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 (Nidheesh M.K)
(Nidheesh M.K)

Mint on the southern trail: BJP hopes for a toehold in state

The five southern states decide 130 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats that are up for grabs. Mint travels through a wide swathe of the south to discover the New India in this election season

Nidheesh M.K.'s dispatches will also be published in Mint. He is on a whirlwind tour across southern states mapping the 2019 election.

Also read dispatches from other Mint staffers who are crisscrossing the country mapping the 2019 elections - Mahatma trail, Heartland.

22 Apr 2019, 10:53:58 PM IST

BJP hopes for a toehold in state

Pathanamthitta: Pathanamthitta is a quaint little town where tree-shaded streets wind around the edges of forests of the Western Ghats. Most of the country was unaware of its existence until October 2018 when the Supreme Court lifted a centuries-old ban on women of menstruating age entering the temple. Soon after, the town became Ground Zero for protests by devotees when the state government implemented the order. And that’s why the contest here is a closely watched one this time. The seat is witnessing a rare tri-corner fight between the Congress, the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The main candidates are Veena George of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress’ Anto Antony and the BJP’s K. Surendran. Antony won the seat in 2009 and 2014.

That Sabarimala is an issue is clear in the town. Every candidate’s campaign — except the Left which focussed on local development — is based on the Sabarimala issue. From street-corner tea shops to town centres, residents want to know who was silent and who spoke out during the agitation against the Supreme Court order. In bus bays and at auto stands, a few temperate voices warn of the dangers of voting on the basis of religion. Quite a few say they prefer the Congress as the party has cleverly positioned itself at the centre of the debate, neither being too aggressive about supporting the ban nor openly denying entry for all.

The BJP, which led the agitations, has fielded its top leader and firebrand speaker K. Surendran. Initially, the party was split on the distribution of the ticket with at least four major leaders wanting the seat. The rebellion was quelled after the central leadership intervened and picked Surendran, who was the face of the agitation. He’s been named in about 200 criminal cases, mostly related to the Sabarimala protests, and courted arrest. Surendran, the story in political circles goes, needed four newspaper pages to publish the criminal cases against him as mandated by the Election Commission.

“There are two waves: a Sabarimala-linked anti-CPM wave and a minority consolidation induced by the threat of a rising RSS-BJP. The votes based on the second will be spilt between CPM and Congress. The question is who will get the anti-CPM vote? It may not be enough for the BJP to win, but good enough to split Congress votes and deliver a victory to CPM," said a former ABVP (the student group affiliated to the RSS) worker who is now with the CPM.

There is talk of cross-voting as well. Surendran is cheered by hundreds of people, who are not necessarily party members, at his rallies, but the BJP is apparently worried about whether the fruits of the Sabarimala agitation it spearheaded will be harvested by Congress’ Antony. The Sabarimala campaign was a face-saver for Antony too, as a two-term MP facing anti-incumbency, who sided with pro-ban protestors early on.

For the BJP, things may look a bit uncertain as Surendran has received little support from the upper caste Nair Service Society. It’s probably caste that is playing a role here: Surendran belongs to the Ezhava community, considered lower down the caste hierarchy.

The split in voters and the anti-incumbency factor could even favour the Left candidate Veena George, a popular TV anchor turned MLA who won a tough fight in the 2016 assembly elections. She was largely silent during the agitation, and appeals to a vote base that is unhappy with the BJP playing the aggressive Hindutva card, such as the district’s Christians. Despite George’s family’s close association with the dominant Orthodox Church, minority votes are split between Congress and Left.

Clearly, no candidate can claim an easy win in Pathanamthitta this time.(Nidheesh M.K.)

BJP, which was at the forefront of the protests against temple entry, is worried that Congress will reap the gains of the agitations.
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BJP, which was at the forefront of the protests against temple entry, is worried that Congress will reap the gains of the agitations. (PTI)
22 Apr 2019, 10:53:58 PM IST

A hot seat Congress, CPM aim to win

Ernakulam: North Kerala’s Vadakara is arguably the most prestigious battle in Kerala this election, which, according to political analyst K.J. Jacob, both the Congress and the Communists cannot afford to lose, even if they win all other seats.

In this seat, both the Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, candidates are equally strong, making the contest a tough one to call. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is fielding a candidate but he is not expected to make an impact.

The poll fight shot into the limelight after Kerala’s ruling CPM announced P. Jayarajan as a candidate. Jayarajan is the face of CPM’s controversial Kannur unit, which has a history of allegedly being associated with political murders.

Jayarajan, the party’s Kannur district secretary, is an accused in two murder cases from 2012 and 2014, one of an RSS worker and the other a Muslim League worker. He is also accused of involvement in the murder of a charismatic former CPM leader from Vadakara, T.P. Chandrasekharan, in 2015.

The CBI is investigating the case, and Jayarajan claims he’s being framed. Chandrasekharan parted ways with the CPM in the mid-2000s and four years after his death is still a respected figure in the area. The Congress-led United Democratic Front’s campaign targets Jayarajan’s criminal record.

A victory for Jayarajan would be symbolic for the party and it would be able to say that accusations of CPM leaders losing public affection over the murder allegations are unfounded. CPM has lost the seat to the Congress in the last two Lok Sabha polls in 2009 and 2014.

Further, a win would deflate the campaign against the Left by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah, who have targeted the CPM in all their rallies in Kerala.

The murder of two Youth Congress workers in neighbouring Kasargod in north Kerala is also a reason why Congress wants to trounce CPM.

After weeks of consultations, Congress finally announced senior leader K. Muraleedharan as the candidate for the Vadakara seat. Muraleedharan is one of the party’s best-known faces. He is an MLA, a former MP, and the son of former Congress chief minister K. Karunakaran.

