Ground report: Priyank Kharge faces a tough fight in the high-stakes battle for Chittapur

Priyank, who is still seen as a ‘Bengaluru boy’, is facing-off against BJP local strongman Valmiki Naik, who has defeated him once before.
Ground report: Priyank Kharge faces a tough fight in the high-stakes battle for Chittapur
Ground report: Priyank Kharge faces a tough fight in the high-stakes battle for Chittapur
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The election fever is palpable in Chittapur, in Karnataka's Kalaburagi district, as large boards dot the town asking people to come out on May 12 and vote in the state's elections.

A high-stakes battle is underway in the constituency reserved for the SC community – ever since it was announced that incumbent MLA Priyank M Kharge was set to contest the seat again on a Congress ticket.

Besides being the sitting Minister for IT, BT (Information Technology, Biotechnology) and Tourism, 38-year-old Priyank is the son of Congress heavyweight Mallikarjun Kharge.

The battle is also one for prestige, as the Congress has only lost the seat four times since Independence, consolidating the town's Muslim and Dalit population.

Loyal voters

"I was born in Chittappur in 1933 and I have been voting for the Congress since 1952. I was a teenager when Chittapur became part of the Indian government, from the control of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan," says 86-year-old Maheboob Khan, as he sits on a chair at the Congress office in the town, sipping on a small cup of tea.

"I shifted to Bombay for work, but I used to come back every time during the elections to vote for the Congress. I have seen Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in Mumbai, and shook Rajiv Gandhi's hand when he came to Chittapur," he adds.

The voters of Congress in the town are extremely loyal and the party is banking on voters like Khan to get their families to vote for them. 

Other Congress voters TNM spoke to said that they had photos of the entire Nehru-Gandhi family in their houses.

"When Rajiv died, we mourned for eight days. It was a very tough time," one local said. 

The Kharge brand

Mallikarjun Kharge holds a record of sorts in the area for winning 10 elections straight since 1972.

He first won from the reserved Gurmitkal constituency and later from Chittapur after delimitation of Assembly Constituencies in Karnataka.

In 2009, he contested for the Gulbarga Parliamentary seat and won there as well. As he resigned his legislator seat, the Congress nominated then popular youth leader Priyank Kharge, who narrowly lost the seat.

However, Priyank managed to turn his fortunes around in 2013, winning the elections and reclaiming his father's seat.

With the older voters already loyal to his party, he swayed the younger voters using social media and promising them jobs.

Image: Facebook/Priyank Kharge

A united Opposition

However, at the heart of the town, just next to a large statue of Kannada philosopher Basavanna, the BJP has rented out a large room where it has been strategizing and sending out foot soldiers asking people to vote for the party.

"There are around 2.2 lakh voters across the constituency with around 20-odd wards. Many villages even today continue to face problems and it is only the town that has got a facelift. People are angry and we are confident of winning the seat," says Raghu Bajantri, a karyakarta.

"Despite being Tourism Minister, he didn't develop the famous Nagalambika temple in his own constituency," he adds.

The BJP says that the only reason Priyank managed to win in 2013 was because BS Yeddyurappa's Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) had nominated its own candidate at the time, which had split the votes.

"This time, we are united and there is nothing that can split the votes. Priyank will face a big loss, as someone born with a golden spoon, living in Bengaluru, will never understand the problems of the farmers and workers," says one BJP leader.  

The party also points out that unlike Priyank, their candidate, Valmiki Naik, is a local strongman, who even defeated Priyank in the 2009 bye-poll in Chittapur.

Former Congress leaders Somashekhar Patil and Malikayya Guttedar have also extended support to the BJP, with the latter pledging that he would ensure Priyank's defeat.

Other local leaders like ex-Chittapur MLA Vishwatnath Patil Hebbal and Lingareddy Bhasareddy have also thrown their weight behind the BJP.

The JD(S), meanwhile, hasn't fielded a candidate, and instead is campaigning for BSP candidate Devaraja VK.

What's at stake?

The election will essentially boil down to a straight fight between the Congress and BJP, with each ensuring they are doing everything they can to win the election as a matter of prestige.

Priyank has been pointing out that he has brought development projects worth Rs 2,400 crore to his constituency, including the Nagavi Education Hub that everyone agrees is a positive development.  

He also says that the Oriental Cement factory, which was set up at Itga village, provided jobs to several hundred locals, countering the claims of the BJP. However, not all locals are satisfied with the factory, as trucks kick up large amounts of dust in the air, polluting the fields nearby.

"If you want to know how much is at stake, you must visit the town after midnight. That's when all the parties try to distribute cash and kind. The Congress and the BJP are going all out," says Manjugowda Patil, a former JD(S) leader.

"The feeling on the ground is that while Priyank has ensured the development of the constituency, he is still largely seen as a 'Bengaluru boy' with no connect to the villages in the area. Despite this, the town does have a deep-rooted history of electing Congress candidates, so there is no way of knowing who will win," he adds.

Priyank's victory will also ensure that his father has enough bargaining power, in case of a hung Assembly, if the JD(S) decides to ally with the Congress.

As JD(S) chief Deve Gowda's dislike of Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah is no secret, Mallikarjun Kharge’s long-time wish of being Chief Minister may then get fulfilled. 

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