Bengaluru: The late BJP leader Ananth Kumar’s politics did not revolve around making hard-hitting speeches. It was, however, high on strategy. He also had the art of cultivating friends outside his party, a trait that endeared him to all.
Tejasvi Surya, the claimant to Ananth Kumar’s legacy in the Bengaluru South Lok Sabha constituency, is the very anti-thesis of the veteran leader. Surya has a reputation of rubbing people the wrong way, his statements and tweets attract attention, not always for the right reasons, and forget forging relationships outside the BJP, the young candidate does not even enjoy good ties with many in his own party.
And to top it all, he is a controversial choice. The Karnataka BJP had recommended Ananth Kumar’s widow, Tejaswini Ananth Kumar, for the seat but the party’s Delhi leadership dumped her and chose the 28-year-old Surya instead.
The BJP’s choice of Surya is in line with its top brass’ strategy to create a younger leadership that is able to propel the party’s hardcore Hindutva agenda in the state. Anant Kumar Hegde in Uttara Kannada and Pratap Simha in Mysore are the others.
There is a belief in political circles here that Surya was made the candidate on the recommendation of B.L. Santosh, a low-profile organising secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
On the denial of the ticket to Tejaswini, Santosh has said while Ananth Kumar’s contributions deserve respect, “one cannot transfer the credit for it to his wife or anyone else.”
But the question is if Surya’s shock candidature will tilt the odds in favour of the Congress candidate, the veteran B.K. Hariprasad.
There can be little argument that the constituency is patently anti-Congress. The last time a Congress candidate won from here was in 1989, when the late R. Gundu Rao, a former chief minister, won by over 2 lakh votes.
Non-Congress candidates have won 10 Lok Sabha elections in the constituency, which was formed in 1977. It includes Ananth Kumar’s six consecutive wins.
The constituency also has a committed BJP and RSS cadre but Ananth Kumar’s acolytes were livid when Tejaswini, who runs an NGO that feeds thousands of school children every day, was denied the nomination. She has since campaigned for the BJP after voicing her disappointment but her followers are not too enthusiastic.
Senior BJP leaders such as V. Somanna and R. Ashok, who command the support of the Lingayats and Vokkaligas in the constituency respectively, had expressed their displeasure over Surya’s nomination. The RSS has, however, brought Ashok around to actively campaign for Surya by promising him that he would be a candidate to head the party in Karnataka, according to BJP sources.
As one BJP functionary close to Ananth Kumar put it, “We have been presented with a fait accompli. We have no choice but to back Surya. We will do our duty with the goal of securing a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
The #MeToo allegations against Surya have also attracted negative publicity and virtually no BJP leader has come forward to defend him.
Surya’s uncle, Ravi Subramanya, the BJP MLA from Basavanagudi, alleges that the Congress is running a negative campaign but added that nobody is buying it.
“We will win by a higher margin than before,” he told ThePrint. “Many apartment complexes that don’t allow parties to campaign have been inviting us to do so this time.”
He also said that the dissatisfaction over Tejaswini being denied the ticket is a closed chapter. “She has jointly campaigned with Surya in a few places.”
One of the cornerstones of Ananth Kumar’s successive poll victories is the high number of Brahmins in Bengaluru South. The constituency has the highest concentration of Brahmins anywhere in Karnataka, with their numbers estimated to be around 3.5 to 4 lakh.
The Brahmins have traditionally stood behind the BJP.
But in an unusual development Monday, a group of 400 to 500 Brahmins came out in support of Hariprasad. They said they were supporting the Congress because the BJP had ditched Tejaswini, who according to them is the more deserving candidate.
The Akhila Karnataka Brahmana Mahasabha, however, was quick to clarify its stand, saying it had nothing to do with the Congress-supporting group.
“We make it clear that this is not the Mahasabha stand,” its general secretary M.R. Shivashankar told ThePrint. “It has always been our stand that we support Brahmin candidates, irrespective of the party, in all elections. It is no exception this time.”
Surya is a Brahmin while Hariprasad is a Billava, a backward caste.
Most BJP supporters say they would have preferred to see Tejaswini represent them but are helpless since they want Modi to win a second term.
“My vote is for Modi. I would have preferred Tejaswini because she has supported social causes. But the Opposition would have cried hoarse about sympathy,” said S.Marichandra, a civil engineer. “I may even have supported someone like Nandan Nilekani but not Hariprasad who keeps talking ill of the Prime Minister all the time.”
Shivashankar said the Brahmin Mahasabha would have had no objection to Tejaswini’s candidature but is welcoming of “young blood to lead the Hindu cause”. “I am personally okay with Surya. He is young and aggressive. We need more like him.’
Stable Congress campaign
Unlike Surya’s candidature, which has seen crests and troughs, Hariprasad’s campaign has been devoid of controversy.
The constituency has eight Assembly segments, of which five are with the BJP and three with the Congress. “We are getting a good response in those five with the BJP,” said one of Hariprasad’s campaign managers.
The backroom boy of Congress politics, 64-year-old Hariprasad began his career as a student politician in Bengaluru. A strong organiser, the Rajya Sabha member had been entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing election campaigns in various states. But he has never won a direct election, losing once to Ananth Kumar in Bengaluru South.
Hariprasad has steered clear of mounting personal attacks on Surya and has refused to take advantage of the BJP candidate’s negative points.
“My opponent is the BJP. My rival is Narendra Modi,” he said. “I have not taken the candidate put up against me seriously.”
Going by the response he is getting, he says he is confident that he will upset the BJP’s applecart.
The Congress is banking on the transfer of votes of the Janata Dal (Secular), which has pockets of influence in the Assembly segments of Bommanahalli, Basavanagudi and Padmanabhanagar. It is also confident of Muslim and Dalit votes.
A frequently cited statistic in favour of the Congress is that the combined votes of the Congress and JD(S) fell just short of the votes polled by the BJP in the eight Assembly seats in 2018.
But in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Ananth Kumar won the seat after securing 6,33,816 votes. The Congress, which fielded Nandan Nilekani, bagged 4,05,241 votes and the JD(S) managed a mere 25,677 votes. In effect, even with the combined votes, the Congress-JD(S) combine fell short by over 2 lakh votes.
As far as their vision for the development of Bengaluru is concerned, Hariprasad has spoken of developing a start-up corridor, drinking water projects, clearing land and lake encroachments, and preserving the city’s cosmopolitan character. He has also stressed on the need to preserve the Constitution, which he says has come under attack in the last five years.
Surya has stressed on the importance of youth entrepreneurship, saying the BJP will launch a scheme to provide collateral-free credit up to Rs 50 lakh for entrepreneurs. “We will also launch a massive fund of Rs 20,000 crore for seed funding of startups,” he has said.
The outcome of the elections will depend on the voting percentage which has never been above the lower side of the 50s. Bengaluru voters are notorious for their lethargy when it comes to stirring out of their homes on polling day. And with the school vacation on and a long holiday weekend after the voting day on 18 April, parties are keeping their fingers crossed.
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