“Even if the CPM wins the state, a defeat in Vadakara will be tragic for them. The same goes for the Congress," said Jacob.

Mullapally Ramachandran, the sitting MP from Vadakara, won the seat with a margin of just 3,306 votes in the 2014 election, making this a tough contest to call. In 2014, a breakaway faction from the CPM, Revolutionary Marxist Party, split the votes and played spoiler. But in the assembly polls that followed, CPM got a breather, winning six out of the seven constituencies that together form the parliamentary seat of Vadakara.

This time, however, Muraleedharan stands to benefit from a consolidation of anti-CPM forces who want to defeat Jayarajan, including voters of Indian Union Muslim League and the BJP.

The catch is that if such a consolidation spells a victory for Muraleedharan, his assembly seat in Thiruvananthapuram, Vattiyoorkavu, will be left vacant. Vattiyoorkavu is one seat where the BJP has seen one of its highest increases in vote shares in the 2016 assembly election. It will be major victory for the BJP to win Vattiyoorkavu, as it is trying to make space for itself as a third force in Kerala’s bipolar fight between the Communists and the Congress. So far, the party has not won a parliamentary seat ever and has managed to win only one assembly seat.

Speculation is rife about a behind-the-scenes deal between the Congress and the BJP by picking Muraleedharan for Vadakara in this backdrop. Jayarajan and other CPM leaders have alleged that it is the return of the so-called ‘Kolibi’ or Congress-League-BJP alliance, a political experiment that was supposedly used in 1991 unsuccessfully against the communist candidate in Vadakara. Both Congress and the BJP have refuted the allegations.(Nidheesh M.K.)

North Kerala is considered a bastion of the Left, but the party has been losing support in recent years as its cadre have allegedly been involved in a number of murders and attacks on political rivals.
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North Kerala is considered a bastion of the Left, but the party has been losing support in recent years as its cadre have allegedly been involved in a number of murders and attacks on political rivals. (twitter@cpimspeak)
22 Apr 2019, 10:50:58 PM IST

Lot of buzz, no blitz in Wayanad

Wayanad: All of these can’t be Congress workers—unless they’ve all been sleeping until now," says a cynical K. Janu, a Wayanad resident who doesn’t associate herself with any party in particular as the entire town waited for Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to arrive to file his nomination papers for the Wayanad seat.

The hills of Wayanad, populated largely by poor tribals and minorities, have worn a carnival look ever since Gandhi announced his candidature. The streets buzzed with blaring speakers, flags, and posters adorned the walls, as hundreds of thousands of people arrived for the multiple mega roadshows of the siblings.

After he filed his papers on 4 April, Gandhi returned to Wayanad again on 17 April and offered prayers at the locally famous Vishnu temple in Thirunelli on the banks of river Papanasini, where his father Rajiv Gandhi’s ashes were immersed.

Certain that he will win, Gandhi did not return for the last day of campaigning on Sunday. Instead, his sister held rallies, assuring the villagers that her brother is an “epitome of virtues". “Your future will be safe in his hands," she said at a public event, after making a brief visit to meet the relatives of V.V. Vasant Kumar and Sreedhanya, both of whom have made Wayanad proud. Vasant Kumar was killed in the Pulwama terror attack and Sreedhanya is the first tribal woman from Kerala to become an IAS officer by cracking this year’s civil service exam.

Gandhi’s candidature has raised the profile of the Congress in the state, especially at a time when it is facing allegations of being “soft" on the Sangh Parivar, and co-opting Sangh Parivar agendas on issues like Sabarimala. Congress followed the footsteps of the Sangh Parivar, despite Gandhi’s disapproval, to support a ban on the entry of women of menstrual age into the Sabarimala temple, after the Supreme Court struck it down in October.

This is where Gandhi seems to have helped Congress in a big way. What began as a search for the safest seat for Gandhi to contest in the south—as a second seat apart from his usual pocket borough of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh—has ended up boosting the morale of Congress cadres in the South, said a top Congress leader in Kerala.

The fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is crucial for both Congress and the Left to woo Muslim minority voters in north Kerala who are still to decide on whom to vote.

His direct contest in Wayanad is against Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate P.P. Sunner, but Gandhi has been careful in his speeches to not alienate the Left, a probable ally to form the next government. Instead, he focused his attacks on the BJP.

South India has always lent the Gandhi family and Congress a helping hand. Indira Gandhi contested from Chikmagalur in 1978 and Medak in 1980 after the Emergency when her popularity was at its lowest. Sonia Gandhi contested from Bellary in Karnataka in 1999 against BJP’s Sushma Swaraj. The contest, following Rajiv Gandhi’s death, helped her to assert herself as a national leader.

Analysts agree that south India could again be insurance for the Gandhi family, but doubt whether Rahul Gandhi’s candidature will create any wave for the party. “In Tamil Nadu, DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) has the advantage, and the Rahul Gandhi factor will not push the alliance to do better. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the contest is between regional parties and his presence won’t make a difference," said Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice chancellor, Jain University, and national coordinator of Lokniti think tank on politics and policy affairs.

In Karnataka, too, he says, it is the Congress-JD(S) alliance that will work and not Gandhi’s presence. “It’s too early to say if he will make an impact in seats other than Wayanad in Kerala because the Left will be doing all in its power to check Congress’ growth in the only state they are ruling. I’m not sure his presence in the electoral contest in the south will make so much of a difference, though, of course, a buzz will be there," Shastri said.(Nidheesh M.K.)

Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra held a number of rallies in Wayanad, where Gandhi’s candidature has raised the profile of the Congress in Kerala.
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Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra held a number of rallies in Wayanad, where Gandhi’s candidature has raised the profile of the Congress in Kerala. (PTI)
22 Apr 2019, 10:42:44 PM IST

Sabarimala protests to pay off for parties now

Thiruvananthapuram/Pathanamthitta/Wayanad: No poll fight in Kerala’s recent past has been more sharply divided on religious grounds than the one to be held on Tuesday. While the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) is banking on the performance of its government under chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are courting the millions of Ayyappa devotees who will be expressing their frustration at the ballot box.

It is a prestige fight for the BJP. Pitted as a third force in the usual battle between the Communists and Congress in Kerala, BJP has never been able to open its Lok Sabha account in Kerala despite having a winning streak across the country.

It scored a major political point four months ago by protesting the implementation of the Supreme Court order allowing all women entry into Sabarimala. But, towards the end of that campaign, two women entered the temple in January, and its cadres resorted to street violence and the party lost the goodwill it had generated among many faithful Hindus.

The fight in Kerala is so fierce that as many as 12 of the total 20 seats are impossible to predict, say the expert analysts Mint spoke to. It’s a tough race to call for many reasons, ranging from the profile of the candidates to the Supreme Court order on Sabarimala and the protests that followed to sentiments over veteran Kerala Congress leader K.M. Mani’s death.

All of these will determine whether the Left Democratic Front (LDF) or United Democratic Front (UDF) will have the edge in the final tally. As of now, it is a direct fight between the Congress-led UDF and CPM-led LDF in most of the seats, except in Thiruvananthapuram, where some opinion polls and experts give the BJP-led NDA the edge. For the BJP, a win in Thiruvananthapuram would be historic.

The test of this election is whether Congress can benefit from BJP’s Sabarimala protests. Congress took an early stand against the order, but stopped short of organizing rallies with saffron symbolism like BJP did. Congress’ stand may have worked just enough to enthuse voters who want to register their protest against the ruling communists, but who are looking for an option other than BJP.

In the build-up to the elections, neither BJP nor Congress actively invoked Sabarimala sentiments, either in speeches or manifestoes. Devotees have been demanding a law to circumvent the Supreme Court order, though such legislation is unlikely to have any standing.

A day after the announcement of elections, Kerala’s chief electoral officer Teeka Ram Meena had said invoking religion, specifically Sabarimala, would be a violation of the model code of conduct.

On 12 April, however, at a rally in Kozhikode, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said BJP would “stand with devotees to protect traditions" without directly mentioning Sabarimala.

At another BJP rally, BJP president Amit Shah said the party “will go to any length to protect the faith". Later, the prime minister followed this up, saying , “Those who chant the hymns of lord Ayyappa are being baton-charged or framed in fake cases. Each and every one, including the children, should come forward to take revenge against these injustices and guard customs and tradition."

The Marxist party leaders hit back strongly. During a rally, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan gave a point-by-point rebuttal to Modi and Shah, and said only thugs were arrested for mob violence, and not devotees. The result was exactly what BJP wanted: the hysteria over changes to a temple tradition was top of people’s minds as campaigning finished.

In private, BJP leaders say their lack of community-based support, crucial in Kerala for winning seats, is still a problem.

The Sabarimala agitation gained it supporters from upper caste Hindu organizations but alienated Christians and Muslims, who are unhappy with BJP playing the aggressive Hindutva card, said a local leader. The party expects gains in Pathanamthitta, ground zero of Sabarimala protests, but both Congress and CPM have long been at the game of consolidating votes on the grounds of religion and caste grounds in Pathanamthitta.

CPM is banking on the support of minority Christian voters, a dominant force in central and southern Kerala Lok Sabha constituencies, including Pathanamthitta, according to a local businessman close to the CPM campaign in Pathanamthitta. “The more aggressive the BJP is, it will benefit CPM," he said. “They will be able to promote themselves among minorities as the secular guardian."

In the northern parts of Kerala, dominated by Muslim voters, there is evidence of growing goodwill for Congress. The party also raised its profile with Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad — although the Congress president first supported and then did a U-turn on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala shrine.

Both parties have fielded many of their top performing MLAs as Lok Sabha candidates, which they expect will turn the tide based on the candidates’ popularity.

The parties can take some comfort in history, as Kerala is a state that has always held fast to its ideology.

However, the battle is so close for the Left this time that it is worried about BJP gaining crucial votes, and Congress winning support over its stand on Sabarimala. The Left parties’ support base has been affected by the government’s determination to implement the Supreme Court order.

In many pockets in the state, the vote share of the BJP is already greater than the difference of vote share between the winner and the runner-up from the LDF and the UDF in the last election. There’s fear in the Left that BJP and Congress may help each other.

In the Kollam seat, for instance, the LDF has accused Congress ally Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) candidate and sitting MP N.K. Premachandran of negotiating a deal with the local BJP leadership. The BJP got 6.67% votes in Kollam in 2014, whereas the difference between Premachandran and his runner-up, M A Baby of Kollam, was only about 4%. The BJP has refuted the allegation, but Premachandran asked reporters, “What is wrong if I get their votes?"

Such undercurrents notwithstanding, at least two BJP leaders told Mint that the party doesn’t stand a chance in any of the 14 seats, except Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city where it has fielded Kummanam Rajasekharan, who resigned as Mizoram governor to contest the polls.

Even there, Congress leader and sitting MP Shashi Tharoor has already secured the support of the Nair Service Society, a group of upper-caste Nairs who were at the forefront of the Sabarimala agitation.

Unlike in the previous polls, the LDF has fielded a strong candidate, former food civil supplies minister C. Divakaran, who could play spoiler by splitting votes or even emerge as a dark horse in the fight between the two other parties.

All major opinion polls underline the fact that the electoral battle is still largely between the LDF and the UDF.

