Chikmagalur, Karnataka: The Congress party is facing one of its toughest electoral battles since the 2014 general elections as it fights to retain one of its last remaining bastions, Karnataka. A similar battle for survival was fought nearly four decades ago by former prime minister Indira Gandhi who got re-elected to Lok Sabha in 1978 by winning a bypoll in Chikmagalur which eventually scripted her and the Congress’s political resurrection.
Chikmagalur, the coffee haven of India, continues to be a prestige battle for the Congress as Karnataka goes to polls on Saturday. Out of the five seats in the district, the party won only one in the 2013 assembly elections. The major worry for the party is the main Chikmagalur assembly seat that arch rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been winning since 2004.
The importance of Chikmagalur can also be understood from the fact that both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi visited the town during the campaign.
Voters in the assembly constituencies of Chikmagalur, Mudigere and Kadur still recall Indira Gandhi as a feisty leader who had hit the streets with an aggressive campaign in 1978, and point out that this is much of what is missing in today’s party leadership —hitting the streets and connecting with the people.
“We remember it clearly how she campaigned on the roads, going door-to-door and meeting people. Chikmagalur was key to Congress’s revival but things have changed a lot now. We still support Congress in her name but there are no leaders like her in the party anymore and even if they are, they barely hit the streets," said Ibrahim Abdul Kader, a 70-year-old coffee farmer in the Mudigere assembly constituency of Chikmagalur district.
Some of the electoral issues in the district include drought-impacted coconut and coffee produce as well as a lack of urban and rural infrastructure such as roads, drainage system and public utility services that voters are complaining about.
With the change of guard in the Congress last year when Indira Gandhi’s grandson Rahul Gandhi took over as president, the party has pinned its hopes on an improved electoral performance in an area that carries historical symbolism for it.
The party is, however, up against challenges from both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (Secular) in the district.
“There is a renewed support for Congress this time, both in Chikmagalur and the state. We are hopeful that the city will re-do its magic for Rahul Gandhi like it did for Indira Gandhi and it will be a turning point for Congress’s fortunes," said Muneer Ahmad, chief of the party’s Chikmagalur block unit.