Bangalore: Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, aims to form its first government in southern India by winning the Karnataka assembly polls this May, rivals Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), are gearing up to storm its bastion in coastal Karnataka.
Fishing for votes: Rahul Gandhi in Mangalore during his visit to Karnataka in March.
Since 1994, a majority of BJP legislators have been coming from the Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts that comprise the state’s coastal region, where polls will be held this time on 16 May.
In 2004, the BJP won 14 of the 20 seats in these districts, while the Congress managed to win just five. It will be a different story this time, Congress politicians say.
“It has swung their (BJP’s) way and we believe it will swing back our way,” said B. Ramanath Rai, Dakshina Kannada Congress committee president and a former Karnataka transport minister.
The 26 March visit of Rahul Gandhi, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi’s son and a member of Parliament, to the port city of Mangalore is seen as an attempt by the party to attract the youth.
“The politics of coastal Karnataka has always been different from the rest of the state,” said Sandeep Shastri, a Bangalore-based political analyst. The three districts are home to 26% of the state’s Christian population and 10% of its Muslims. This has allowed the BJP to successfully play its Hindutva card, said Shastri.
The Congress’ Rai agreed, saying that communal tension would be an important election issue in the coastal region, which has seen many riots.
“The communal issues were created by the Congress to get Muslim votes,” said B. Nagaraja Shetty, a former BJP minister who defeated Rai in Bantwal in 2004. “The BJP wave is everywhere and we will sweep coastal Karnataka,” he said.
The region’s business community is the primary backer of the BJP, said P.L. Dharma, head of the political science department at Mangalore University. the BJP’s Shetty is a former president of Mangalore-based Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Cooperative Ltd.
Even the JD(S), led by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, is fishing for coastal votes despite his party never doing well there. Gowda’s son, former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, began his election campaign last month from Dakshina Kannada.
“Kumaraswamy’s focus was the Muslim activists,” said Dharma, adding that a large number of small businessmen who are from minority communities need some kind of political alignment.
In coastal Karnataka, the BJP will field most of it candidates who won in the 2004 elections, with a few exceptions. However, the party’s current worry is growing dissent among partymen across the state who feel sidelined by newcomers.
The BJP’s list of candidates include M. Mahadev and L. Revannasiddhaiah, who were Congressmen just two weeks ago, and former JD(S) legislators G.T. Deve Gowda and N. Bache Gowda.
The elections in coastal Karnataka will be intense because the region accounts for 9% of the assembly seats, said analyst Shastri. However, after the redrawing of constituencies, urban areas such as Bangalore have emerged as bigger battlegrounds, he said. With 28 seats in Bangalore this election, the city will account for 12.5% of the 224-member assembly.