Five opinion surveys by local channels have predicted a landslide victory for the UDF, with an unprecedented, wide difference of vote shares between the two fronts, thanks to the rise of the third front under the BJP.

Internally, both UDF and LDF have a projection of winning 10 seats at least. In 2014, Congress won 12 seats and LDF 8.(Nidheesh M.K.)

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19 Apr 2019, 09:28:12 AM IST

Meanwhile in Mandya

Mandya: “Ambareesh was lazy, he didn't do anything for us. Kumaraswamy at least waived some of our loans. Besides, she is not Gowda (caste), she is a Naidu. Why would I vote for a Naidu?," said Meke Gowda, a farmer, emerging from a polling booth in Mandya.

The ‘she’ is Sumalatha, candidate number 20 on the ballot. The much talked about rebel candidate was upset upon not been given a seat after the recent death of her actor-politician husband Ambareesh.

She is taking on Karnataka's chief minister Kumaraswamy's son Nikhil Kumaraswamy, candidate number one, who is making his debut in electoral politics. The contest is so fierce that despite having only two major candidates, the Election Commission had to use two ballot boxes because there were 19 dummy candidates, three of them Sumalatha's namesakes.

There was nothing commonplace about Mandya, some 100km away from Bengaluru, which went to polls on Thursday. One can gauge that by the number of reporters from Delhi and Bengaluru who have come down to report about this small town in the Cauvery basin.

The quaint town surrounded by farms usually makes national headlines for its dispute over sharing the river with neighbouring Tamil Nadu, or when its sugar cane farmers kill themselves in the hundreds. It is one of the well-irrigated parts of the state, but the inequity in distribution means a few talukas take away the lion's share of the water, leaving the rest to remain at the mercy of the rain gods.

The major highlight of the polls in Mandya would suggest such pressing problems have finally found some radical solutions, except that there are none.

The highlight, as discussed threadbare in the national press over the last few weeks, is largely because the defeat of a Gowda, the caste from where the JD(S) draws its power, will be devastating for the chief minister.

Going by history, a Gowda in Mandya cannot be defeated, unless the Congress decides to take him on. With several local Congress leaders putting their weight behind Sumalatha, at a time when the Congress and JD(S) is in an uncomfortable coalition, the results would also have a telling impact on the stability of the state government.

Nikhil is the prototype young Indian who gets to play a hero everywhere, thanks to his surname. As a college dropout, he was in 2006 booked for attacking restaurant staff for not serving well beyond closing time. His father was chief minister then. A profile of Nikhil in Outlook magazine, was headlined “My Dad's The Law".

In 2016, he entered the film world with a 70 crore movie. The debut movie was called Jaguar, unmistakably linked to his passion for cars, where he acted as a masked crusader. It was launched with a splash in a 4,000-seat stadium in Bengaluru, attended by the who's who of the city. The spectacle was also beamed live across the state by news channels, suspending their coverage of farm distress.

Sumalatha speaks English, and had the undivided attention of national news channels during the campaigning. She may have made many skip a heartbeat during her prime as a romantic actress, but in her political avatar, she brought out the artist inside her, making an emotional appeal to voters.

Going by his election affidavit, Nikhil has a net worth of Rs. 17.53 crore, a Range Rover and a Lamborghini waiting to be delivered: formidable for a 29-year-old who has never really had to work. Two leaders of the party were caught discussing in a leaked tape how Nikhil would spend 70 crore in Mandya to win the polls, resulting in a case being registered against them.

For a Mandya farmer, who would usually produces sugar or rice or mulberry, the 2019 general election come towards the end of probably his worst decade. Despite being a rich irrigation district, thanks to the Cauvery and its tributaries, thousands of farmers from this region have killed themselves over a decade.

I first saw a Mandya farmer not from Mandya, but from the arid north Karnataka district, Belagavi. It was July, 2015. The Suvarna Vidhan Soudha, Karnataka's alternative legislative assembly in Belagavi, had become a centre for rallying cane farmers from all over the state to protest against a glut. Reporting the protest, I climbed up a hill opposite the Soudha, where we all were checked by the police. Then, a young man reached into the pocket of his grimy white shirt and brought out a small bottle. He gulped what was in it before a dozen policemen jumped on him and then fell to the ground, shivering. The man was immediately rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. He had drunk poison.

In 2015, Karnataka's farm suicide rate hit its highest in a decade. The crisis stemmed from the sugar bowl districts like Mandya. The year also saw the state reeling under its worst drought in close to half a century.

Drought relief, supposed to be an immediate handout to the crisis affected farmers, never really trickled down. By January 2016, Karnataka became the first state to witness a disastrous winter harvest on the back of a washout Khariff season. By this time over a thousand farmers had killed themselves.

By March 2016, as the drought dragged on, the Karnataka government struggled to provide drinking water in certain areas. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while presenting the budget, pleaded with farmers to switch to less water-intensive pulses and oilseeds. But, as a cane grower in Bidar asked, who wants to listen to the finance minister?

The month also saw 10,000 farmers coming to Bengaluru from the suburbs asking for water, riding tractors and carrying empty plastic pots. By April 2016, forget farmers, Karnataka was so short of water that the government started to seek out renting private borewells to distribute even drinking water. The state government said it has no option but to extensively exploit the groundwater table.

Come August, the union government cheered about excess rains, but not in Karnataka. Not only wasn't it raining in excess in the state, but it was also staring at a 1788 crore costing labour crisis owing to deficit rainfall.

Things changed after 2016. The war over Cauvery water with Tamil Nadu had peaked and Mandya was Ground Zero. A crippling water shortage, along with the fanning of Kannada pride by politicians, flamed tense street protests.

In 2017, talk of a loan waiver began and just months before he headed to assembly elections, the previous Congress chief minister declared a major loan waiver.

