For the first time in history, the most feudal part of Karnataka -- the twin districts and Lok Sabha constituencies of Vijayapura and Bagalkote -- both have women candidates standing for Parliament elections from the Congress-JD(S) combine. Vijayapura (erstwhile Bijapur) had a woman candidate from the Congress once earlier -- Laxmibai Basagondappa Gudadinni -- in 1999, who lost. But Bagalkote Lok Sabha has never had a woman candidate before.
The Congress fielded Bagalkote zilla panchayat chairperson, Veena Kashappanavar, wife of its former Hungund MLA Vijayanand, while the JD(S) candidate Sunitha Chavan is the wife of Nagthan MLA Devanand, continuing the hold of these political families in the region. These two districts are the strongholds of the politically and numerically powerful Lingayats and are represented mainly by them. Since 2009, however, Vijayapura became a reserved constituency and has been held by BJP’s Ramesh Jigajinagi, one of former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde’s closest followers.
The contests this time in both constituencies is intriguing and close, giving the women a fighting chance at becoming the region’s first non-male representatives in the Lok Sabha. The BJP, which has held the seat from 1999, is a divided house as Jigajinagi and his predecessor, Basanagouda Patil Yatnal -- who was a minister in the Vajpayee government -- have had public spats and are unhappy with each other. Yatnal, known as “Yatnal Goudru” in this region, belongs to the numerically-strong Panchamsaali sub-sect of the Lingayats and is also currently the BJP’s MLA from Vijayapura city.
The Congress has two ministers in the state government from this district -- Home Minister M B Patil, who was Vijayapura’s MP in 1998 and Health Minister Shivanand Patil -- and an MLA, while the JD(S) has two MLAs. BJP has three MLAs including Yatnal. On paper, the combined might of the Congress and the JD(S) is certainly superior to the BJP and given the infighting in the saffron party, Sunitha Chavan appears to have more than a good chance of winning. The constituency also has a substantial population of Muslims, whose support the alliance is banking on, even if the Dalit vote splits both ways.
Sunitha Chavan’s real problem, however, is the differences between the alliance partners themselves. Both the Congress ministers in the coalition state government not only have problems with each other, but were strongly in favour of this seat being fought by their party and not given to the JD(S). Sunitha Chavan is a complete political novice and there is heartburn even within the JD(S) that she has been given the ticket, while Congress workers are disgruntled that they have to support her rather than their own candidate.
The Congress has played a smart caste game in the region with the candidature of Veena Kashappanavar in the neighbouring Bagalkote. Till now, the Congress kept giving party tickets in the region to either an Other Backward Caste Kuruba or a Reddy-Lingayat, another sub-caste of the Lingayats, who have always held power vastly disproportionate with their numerical strength. It caused displeasure among other Lingayat sub-castes, particularly the Panchamsaalis, who are the biggest sub-sect.
Like Yatnal Goudru in Vijayapura, Veena’s husband Vijayanand and late father-in-law S R Kashappanavar, a minister in the SM Krishna state government of 1999-2004, have been prominent leaders of the Panchamsaali sub-sect. With her candidature, the Congress is finally acknowledging the importance of that sect by giving a Lok Sabha ticket to them. This can benefit the party not only in Bagalkote, but in most of North Karnataka.
The arithmetic in Bagalkote, however, is totally in favour of sitting BJP MP P C Gaddigoudar, who belongs to the powerful Ganiga sub-caste of the Lingayats. The Ganigas are Karnataka’s equivalent of the Teli community that Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to and this region is one of the BJP’s strongholds. The Congress lost its Ganiga leader, the late former MP Siddu Nyamgouda, immediately after the 2018 elections, when he won the Jamkhandi assembly seat in this Lok Sabha constituency and also helped former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah win the neighbouring Badami assembly seat. Nyamgouda’s son Anand is now the Jamkhandi MLA but he and Siddaramaiah are the only MLAs the alliance has in this constituency. All the remaining six seats are held by the BJP.
Perceptions, however, are not as simple as arithmetic. Bagalkote has a substantial population of Kurubas, the community that Siddaramaiah belongs to, as well as Panchamsaalis. The calculations of the Congress-JD(S) combine is that if their party workers cooperate and fight this election together -- the divisions are not as harsh as in some of the other constituencies -- Veena Kashappannavar might just be able to pull it off, just like Sunitha Chavan might, despite the outright misogyny that the region is known for.
Views expressed are the author's own.
Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.