Bangalore: Elections in India have always been colourful though Election Commission edicts have taken out a lot of the fun in recent years. While many see the commission’s work as a welcome attempt to clean up electoral politics, those who make a living from making and selling banners, buntings, caps, key chains and other election related parapharenalia, say they have been hit hard.
Meanwhile, wily politicians in Karnataka, which goes to polls starting 10 May, continue to try and woo the voters in any which way possible, including, and especially, by appeasing gods and astrologers by grazing sheep to walking on fire. Astrologers, in particular, are in great demand, to determine the most opportune time and day to file a nomination to the direction in which they should start each day’s campaign.
In the quest for power, brothers are pitted against brothers and other old family feuds are being passed down from generation to generation. Here are some vignettes from the election battle.
That sheepish look
Politicians in north Karnataka are literally taking to shepherding. No, they aren’t changing their profession. They have taken to sheep grazing as they believe it brings luck in elections. Basavaraj Bommai, son of former chief minister S.R. Bommai, was among the north Karnataka politicians who became a “shepherd” for a day to ensure lady luck smiled on them. And these aren’t ordinary sheep we are talking about—come from a flock managed for a local mystic known as Balu Mamma, who has been credited with miraculous powers. Even after his death—about 100 years ago—he apparently continues to bless devotees who took care of his flock, which today has grown to 17,000 sheep.
Promissory note: (L to R) Congress leaders Veerappa Moily, Prithviraj Chauhan, C.K. Jaffer Sharief, Mallikarjun Kharge and Dharam Singh releasing the party manifesto in Bangalore on Thursday. The first round of polling to the state assembly is to be held on 10 May.
“Why just me, even Sharad Pawar (Union agriculture minister) does this,” says Bommai. “I am not doing this for electoral luck but rather for lok kalyan (people’s welfare).” Bommai, for one, needs all the luck he can accumulate. He’s contesting after a gap of 14 years from Shiggaon as a candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ironically, Bommai’s father was vehemently opposed to the BJP.
Walking on fire
In rural Karnataka, people walk on fire during village festivals to fulfil a vow or seek favours from the presiding deity. This year, the Veerabadhreswara Jathre in Davanagare was even more well attended than usual as politicos of all hues thronged to run on the burning coal bed. The most high-profile of them was S.S. Mallikarjuna, former minister and an initial aspirant to the Davanagere North seat, who ran twice on the burning coal bed. Mallikarjuna is the son of education baron and Congress party candidate from Davanagere South, Shamanur Shivashankrappa. All the fire walking seems to have failed to appease the gods as Mallikarjuna was initially denied a ticket by the Congress as it didn’t want to give tickets to more than one family member. Eventually, that extra fire walk appeared to have done the trick as he got the nomination for Davanagere North. However, party’s first choice Syed Saifullah also filed his nomination, using the coveted ‘B’ form. After scrutiny, the electoral officer rejected both aspirants, leaving the Congress with no candidate in Davanagere North. Maybe a third firewalk would have done it for Mallikarjuna.
Gowdas’ women phobia
Gowda is a surname which most Vokkaligas, who constitute 14% of Karnataka’s population, use. However, in Karnataka the Gowda name is closely linked to Janata Dal (Secular) patriarch and former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, and his sons former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and former state minister H.D. Revanna.
This Gowda family is known to be quite superstitious, including a big fear that they lose to women opponents. Kannada TV anchor and a political novice Tejaswini Sriramesh’s victory against Deve Gowda from the Kanakapura Lok Sabha seat is the reason for this now deepseated phobia. So, the rival Congress is hoping to exploit this and has fielded old Gowda rival Ramakrishna Hegde’s daughter Mamata Nichani against Kumaraswamy in Ramanagara. In Holenarasipura, where Revanna is contesting, the Congress has fielded Anupama Mahesh, the daughter-in-law of Puttaswamy Gowda, another sworn foe of the Deve Gowda family.
All in the family
There is an old Kannada saying that goes something like: “When born, they are brothers. Later on in life, they are enemies.” This is turning out to be more than a saying. Former chief minister S. Bangarappa’s sons are fighting it out from the family pocket borough of Soraba. Kumar Bangarappa, having fallen out of favour with his father, is contesting on a Congress ticket, while brother Madhu Bangarappa is contesting on a Samajawadi Party (SP) ticket. In Gouribidanur, all the three candidates of the main parties hail from one family. While sitting MLA Shivshankar Reddy is contesting on a Congress ticket, Jyothi Reddy on a JD(S) ticket and Ravi Narayana Reddy is being fielded by the BJP.