In 2018, after assuming office in May, HD Kumaraswamy also announced a 45,000 crore loan waiver. But so far, these efforts have largely been only palliative.

Meke Gowda's choices are staggeringly surprising since he belongs to a profession where some 200 people have committed suicide so far this year, including one just a day before the polls, in Mandya and other sugar bowls.

It shows despite his plight, a farmer's lived reality is not about his occupation alone. Back in his village, he is also a member of his caste, a member of his party, a fan of his movie star, and any of these could influence how he votes, no matter how large the hands of misery and death is hanging above him.

“Nobody is talking about farm issues, not even farmers," said Somashekar M, a Mysore university journalism student, who travelled across Mandya and spoke to about 250 farmers as part of his university research project.

“Every night, my family is hooked on to the TV to know the latest development in the fight between these two candidates, as if they are watching some Kannada serial drama," said Santhosh G, who works for “", a news website formed after the killing of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh.

“The tragedy in this election is that people are not talking about anything remotely close to what's going to affect their lives immediately after the polls, like prices, debts or market regulations. The farmers are blindly repeating the vocabulary set by the media, who seems to be in cahoots with the candidates. Everybody seems to be thinking that nobody is a magician (who can solve our problems)," said Mallige, co-founder of Karnataka Janashakti, an organisation fighting for farm rights.

“Caste triumphs over, everything else comes only second," said Nagesh N, editor of Sanje Samachara, an evening daily in Mandya.

15 Apr 2019, 05:34:01 PM IST

The Vitamin M in Tamil Nadu elections

Under a scorching sun I travelled through the barren lands of Vellore, north of Chennai, searching for Tamil Nadu's richest place. Almost nobody knew its exact location, despite the place hogging the headlines in the state for over a week now. When I found it finally, after half a day's search, it was nothing I had expected.

I had gone looking for a notorious cement godown, from where income tax officials made one of the richest hauls of unaccounted cash in a single raid in this poll season, some Rs. 12 crore. I thought it would be huge, with gated walls and tight security. In reality, it was not much bigger than your average tea stall covered with tin sheets, sandwiched between the front of a house and its gate.

The place stocked a few dozen cement sacks and was manned by a skinny young boy who couldn't stop me from entering. “That godown is 2 kilometers away. I don't know anything. Nobody came here," he replied in Tamil when asked about the raids, his hands trembling slightly.

But Subramaniyan and Suresh, smoking outside a tea stall in the neighbourhood, confirmed it was godown that was raided. They work as loaders in many such godowns. “They just opened it six months ago. We don't take cash for votes here, it was all stashed for Vellore," said Suresh.

There is a lot a politician needs to do in Tamil Nadu to get votes. The last three chief ministers knew how to act and dance or write movie scripts. Those who are not into movies have to sweat it out. Many of them are now used to carrying bottles of water and vitamin tablets to wherever they are going to campaign.

Over the years, however, the campaigning has been redefined. Purchasing votes has become the norm. Let's call it Vitamin M in the polls.

Even as it is nothing new in Indian elections, the money element seems to have become crucial in Tamil Nadu. Tax officials have seized a record 137 crore of cash from the state.

The ruling AIADMK and the opposition DMK are in a neck and neck contest in Tamil Nadu, with a lot at stake. Both parties lost their most iconic leaders between the last assembly election in 2016 and the current Lok Sabha polls. Jayalalithaa died as AIADMK's head and chief minister in 2016. Karunanidhi, DMK head and patriarch of Tamil Nadu's ubiquitous Dravidian politics, died in 2018. The next in line leaders of these parties have big shoes to fill.

The cement godown haul in Vellore was the single largest made by tax officials and is reported to be seized from properties linked to Durai Murugan, DMK state treasurer whose son Kathir Anand is debuting from Vellore. The AIADMK has fielded A.C. Shanmugam, president of ally New Justice Party, to contest on the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol.

The haul has resulted in a case against the son, but the party could not care less. In an election rally in the northern suburbs of Chennai on Sunday, Stalin, DMK head and Karunanidhi's son, described the raids as vendetta by the ruling AIADMK. Local party leaders echoed similar sentiments.

“See, everybody knows the power of cash in Tamil politics," explained Mohammad Saqhy, a man who was been with Durai Murugan since school days and was, until recently, DMK district secretary in Vellore. “It was 25 paise in the 1950s. It has reached 250 now."

He, however, denied reports that the party is spending cash to purchase votes. “We may give some money to our workers when they are on duty. The other party (AIADMK) is giving cash to voters," he said.

I went to Durai Murugan's house in Vellore, hopeful of speaking to his family. They were not there, but the house was not silent. An automated box was chanting mantras inside. Some party workers, faithfully silent to any question related to their leader, were around. Back at the local party office, I asked Saqhy about the mantras.

“We are not religious, but we don't interfere if our families are religious. Anna (DMK founder) had said pillayare udaikavum maattum pillayare kumbidum maattum (Don't destroy the temple idol, don't fall in front of it)."

It sounded like a perfect way to allow something even if you think it is wrong. Just like the cash-for-votes business.

The cement godown, from where tax officials made one of the richest hauls of unaccounted cash in a single raid in this poll season
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The cement godown, from where tax officials made one of the richest hauls of unaccounted cash in a single raid in this poll season (Nidheesh M.K)
14 Apr 2019, 03:43:16 PM IST

Indira Gandhi and the Vegas in Deccan

Farmers, both men and women, working on rice fields that extend for miles. Large lakes with fishing nets and the rising red sun on the horizon. Women washing clothes on the banks of village ponds. The sound of birds chirping on big trees. Both sides of the road filled with cows and temples. Houses made of clay tile roofs.

