For five years, from Class 6 to 10, Congress leader Pramod Madhwaraj and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Raghupathi Bhat were classmates at the English Medium High School, now called TA Pai English Medium High School, in Udupi.
But next month, the duo will once again find themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum after both filed their nomination papers to contest from Udupi.
The classmates first crossed paths in the political sphere in 2008 when Raghupathi defeated Pramod in Udupi by a margin of 2,479 votes but, since then, the political fortunes other two leaders have seen several changes.
Pramod succeeded Raghupathi as the MLA of Udupi after the BJP leader did not contest the 2013 Assembly elections. A video clip of Raghupati with an unidentified woman was leaked to TV channels in March 2013, just before elections in the state. This lead to Raghupathi withdrawing his candidature citing â€˜personal reasonsâ€™. Senior BJP leader B Sudhakara Shetty contested in his place and was defeated by a whopping margin of 39,524 votes by Pramod.
Raghupathi, meanwhile, slipped into political oblivion.
It came as a surprise to many observers in the district when Raghupathi's name was confirmed as the BJP's candidate on April 20. 'The delay in naming the candidate might hurt our prospects, but we believe Raghupathi Bhat is the candidate to defeat Pramod," said Mattaru Rathnakar Heggade, BJP's Udupi District Chief.
The fact that the rivalry does have shades of bonhomie too was on show once again on Monday when Pramod fell at the feet of Saraswati Bai, Raghupathiâ€™s mother, to seek her blessings the before polls. "I know her and Raghupathi well from my school days, so it was only natural to seek her blessings," said Pramod.
When asked about their personal history, Raghupathi speaks effusively about Pramod, but also asks serious questions of the Congress leader. "The decision to hand over a Government Hospital to a private NRI businessman BR Shetty was wrong. They (the state government) should have invited bids for tenders. Kasturba Hospital from Manipal, Yenepoya in Mangaluru and Nitte group could all have bid for it," Raghupathi said.
In October 2016, the Government Maternity and Children Hospital in Udupi was handed over to BR Shetty, an NRI businessman who has interests in healthcare, distribution, financial and food sectors,spread across the UAE and in India.
Pramod in response defended the decision to hand over the hospital's functioning to BR Shetty and pointed out that he has a similar undertaking in Varanasi as per the directions of Prime Minister Modi. "They (opposition) cannot have two different stances in Udupi and Varanasi. If I am wrong, then the Prime Minister is wrong," he said, in response to criticism against the decision.
However, Raghupathi responded saying that a working government hospital was handed over to a private businessman in Udupi, whereas land was handed over to develop a new hospital in Varanasi.
Another issue of contention in Udupi is the availability of drinking water in the summer. Over the last two years, resources in Udupi were strained to ensure round-the-clock water supply in the district.
In a bid to fix the issue, Pramod highlighted a Rs 270 crore project to bring water from Varahi River water to Udupi. The project aims to ensure 24-hour drinking water supply even in remote areas of Udupi. However, Raghupathi chose to denounce the project as a poll ploy and questioned its feasibility.
Once classmates, Pramod and Raghupathi's political rivalry may be based on mutual respect, but the geniality between the two will be tested as both leaders hit the campaign trail to woo voters in the district.
While Pramod remains quietly confident of winning again, Raghupathi will be bolstered by the presence of national leaders Rajnath Singh, Yogi Adityanath and PM Modi, who are all set to visit the coastal district before polls.