The five Jarkiholi brothers — Satish, Ramesh, Balchandra, Lakhan and Bhimashi—from Belgaum are on different sides of political spectrum. While Balchandra and Bhimashi will fight for the Gokak seat from JD(S) and BJP, Lakhan plans to contest from Belgaum (Rural) on a Congress ticket even as Satish is planning to contest from Yamakanamardi, again on a Congress ticket. The other brother Ramesh is already a two-term sitting MLA from Gokak. And the situation is still murky as one of the brother’s might even go with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) when the final round of candidate lists are announced.
The quick change artist
While politicans are known to change their colours quickly, a cop who shed khaki to don khadi has shown why he will be a natural fit into his new profession. Subash Bharani, a senior IPS officer who was an additional director general of police until three weeks ago, resigned to contest elections on a Congress ticket.
Even before poll dates were announced, he started campaigning from T. Narasipura from where he hoped to be nominated, professing loyalty and admiration for Congress policies and bashing other parties. But, no sooner did the Congress deny him a ticket, he jumped on to the BJP bandwagon and is its candidate. When asked about this overnight switch, like a consumate politician, Bharani says he in fact had always admired the BJP’s policies and programmes.
Come elections, local astrologers emerge in all shapes and sizes. From the roadside astrologer with his trusted parrot—still a common sight in most parts of Karnataka—to those such as Daivajna K.N. Somayaji, S.K. Jain and Chandrashekar Swami, who work out of swank offices and see people by appointment only. The astrologer most in demand seems to be Somayaji. While Congress leader Dharam Singh gave him a state award during his tenure as chief minister, both Kumaraswamy of the JD (S) and B.S. Yeddyurappa of the BJP also consult him. Somayaji even claims that communists in the state consult him. BJP workers had tried to attack his home when he previously predicted that Yeddyurappa would not become the chief minister. However, all seems to have been forgiven and forgotten as Yeddyurappa consulted him two weeks ago, duly captured by TV cameras. So which party will win and who will be the CM?
Somayaji, like any good astrologer, is cryptic, “It will be a single party, which will form government, but apart from that I can’t say anything at this point of time as I am still doing calculations.”
Can IT change politics?
The IT crowd in Bangalore is constantly accused of being disengaged with the political process and living in a cocoon of its own, serving international clients in varying time zones and earning dollar equivalent salaries. One non-resident Indian software engineer wants to change that. Ravi Krishna Reddy has been working in the US for the last six years, but has returned to contest the assembly elections. Paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi, he says: “We should be the change we want to see.” Reddy says he is disgusted with money, caste and communal frenzy becoming major attributes of political democracy. He is contesting from Jayanagar as an independent and has won the backing of key intellectuals, such as Jnanpith award winner U.R. Ananthamurthy, as well as Devanura Mahadeva, Sudra Srinivasa and Nagathihalli Chandrashekar. Not exactly the crowd-pullers. So, what if he loses the election? “I can always go back to my job. But, I will continue to be involved in the issues affecting the state,” promises Reddy. Stay tuned.
Clash of former CMs
Of the various contests happening for the 224-seat assembly, perhaps none will evince more interest than Shikaripura in Shimoga district. While BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Yeddyurappa is hoping to get elected for the sixth time from the constituency, S. Bangarappa, the state SP chief, has decided to challenge him. Bangarappa is no ordinary foe and has won seven times from the neighbouring Soraba, where his sons are bitterly fighting each other now. Both the Congress and JD (S) are delighted at the prospect of Yeddyurappa being tied down in Shikaripura. While the JD(S) has seemingly extended support to Bangarappa, the Congress has fielded Navilesh Chandrappa, a lightweight, to make it a straight fight. Yeddyurappa alleges that the Congress and JD(S) are conspiring to finish him politically, perhaps remembering his 1999 defeat in a straight contest in Shikaripura.
Who will pay?
When political parties announced their candidates, there was considerable heartburn among those who missed out on party tickets. Some of their followers went berserk and destroyed public property by attacking state transport buses, setting vehicles on fire and creating chaos. Some of the more melodramatic ones threatened suicide, slashed themselves with knives and in one instance even “house-arrested” the state party chief at his home. But, when public property is destroyed, the parties should be forced to pay say some politicians. Bahujan Samaj Party national general secretary and state party chief P. G.R. Sindhia estimates that damage to public property could run into several crores and says guilty parties must be made to pay. The state police who have registered cases say that is up to the courts.