My journey through villages in Andhra Pradesh, in bone-breaking state transport buses, was dotted with such picturesque images typical of any Indian countryside. Until I reached Bhimavaram.

Bhimavaram was like any other village west of Vijayawada. Almost. Look beyond the surface, and it has signs of prosperity unlike any other village in the neighbourhood.

The potholed village roads gave way to neat roads leading up to the mofussil. Slowly, showrooms of top motor companies present themselves one after another p-- TVS, Mahindra, Royal Enfield. The Malayalee in me smiled to see a showroom of a Kerala-based jewellery chain, now one of the world's largest retailers in gold and diamonds. It is enough of a sign that the people here have deep pockets.

I was told by an analyst to check Bhimavaram, since it is homeground to a colourful fight in the elections this year. A top actor from the Telugu cinema industry, Pawan Kalyan, is contesting from here.

Rather young for Indian politics (he is 47), Kalyan seen as a ray of hope for people, especially millennials, who are tired of choosing from the two dominant Andhra parties, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and YSR Congress Party (YSRCP). The elders say a good man can't get elected as a politician. The youngsters want to show they are wrong. Kalyan's idealism aside, contesting in Bhimavaram is also an effort to reach out to the caste he has born into, Kapu. Many do not expect him to play the king in Andhra politics anytime soon, but bet he could pivot a third front by splitting caste votes and play the kingmaker.

The actor's family background, a rags to riches story, is well known across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the two states that screen Telugu speaking movies. He is called the “Power Star" in Telugu movies. His elder brother Chiranjeevi (also a top actor turned rather unsuccessful politician) is the “Mega Star". Chiranjeevi's son Ram Charan is the “Mega Power Star", and nephew Allu Arjun is “Mega Stylish Star".

Kalyan’s party, the Jana Sena, is contesting 18 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra, and 140 of the 175 Assembly constituencies. The star is contesting two Assembly seats himself, in Bhimavaram and nearby Gajuwaka.

I arrived in town on the final day of campaigning last week, expecting some buzz filled with star-studded rallies. To my shock, there was none. The circus had left town for Gajuwaka. The lone politician in town was a statue of Indira Gandhi, uninstalled from the town centre to a remote alley, covered with mud stains and surrounded by grazing cows.

Even as its legacy survives in pockets, the Congress is only a pale shadow of what it used to be in the region -- its common fate in at least three out of the five states in the south.

The Congress ruled Andhra even in the last decade, with its leader YS Rajasekhara Reddy becoming the chief minister in 2004. Reddy made electricity free for farmers, and Andhra politics has never been the same. With a tragic helicopter crash killing Reddy in 2009, his son Jagan Mohan Reddy was poised to become the leader of the Congress. But the party, rife with internal bickerings even during Rajasekhara Reddy's time, bet on other state leaders. The son walked away and formed his own party, YSRCP, taking away from the Congress the political dynasty and the voters nursed by his father. In the general elections of 2014, held just after the bitter bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to form Telangana, the Congress plummeted to a mere 4% vote share. They have not been able to get out of the crisis so far.

In today's Bhimavaram, people are pumped up about something other than the elections. “It's the Las Vegas in the south," said Dileep, pointing at the several SUVs parked outside the local railway station. He was waiting for his friend returning from Visakhapatnam. I asked him why.

“People gamble here. A lot. They begin with 2 lakh and go on to win or lose lakhs. Cosmopolitan Club, our main centre, charges Rs. 15 lakh for admission," he said. It all fell into place: the presence of companies that sell cars, bikes and gold.

“For the several villages in the neighbourhood, this is the only town. People like to be rich here. Even the commoners aspire to a rich life. If they walk into a shop, they don't want to buy cheap clothes. They want to wear, eat and drive like a rich person," he said. Behind us, to my surprise, a Zomato delivery boy zipped by. The online food delivery business opened here a few weeks ago, Dileep said.

Where do they get the money to gamble in the first place? Apparently, Bhimavaram was one of the early places to see the potential in aqua farming, a business in which one can make high returns with a small investment. Bhimavaram even received national recognition recently for its blue revolution.

I got a detailed insight about the “city" from two young men who walked into the restaurant (a locally famous one called Abhiruchi) where I was having dinner. The restaurant was almost full. I offered the two seats next to mine, and we started talking.

Both Ravi and Shankar, were considerably drunk, having emptied a bottle of Napoleon that day and had come in looking for ice cream. They said they had hit the jackpot in a game recently and had invested the money in business ventures in and around Bhimavaram. The two engineering graduates have never voted. They see politics as beyond redemption.

"What is election? Someone votes for someone thinking that the party will help his caste or community or business, or at least will not harm his business. Who cares about anything beyond this? I don't want to be part of that process," Ravi declared. Later, he said he was just too lazy to go out and stand in a queue to vote.

Shankar, who looked more drunk and is unmarried, is a die-hard fan of Kalyan and wants the star to win. “He is a true revolutionary mama", Shankar said, even if it doesn't look likely to him that he will go out and vote himself.

Shankar offers me a ride on Ravi’s bike to explore the city at night. I asked if he has a licence. Shankar said he doesn't care about anything in the world. I agreed for the trip.

We sped through the road. On the way, we see other young men and even school-going kids racing on their superbikes. In the alleys behind cinema theaters, prostitutes search for customers, gamblers bet on anything from cards to IPL to elections to the next morning's cock-fights.

A cow came running towards our bike from across the road. It almost hit us when Ravi, like a Telugu movie hero doing a stunt, swiftly made a turn and avoided an accident.

"Chill mama," Shankar said. The duo then raised both their hands up in the air, feeling the wind. What does one say? When in Vegas.

