From calling a leader a drug peddler to wondering whether another wore RSS undies to questioning the right to sport a kambli (blanket) on the shoulder like a shepherd (read Kuruba community), campaigning for the bye-polls to Hanagal in Haveri district and Sindgi in Vijayapura district has been nothing but name-calling.
Perhaps for the first time in these many years of elections and bye-polls, political slander to its core was the campaign plank of the BJP, Congress and the JD(S) for the bye-polls in Karnataka scheduled on October 30. Talk about development of the two constituencies, fuel hike and the candidates became secondary as leaders settled scores by hurling personal abuses at each other. Campaigning in both constituencies ended on Wednesday, October 27.
Each day of the campaign witnessed star campaigners Chief Minister SR Bommai and two former CMs, Siddaramaiah and HD Kumaraswamy, exchanging personal and casteist remarks. KPCC president DK Shivakumar coined the slogan â€śBJPâ€™s note, Congress voteâ€ť, asking the voters to accept the money allegedly being distributed by the BJP in both the constituencies, but to vote for the Congress. Hitting back, Bommai said: â€śWe have seen Shivakumarâ€™s experience with sacks (money) in Kundgol, Gundlupet and Nanjangud bye-elections. He is now trying to make those allegations against us.â€ť
What started as a defence ploy by Kumaraswamy of attacking the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to woo the minority community in the two constituencies where the JD(S) has fielded Muslim candidates went into a tangent by the BJPâ€™s second line leadership questioning his personal life. Siddaramaiah added his bit by questioning Kumaraswamyâ€™s motive of fielding Muslims in both the constituencies. He claimed it was to help the BJP by dividing the minority votes. In retaliation, Kumaraswamy accused Siddaramaiah of conducting â€śrajakiya naramedhaâ€ť (political genocide) of Muslim leaders in Congress.
The political narrative hit a new low with state BJP President Nalin Kumar Kateel calling Congress leader Rahul Gandhi a â€śdrug peddlerâ€ť following a tweet by the Congress dubbing Prime Minister Narendra Modi illiterate, which was later deleted. A day after this, the Karnataka Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) intervened issuing an advisory to all political parties.
In the advisory dated October 21, the CEO Manoj Kumar Meena said the Election Commission (EC) had noticed â€śobjectionable statements made by political leaders targeting personal lives of the rival parties leaders during the election campaignsâ€ť. Quoting the guidelines that are to be followed by political parties and candidates, the advisory asked all political leaders to refrain from using offensive and objectionable language against rival parties leaders. â€śCriticism of other political parties, when made, shall be confined to their policies and programmes, past record and work. Parties and candidates shall refrain from criticism of all aspects of private life not connected with the political activities of the leaders or workers of other parties,â€ť the statement added.
The outpour of personal attacks has not resulted in anyone complaining to the election authorities or seeking legal recourse. â€śItâ€™s surprising that no party has approached the EC or the courts on grounds of character assassination, when at least 10 to 20 cases should have been filed by now,â€ť a senior Congress leader said. Endorsing it, a BJP functionary said: â€śWhy will any party leader or member seek action as all are sitting in glass houses.â€ť
Supreme Court senior advocate and Congress spokesperson Brijesh Kalappa said personal or defamatory statements that amount to character assassination of a person do not come under the purview of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). â€śThe remedy lies under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code which pertain to defamation. But the shelf life of all such personal exchanges is short and everything is forgotten after the polls,â€ť he added.
However, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi said the EC can suo motu take note of such slanderous statements. â€śSince the EC will be preoccupied with other issues, it will step in only if approached by the aggrieved party,â€ť he maintained.
What lies in store for parties in both constituencies? Itâ€™s a question of prestige for Bommai, who according to Union Home Minister Amit Shah is the BJPâ€™s face for the Karnataka Assembly elections in 2023, and the bye-polls are the first test for him. For the Congress, which has never won from Sindgi for 23 years, sources said this was the best chance. The constituency has been a JD(S) stronghold of the Managuli family. The bye-poll is necessitated following the death of JD(S) MLA MC Managuli, whose son Ashok Managuli is the Congress candidate.
According to political observers, the constituency is divided into two groups â€“ Lingayats and Ganigas (oil extractors). The Congress has given the ticket to a Lingayat for the first time, while the BJP candidate Ramesh Balappa Bhusanur is a Ganiga who lost to the BJP in 2018, and the JD(S) nominee is Naziya Shakeel Ahmed Angadi.
The Congress is banking on the Lingayats, backward classes and a small share of the Ganiga votes. Local leaders said the Muslim votes will be divided and cite the example of the Basavakalyan bye-poll result. The JD(S) fielded Syed Yasrab Ali Qadri, with the Congress reportedly losing 10,000 votes of the Muslims in April this year.
The Hanagal bye-poll is crucial to Bommaiâ€™s leadership as it is his home district. The entire cabinet is camping in the constituency. For the first time in 43 years, the Udasi family (seat was held by BJP MLA CM Udasi) is not in the poll fray though they are campaigning intensively.
The BJP has fielded Shivaraj Sajjanar, loyalist of former chief minister BS Yediyurappa, the Congress renominating party MLC Srinivas Mane, and the JD(S) Niyaz Shaikh. Mane had lost the 2018 polls to the late Udasi and is said to have been nurturing the constituency since then. Itâ€™s a tough neck and neck triangular battle here.
Naheed Ataulla is a journalist who has covered Karnataka politics for over two decades, and is a former Political Editor of The Times of India. Views expressed are the authorâ€™s own.