Film stars in fray
Adding a touch of glamour to the elections, as usual, a number of Kannada actors have jumped into the fray. Shashi Kumar, who was known as the Dance King, is contesting from Chickaballapur on a Congress ticket; Navarasa Nayaka and comedy actor Jaggesh is contesting from Turvekere again on a Congress ticket. Surprisingly, sitting Congress MP from Mandya, M.H. Ambareesh, who even resigned from the Union cabinet on the Cauvery water issue, has filed his nomination from Srirangapatna. Observers say Ambareesh, who till a decade ago played leads but now does character roles and is admired mainly by his Vokkaliga community, now wants to be an MLA so that he can take a shot at the post of chief minister in case the Congress comes to power. Dialogue King Sai Kumar is contesting from Bagepalli on a BJP ticket. This bilingual star is hoping that the large number of Telugu-speaking voters in this constituency, bordering Andhra Pradesh, will see him through.
Star power: M.H. Ambareesh.
Reining in rebels
All the main parties have had to face rebellions over the choices they made for the seats. Both the BJP and Congress have been hit hard by the so-called rebel factor. The JD (S), run tightly by the Gowda family, has had to face this to a lesser extent over seat allocation though they have also have been impacted. Shakuntala Shetty, a prominent BJP leader from Puttur, is contesting as an independent after being denied the party ticket. Congress party’s A V Umpati has filed his nomination as an independent from Hiriyur after being denied ticket. Party leaders have been try ing to use a mixture of promises and threats to rein in the rebels. They have been cautious in not wielding the stick too heavily in case it is a “hung” Assembly where they might need the support of any elected “rebels.”
A dull election for merchandise sellers
The noise level as well as street decorations seem low this electoral season, thanks to the Election Commission’s new rules that prohibit loudspeakers and banners. While the general public are spared, party workers and small entrepreneurs are disappointed. ”Business was good (during the) last elections. Orders (for banners) aren’t coming in now,” complains Nanda Kumar, owner of Chaya Arts in Bangalore. He made close to Rs150,000 painting banners last elections and doesn’t expect to reach that level this year. Many merchandise sellers, who hawk everything from keychains, caps, t-shirts, cassettes and compact discs with party symbols and messages, say they are also seeing weak sales compared to previous elections and their expectations.
From the traditional tipple (mostly country liquor) to t-Shirts, watches, sarees and rice, it is freebies galore as candidates and parties try to woo the electorate by hook or crook. Already 590 cases of Code of Conduct violation have been registered though this hasn’t deterred most candidates from trying to bribe voters. Police last week stopped a vehicle carrying Rs 10 crore in cash in Bellary. Nobody is ready to claim ownership of such booty though fingers are pointing to mining barons bringing in cash to distribute to voters. Police officials say they are still investigating.
Karnataka is the first state in India where elections are being held after fresh delimitation, or redrawing, of constitutencies. That has meant that several leaders have had to scramble for new constitutencies. Former deputy chief minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiah wept because he had to shift from his traditional constituency of Chamundeswari to the newly formed Varuna constitutency. Another former Deputy CM, M P Prakash’s stronghold, Huvina Hadagli, has been marked as a reserved constituency forcing him to shift to Harpanhalli where he faces mining baron and BJP’s sitting MP from Bellary, Karunakara Reddy.
Defeat? What Defeat?
While other candidates may struggle to get elected, there are a couple of veterans for whom the election is a mere formality. Former chief minister Dharam Singh is in the fray for a record ninth time from Jewargi, having not lost the last eight elections. Called Karnataka politics ajata shatru (one without enemies) because of his easy going nature, Singh points out that, unlike some of his opponents, he doesn’t believe in caste-based appeals. Indeed, his community has just 1,000 voters in Singh’s constituency. Mallikarjuan Kharge, the president of state Congress party, is another undefeated warrior who is seeking to enter the Assembly for the ninth time. Kharge, however, has had to shift from his traditional Gurmitkal to the newly formed Chitapura as his former constituency has now been de-reserved and made a general one. Both Singh and Kharge entered the Assembly in 1972 and haven’t lost since, earning the nickname solilada saradararu, or undefeated chieftans.