A statue of Indira Gandhi in Bhimavaram.
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A statue of Indira Gandhi in Bhimavaram. (Nidheesh M.K)
11 Apr 2019, 07:15:40 PM IST

The big battle for 12 votes

They were standing in a queue inside the open courtyard of an old school. They were mostly women. They were restless. At noon in central Andhra's summer it was not the ideal time to be in a queue. And they knew it.

“Can someone explain to us what is happening? We have been standing here since 7 am. Throw away these machines, let us get back and continue with the paper system," roared a woman from the back of the queue as she wiped sweat from her eyebrows while talking to a reporter of a regional television channel.

It is telling that the wait, thanks to faulty electronic voting machines or EVMs, has tired even the 25-year-old Chandrika Bollineni, a power lifting champion and one of the strongest women in the South.

Bollineni has been winning domestic and international medals since 2016, including at the Asian Pacific International competition held in Australia last month. She was taught in the same school, a dilapidated concrete building with tarpaulin roofs.

The crowd, including Bollineni, are voters for the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections that began today in Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha (). In Andhra Pradesh, voters will have two EVMs side by side, as they are choosing people's representatives for both the Lok Sabha and the assembly.

But since morning, the voting machines have been acting up across the state, causing delay and calls for re-election. The polls have also resulted in violence and the deaths of two people.

Such developments have “perplexed" a young politician, clothed in a shirt of his party colour, bright yellow. He strolls in the courtyard saying “Namaskara" with a smile on his face.

I am in Mangalagiri, in central Andhra Pradesh, where perhaps the most prestigious battle between the two regional parties, TDP and YSRCP, is taking place.

TDP is Telugu Desam Party, headed by Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, which has 102 assembly seats. YSRCP is short for YSR Congress Party, holding 67 seats, named after late Congress heavyweight Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, and headed by his son Jaganmohan Reddy. The two are known for their bitter rivalry and contempt towards the two national parties, Congress and BJP.

Naidu, facing anti-incumbency, is relying upon sops, including 10,000 aid for 9.4 million women-run self-help groups. Jagan banks on a range of issues, including a vexed demand for special category status for the state, apart from making an emotional appeal using his father's name and smart caste and political alliances. Both leaders have also managed to wean away several MPs and MLAs from the opposing camp.

The battle is fiercest in Mangalagiri; in the previous assembly election, YSRCP candidate Alla Ramakrishna Reddy just managed to win by 12 votes. This time even if the TDP has not won anywhere else, it has to win Mangalagiri since this is where Naidu's son and a potential future chief ministerial candidate Nara Lokesh, the man in the yellow shirt, is debuting. For Jagan too, who seems to be giving Naidu a run for his money across the state, it is a matter of hitting the enemy where it hurts most. Both candidates are leaving no stone unturned for a win, according to locals.

“Since morning, they have been distributing cash and liquor," said the autorickshaw driver who took me around the constituency. “The going rate is 2,000 for men and 1,000 for women," he said. Even in bribes, Indians cannot skip gender disparity.

The state has 25 parliamentary seats, of which the TDP won 15, YSRCP 8, and the BJP 2 seats in the 2014 general elections.

Despite the obvious tension he is facing, Lokesh came across as personable. When asked for comments, he winked at the white line a few feet away on the road, marking a 100ft distance away from the polling station (candidates are not allowed to campaign within a 100 ft radius of the polling booth). After posing with voters for selfies, he asked me to get into his car. We had 5 minutes before he reached the next polling booth. He spoke fast.

“Thirty EVMs are not working. Over 50 of these started late and 13 are not working even now. Everybody is blaming the politician. But boss, fixing EVMs is not my job."

“Are you worried it will impact the polls in such a close contest?"

“Two things. Pensioners, who have been traditionally supporting the TDP, have come out in huge numbers. That itself has delayed the process. Many first-timers are also casting their vote, they are not used to long queues. Then there are others who are intimidated by EVMs. It's also late in the day, and bloody hot. But as it happens, grannies seem to have more patience than most of us. I'll bet on them to stay back and vote."

“Is this again a contest for 12 votes?"

“No, it'll be a much more decisive verdict."

After getting down from his SUV, I went back to my autorickshaw. We rode some distance around the village. Mangalagiri's long chain of mountains, rising over the high plains of the Deccan and overlooking the Krishna river, are dotted with ancient cave temples.

From one of the mountains, the entire Guntur and Vijayawada districts, on either side of the border, reveal themselves in a breathtaking view. Mangalagiri looks like a large wooded farm interspersed with tall temples and matchbox-like concrete houses. Vijayawada on the other side looks much more developed with several highrises, which may be the reason why it now places more breakfast orders on Zomato than any other city in India. But that's another story.

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( Nidheesh MK )
11 Apr 2019, 05:14:05 PM IST

When it rains, it pours

Outside Hyderabad airport, I became aware of cool raindrops splashing on my face. I reached out my hand. The summer rains had come. Before I could reach a cab in the parking lot, my side of the road was fully wet.

The airport was dressed up with flowers to mark Ugadi, the Kannada or Telugu New Year falling this month when. "Every year, it is bound to rain in the days before and after Ugadi," said Chintaiah, 32, the cab driver.

I asked him if he would bet the same on who wins the election in his state. "It's easier than predicting the rains," he said: "KCR", the way people address their ruling chief minister and head of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), K Chandrashekhar Rao.

Chintaiah was one among the many echoing a popular sentiment. Across Telangana, people seems to have hedged their bet in favour of the incumbent chief minister to sweep the polls, found a Mint report on Wednesday. Almost every major opinion poll so far has predicted him more than a comfortable victory in the total 17 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana.

If those predictions hold true, that would be a real accomplishment for KCR. He practically founded the state, and faces hardly any real opposition in successive elections.

