Drought affected area in Karnataka
Drought affected area in Karnataka | commons
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Several parts of this region have been wilting under drought. Lack of water for drinking and irrigation has driven many farmers to suicide.

The four districts of central Karnataka, with 26 seats, offer a study in geographical contrasts — from the hilly and rain-soaked peaks of Malenadu of the Western ghats with their sparkling waterfalls, verdant forests and lush coffee plantations, to the dry and parched districts of Chitradurga and Davanagere.

The region earned national attention in 1978 when Indira Gandhi won her battle for survival in the Lok Sabha bypoll from Chikkamagaluru, after being defeated in her pet borough of Rae Bareli by Raj Narain of the Janata Party in the post-Emergency polls of 1977.

From being a Congress bastion, political winds changed from the early 2000s.

The BJP and the Sangh launched their massive campaign to declare the syncretic dargah of Sufi saint Hazrat Dada Hayat Khalandar, which has always been a pilgrim site for Hindus and Muslims, as a Hindu shrine. Often called the ‘Ayodhya of the South’, the Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy campaign propelled the BJP to a position of influence and launched careers of many of its leaders such as C.T. Ravi.

The home bastion of BJP’s chief ministerial candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa, the party won 13 seats in the region in 2008, as did the Congress. However it was a rout for the divided BJP in 2013, securing a mere three against 15 for the Congress and six for the JD(S).

A reunited BJP wrested Chikkamagaluru, Shivamogga and Davanagere assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Several parts of this region have been wilting under drought and lack of water for drinking and irrigation. Consequently, areca and coconut farming, which is the mainstay for farmers here, have suffered immensely. Crop failure due to inadequate rain has driven many farmers to suicide. The failure of the Congress government to address these issues has led to simmering anger.

The Karagada project is one such instance. Started in 2009 with a budget of Rs 4.18 crore, it aimed to fill the Devanuru and Belavadi lakes with the water drawn from Karagada Devikere. The project is yet to see light of day, and has spurred the formation of the Karagada Kudiyuva Neerina Yojane Horata Samithi or Drinking Water Agitation Committee. Ministers like Shivaraj Tangadagi and G. Parameshwara have been at the receiving end of this ire, for going on extending the deadlines. The BJP conducted conventions of areca nut growers, with party chief Amit Shah assuring them of its support.

But other Congress leaders from the region, such as veteran Kagodu Thimmappa, have won great appreciation from his constituents. He has managed to expedite the regularisation of farmlands and secure for them title deeds and land rights under the Forest Rights Act. The “illegal”/non-consensual or bagair hukum cultivation on government land is a common peeve across Chikkamagaluru, Shivamogga, Hassan, Chikkaballapura and Udupi; affected people belong to Scheduled Tribe communities. An estimated seven lakh acres of land with at least four lakh farmers is bagair hukum.

Fights for regularisation have been the most used political tool by all parties and leaders from the region, from former CM S. Bangarappa to Yeddyurappa. It is his articulation of the issue since 1983 that won Yeddyurappa the sobriquet of ‘raitha bandhu’ or farmers’ friend.

With an eye on the political dividends, in February, the state government extended the cut-off year for regularisation from 1990 to 2005, bringing more farmers under the scheme. This would enable them access to loans and government schemes, though the flip side is the huge environmental costs and loss of forests and green cover. But since trees do not vote, they do not matter much to any party!

The top issue in the entire region is water and irrigation, so much so that even the BJP’s contentious Datta Peetha issue at Bababudan seems to have lost steam, with drought trumping Hindutva. In March, when the state cabinet, on Supreme Court guidelines, recommended status quo at the shrine and reinstated the powers of the Shah Kadri (hereditary administrator), there was not a whimper from the region that had seen violent protests earlier.

Contesting from Shikaripura in Shivamogga district, Yeddyurappa’s win this time will make him the first leader of the Malenadu to win the seat for the eighth times. Unlike Chamundeshwari, where the BJP and the JD(S) are giving sleepless nights to chief minister Siddaramaiah, the Congress has fielded a political lightweight against Yeddyurappa. Speculation was rife about M.B. Patil, irrigation minister and strong Lingayat leader, instrumental in getting the community the minority status tag, being fielded against him, but that fell through.

Molakalmuru in Chitradurga gains prominence as one of the seats B. Sriramulu is contesting on. It has been tagged as the most backward taluk of the state, as per the Dr Nanjundappa Committee report on regional imbalances. Sriramulu promises to wipe this tag away and secure water for the parched region from the Upper Bhadra project.

Miffed by Sriramulu snatching his seat, the original aspirant, Thippeswamy of the BJP, turned rebel and is contesting independently. He has warned voters of the mining interests in Chitradurga, which he alleges has led Sriramulu here after “looting” Ballari.

The BJP seeks to win Dalit votes in this region by capitalising on the unrest among the Madigas, who are pitted against the dominant Holayas, who corner a major chunk of reservation benefits. Amit Shah visited the influential Maadara Channaiah mutt of the Dalits in Chitradurga. He stoked the Madiga resentment against the Siddaramaiah government for not implementing a 2012 Justice A.J. Sadashiva Commission report, which had recommended redistribution of benefits.

Given the vast influence that religious seers and mutts have in this region, both Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah have been hopping to mutts of all caste denominations – from the Sringeri Sharadapeetha to Murugharajendra Mutt (Chitradurga), Bekkina Kalmatt (Shivamogga), Taralabalu Mutt (Davanagere), Siddhaganga Mutt (Tumakuru), Adichunchanagiri mutt, and Maadara Channaiah mutt (Chitradurga).

Opinion polls till April-end suggest a BJP edge of 4.79 per cent, which is expected to widen given the party’s relative advantage here.

Dr Vikram Sampath is a Bengaluru-based award-winning author/historian and political commentator.

This is the seventh essay in a series by the author on the upcoming Karnataka election. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth parts here.

The lead image of this article has been changed for accuracy. The error is regretted.

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