Bengaluru/Vijayapura: The public campaigning for the two poll-bound assembly constituencies of Hangal and Sindagi in Karnataka ended Wednesday. What initially looked like a possible cakewalk for the BJP in Sindagi has now turned into a cliffhanger. And Hangal, which was already posing a challenge, is gearing up to be a photo finish between the BJP and Congress.
Although the bypolls are numerically insignificant for the incumbent BJP government, the party led by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is pulling all stops to win the two seats. Apart from the state unit-appointed ‘in-charges’ — 13, including ministers — for each of the two assembly seats, Bommai has brought in the full force of his cabinet to woo voters.
Some 10 ministers on a daily basis camped and campaigned in Hangal — a prestige seat that the BJP is fighting to retain.
In Sindagi, formerly held by the Janata Dal (Secular) too, there is a flurry of ministers and legislators of the BJP from across the state pumping up cadres, holding meetings and upping the ante.
Big cars of political leaders wobbling through the unlaid, dusty roads of Sindagi have even become a talking point for its humble residents.
“We never see so many ministers together. If this is how bypolls look like then there should be two or three such bypolls every five years,” said Sindagi resident Revanasiddappa Mukarambi while speaking to ThePrint.
Bommai seeks to prove himself, but dependent on Yediyurappa
A lot rides on the bypolls for Bommai, especially after the mixed verdict in the recently held elections to three municipal corporations for the BJP under his leadership.
Bypolls in Sindagi and Hangal are the true test of his mettle as the BJP’s leading face in an election and appeal among his community voters — Lingayats. More so, after Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared in September that the party would go to polls in Karnataka under Bommai’s leadership.
In the two poll-bound seats, Lingayats hold the key to BJP’s fortunes. So, the BJP is counting on prominent Lingayat leader B.S. Yediyurappa, who had to resign as CM barely three months ago. The dependence on him is particularly high in Hangal, where even his campaign schedule was extended.
“The aim is to win both seats. Hangal is challenging but our campaign has picked up in the last one week. Whether Bommai or Yediyurappa, our aim is to ensure BJP wins,” B.Y. Vijayendra, vice-president of the BJP state unit and Yediyurappa’s son, told ThePrint. He is one of the in-charges for Hangal seat.
“Yediyurappa was supposed to return on 25 October but the CM insisted that he stay on until the last day of campaign. The difference in crowds was clearly visible, especially in Hangal, on the days he campaigned,” a close Yediyurappa aide claimed.
The sub-caste factor makes even Sindagi a surprise challenge.
The most influential here are Panchamasali Lingayats and Ganiga Lingayats. Then come the Kurubas, Muslims and scheduled castes (SCs), which are further divided into SC Left and SC Right. SC Left identifies with former deputy PM Jagjivan Ram and SC right with B.R. Ambedkar and Buddhism.
“There is disillusion among Lingayats over B.S. Yediyurappa’s ouster. There is reluctance to accept anyone else as BJP chief minister,” said Rajeev Bhairi, a Sindagi resident who teaches physical education at a school.
While Bommai is steering the campaign, Yediyurappa has emerged a big crowd-puller.
“If the party wins both seats, Yediyurappa’s baiters will declare that the party doesn’t need him anymore to win elections. And if they lose, it will be embarrassing for Bommai, the party as well as Yediyurappa,” a close aide of the ex-CM had told ThePrint before the veteran started campaigning.
“The incumbent government always has an advantage in bypolls. Our poll pitch is that people gain nothing out of electing an opposition party MLA in a bypoll when the ruling party candidate can do good work,” N. Ravikumar, BJP Karnataka general secretary told ThePrint.
How the two seats are lined up for polls
Sindagi, which was previously held by the JD(S), is now a fight between the Congress and the BJP.
“The last time we won Sindagi was in 1999. It has always been a BJP bastion, which the JD(S) has occasionally won. Two weeks ago, the BJP may have had a walkover but that isn’t the situation anymore,” said Ajay Dharam Singh, Congress MLA from neighbouring Jewargi constituency.
However, the JD(S) has fielded a Muslim woman candidate, Naziya Shakeel Angadi, miffed with the Congress for “stealing” its prospective candidate Ashok Managuli, the son of a former party MLA. The Congress claims the move aims to eat into “secular” votes.
To offset possible damage to women and Muslim vote bank, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president D.K. Shivakumar and Congress’ legislature party chief Siddaramaiah — both leading the party’s campaign — have been holding meetings with community leaders, clerics and seers.
Former PM and JD(S) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda has been camping in Sindagi and pulling all stops to win the seat. The JD(S) push has turned Sindagi from a walkover to a nail-biter.
“It is our seat. The Congress is always a distant third in Sindagi. National parties have deep pockets but we have a strong, rooted-cadre in Sindgi,” JD(S) state president H.K. Kumaraswamy told ThePrint.
However, local residents say late M.C. Managuli’s electoral victories came from personal charisma more than JD(S) appeal. The Congress hopes to cash in on this with the candidature of Ashok Managuli — a panchamasali Lingayat.
The BJP has fielded Ramesh Bhusanur, a former MLA from the seat and a Ganiga Lingayat.
Much like in Sindagi, the JD(S) decision to field Niyaz Shaik, a Muslim candidate, in Hangal has drawn flak from the Congress.
“Unlike in cities, the community of a candidate matters less in rural areas. If the JD(S) eats into Congress’ vote then we have a chance in Hangal but if it eats into SC, OBC (other than Kuruba) votes then we will be in trouble,” said a BJP office bearer, who is strategising the party’s campaign in Hangal to ensure a victory for its candidate Shivaraj Sajjanar.
“It is a tough seat to win because the Congress’ candidate has made himself synonymous with work in the constituency when our MLA, late C.M. Udasi was unwell and bedridden,” said the office bearer.
While the Congress is pushing on price rise, lack of development, anti-incumbency in the bypolls, the BJP is pinning its hopes on being an incumbent government.
“There is evidence that bypolls favour the ruling party but there is evidence that suggest otherwise too. If bypolls are held in the early part of the term, the ruling party benefits; if they’re held in the later part, the performance of the ruling party matters,” said Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and national coordinator of Lokniti Network.
“But this bypoll is bang in the middle of that cycle. So it is interesting to see which part of the cycle will play out,” Shastri said, adding that bypolls are never a mood indicator of the state.
Sindagi and Hangal are set to vote Saturday.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)