In fact, he was so confident of himself that he dissolved his own government last September, seven months before term, and went in for re-election. All of the four parties in the opposition benches united under the Congress, calling themselves 'Mahakutami' (grand alliance). Yet, KCR swept the polls again, winning 88 out of the total 119 assembly seats.

As we drove out of the airport, roads and flyovers and tidy streets resonated with the premium placed on infrastructure development in the state. The roads are well connected. A long-awaited metro line opened in 2017. Power cuts, a major worry of city dwellers earlier, locals said, has become a thing of the past. Irrigation projects have picked up pace. Chintaiah explained why he thinks KCR keeps winning elections.

"He runs the state like he is the king. His beta (son, Telangana IT minister KT Rama Rao) behaves like a yuva raaj (prince). Beti (daughter and MP K. Kavitha) is like a maharani. But when you compared them with opposition, these guys are better. So KCR just has to say mane Telangana (our Telangana) and people will give him votes."

KCR is also probably one of the luckiest politicians alive in India, an otherwise subdued aspect of his success story. Telangana was already a revenue surplus state, a rarity among Indian states. The technology businesses in its capital Hyderabad made sure it stayed it that way.

Below Hyderabad's rippling blue skies sprawl the headquarters of some of the best known technology companies home and abroad, including Google and Microsoft. The services sector, with an ever increasing growth rate and a share of 65%, powered the state from 6.8% growth in 2013-14 to 10.4% in 2017-18, according to legislative research firm PRS.

The excess money helped KCR float some of the biggest welfare projects in the country. His last administration started the Rythu Bandhu scheme giving 8,000 per acre to 5.8 million land-owning farmers, which paved the way for larger debates on universal basic income that echoes in the poll promises of several national parties now.

Rao started his career as a lowly supporter of Emergency-era Congress under Indira Gandhi, only to become one of its strongest critics after moving to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). In the first election after the defection, he stood against his previous political mentor Madan Mohan from the Congress.

Soon, the TDP was in for a new set of changes. It was the brainchild of then top actor and mass icon Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, better known as NTR, who was thrown out of power by his son-in-law N Chandrababu Naidu in an organisational coup. KCR helped Naidu. But the duo parted ways soon, apparently in an angry dispute over the denial of a cabinet post for KCR.

Rao then vowed to become CM one day, a path that eventually coincided with his leadership over street agitations for a separate Telangana state, one that raged for about 15 years. The two politicians are still known for not talking to each other.

The Deccan is a strange place. The story goes that the north of Vindhyas was in awe of Qutub Shah, the Deccan sultan who built Hyderabad in such an impressive manner ("no less than a replica of paradise" as historian Manu S Pillai recounted in a recent book). But Shah did not fall into Delhi's hands easily.

Centuries later, KCR's appeal in Delhi is no less. Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah is seen keen to have a post-poll tie-up with KCR, but he has yet to state his demands.

“Everybody here knows that a vote for KCR goes directly to the BJP. How else is he going to tap open his funds? I don't mind any of these, I'm not a fan of the BJP, but I like Prime Minister Narendra Modi," said Chintaiah.

K Chandrashekhar Rao
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K Chandrashekhar Rao (PTI)
11 Apr 2019, 05:14:05 PM IST

Millennials, love thy elections

K. Manjunath's left hand moved to increase the volume of his car stereo immediately as the announcer on radio said, “Elections are here". The station was beginning to interview a first-time voter from Bengaluru who introduced himself as Anish. "I'm very excited," Anish said.

Anish explained in Kannada his dislike for the “jagada (fights)" associated with present-day politics. Rather, he said, politicians should focus on real issues that were bothering the country's youth. "Employment jaasti maadi. Education swalpam jaasti maadi (More employment, more education)." In any case, he signed off saying, “Vote maadi (cast your vote)".

With his eyes on the road, Manjunath, the cab driver who was driving me to Bengaluru airport, nodded in agreement. Manjunath, Anish and I are connected by a common thread--we are part of the 245 million Indian millennials below 35 years of age who will be crucial in the national elections starting Thursday, the biggest democratic exercise of its kind. We may be a constituency, with a shared mindscape of moods and expectations, but we may very well be from different planets.

As long as he can remember, Manjunath's family grew millet and silk in a countryside 10 km from Bengaluru airport. He turned into a cab driver when farming became difficult. The once green pastures ran dry with overuse of groundwater, a story that repeats itself across Indian states. People in his village could not find water even 1,000 ft below the ground, he said.

Unlike his father, who was rendered jobless by the water crisis, Manjunath had Bengaluru's booming gig economy to fall back on. He signed up as a driver with one of the country’s two fastest growing cab aggregator startups. Niti Aayog chief executive Amitabh Kant has pointed out ride hailing services have created 2.2 million jobs, delivering a counter argument to a leaked government report that states unemployment in India in 2017-18 had reached its highest point in 45 years. Manjunath’s job, though, comes with long work hours, no security and little pay.

It came as no surprise when Manjunath started dozing off behind the wheel. Being a millennial addicted to my phone, I hadn't noticed, until other cars began honking. I asked Manjunath to pull over. He apologised and told me he badly needed some tea. The airport was 10 minutes away, and I had enough time till my boarding call.

Over tea, I asked Manjunath when he had slept last. He said he had been working since midnight on Sunday, a time when airport-bound traffic usually peaks. He works round the week with no holidays. I asked him if he would vote. Manjunath’s father was a supporter of the Janata Dal (Secular), the ruling party popular in south Karnataka's rural farm belt, and so is he.

Leave on voting day will eat into Manjunath’s income while others of his age get a paid holiday to vote. But he said: "Yes, I'll vote."

Get latest election news and live updates on Elections 2019 here.

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