and ‘left’, led to a chunk of the ‘left’ votes leaving the Congress camp in strategic seats in 2018. Out of 34 seats reserved for SCs, the BJP won 16 and the Congress 12, with the JDS pocketing the rest. Kharge’s influence over SC voters is second to none. “He also has the support of the landlord classes of Kalaburagi. It is not easy to unseat him, except by spending large sums of money,” says Ramjan Darga, a former journalist and Lingayat scholar who was part of the movement within the Congress to recommend separate religion status for Lingayats. “Hyderabad-Karnataka was an entrypoint for the BJP in the 1990s,” Darga says. “The Lingayats felt they had lost political leadership and were in search of a party that could give them an identity. The BJP sheltered them, even if they are not with the party with full ideological commitment.”
“I am a third-generation Congressman. They pushed me out. The first time I contested, I had the highest lead in Gulbarga. But I realised that I could not be effective as long as I was in the Congress,” says Umesh Jadhav, BJP candidate from Gulbarga
IN THE 2018 Assembly polls, the BJP swept Bombay- Karnataka and Central Karnataka, where the Lingayats hold sway over a majority of seats. The party won 30 of the 50 seats in Bombay-Karnataka, leaving the Congress with a tally of 17, as against 31 in 2013. In Central Karnataka, out of 36 seats, the BJP, under Lingayat strongman BS Yeddyurappa, took 15—up from just three seats in 2013—even as the Congress fell six short of its winning performance in 19 seats in 2013. “The Lingayat religion issue may have backfired but people have come to understand that the intent behind the move was not a divisive one,” says Sharan Prakash Patil, Minister for Medical Education and a Lingayat leader from Kalaburagi. “We have left it to the mathas to decide what’s best for them.” The BJP has in Yeddyurappa a Lingayat demagogue apparently tainted from top to toe by scandal, the latest of which involves an audio clip released by Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, allegedly of the BJP leader luring JDS MLA Naganagouda Kandkur’s son Sharanagouda with money and a ministerial berth. “We cannot shake him off for now, but some of his confidantes, like Shobha Karandlaje, are being sidelined within the party. There is clamour within for change,” says a senior BJP leader from central Karnataka.
Once a hothouse flower that could not bloom outside the Hindutva bastions of coastal and central Karnataka, the BJP has been eyeing the north and the south, where pitched battles are expected to be fought. The cranky mistrust within the Congress-JDS coalition, and a seat-sharing pact that has left both parties dispirited, could scupper its chances of retaining power in the state. For the BJP, victory in Karnataka is essential to winning the national argument for transforming India into an oasis of order and progress. Up against the Congress in 20 seats and the JDS in eight, the BJP is gunning for 22 of the 28 seats. The JDS will contest from Bangalore North, Bijapur, Uttara Kannada, Chikmagalur, Shimoga, Tumkur, Hassan and Mandya. Of these, Hassan and Mandya are currently represented by JDS MPs and Tumkur by Congressman P Muddehanumegowda; the remaining five constituencies voted for the BJP in the 2014 elections. “The one-point agenda of the coalition is to defeat the BJP, but if we allot seats ignoring the ground reality, it will only benefit the opposition,” says GT Devegowda, Minister for Higher Education and a senior JDS leader who beat Siddaramaiah in Chamundeshwari by over 36,000 votes in 2018. The HD Deve Gowda confidante admits that the Congress asked the JDS to take the fall for Uttara Kannada and other “unwinnable constituencies” that it has been allotted. “HD Deve Gowda initially demanded 12 seats, and then 10, finally settling on eight. But the coalition has still not finalised candidates. Our leader himself was to contest from Bangalore North, but suspecting that Congress MLAs there may not work for him, he now wants to stand from Tumkur,” says GT Devegowda. “The Congress, which has 12 seats in the Lok Sabha, has conveniently assumed that it can win 20 out of 20 seats that it is contesting. But in some seats where we are rivals, our votes may not transfer to them easily.” In Mandya, where HD Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy are facing flak for fielding Nikhil Kumaraswamy even as the other Gowda scion, Prajwal Revanna, is set to contest from Hassan, the BJP may extend support to actor Sumalatha Ambareesh, wife of actor-politician Ambareesh who died in November 2018. Shimoga, Yeddyurappa’s home turf where Madhu Bangarappa, former Chief Minister S Bangarappa’s son, after losing on a JDS ticket in the Assembly bypoll held in November 2018, is expected to contest for Lok Sabha, will witness another keen contest.
“The BJP is fighting the election only on emotional issues. Did Lal Bahadur Shastri claim credit for the 1965 war? Did Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 say I have fought off Pakistan,” says Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress candidate from Gulbarga
Thanks to the rise of nationalist fervour post Pulwama, the BJP can win all three coastal seats without even canvassing, says BV Seetaram, who owns and manages Karavali Ale, a Mangalore daily. “The people don’t have a choice. The Congress-JDS haven’t been able to present a cohesive picture. Even voices within the Congress, like Janardhan Poojary’s, have accepted the fact that there is no alternative to Narendra Modi,” says Seetaram, who identifies as a progressive liberal. Ever since veteran Congress leader Margaret Alva’s humiliating loss in 2004 to firebrand BJP leader—now a Union minister—Anant Kumar Hegde, he has emerged as an unstoppable force in the district, where he routinely makes inflammatory speeches against Muslims and Christians. Observers says there is deep discontent within the BJP against all three sitting MPs, including Nalin Kumar Kateel, who represents Dakshina Kannada, and Shobha Karandlaje from Udupi. “Kateel is yet to prove himself as a people’s leader. In fact, rebel BJP leader Satyajit Surathkal has emerged as an aspirant from Dakshina Kannada. Karandlaje is a personal favourite of Yeddyurappa, but she is on a precarious perch now, with other power centres in the party working against her,” says M Raghuram, a senior journalist from Mangalore. “All three MPs are in fact just sitting pretty, hoping the Modi wave will carry them along.” Amit Shah, on a recent tour of Karnataka, is said to have remarked that he has to bear the burden of ensuring the BJP’s victory in Karnataka all alone. His job is certainly made easier by the decline in morale among Congress workers who did not expect the Grand Old Party of India to bow down to regional players in Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and now, Karnataka.
“The BJP is fighting the election only on emotional issues. Did Lal Bahadur Shastri claim credit for the 1965 war? Did Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 say I have fought off Pakistan? Here we have a Prime Minister whose speeches begin and end with ‘I’, forgetting the ‘We’ of the Constitution,” says Mallikarjun Kharge. “When the army conducts a retaliation exercise, of which the whole country is proud, should politicians be asking for votes on the dead bodies of our soldiers?” Conceding that Pulwama could work in favour of the BJP, Kharge says he wants people to see through the illusion of dialogue that exists in India today. The day the Union Cabinet approved a 10 per cent reservation in jobs and higher education for economically backward sections in the general category, proposing an amendment to Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution, Kharge raised a pertinent point. “The same day, an unstarred question was put to the Social Justice Minister asking if there was a plan to introduce reservations for the economically weaker sections within upper castes. No such proposal had been mooted, came the reply. Within a couple of hours, however, the Bill had been introduced in Parliament. Where was the time to draft it, to get it duly reviewed and to seek the opinion of the minister?” Kharge asked. “The Congress is here to remind people not to vote for leaders who say they get elected to change the Constitution. I am sure that despite the sentiment whipped up by the BJP, they will allow me another chance to uphold the Constitution.”