Former Mandya MP Ambareesh’s wife Sumalatha has given the Congress-JD(S) alliance in Karnataka a breather, by deciding to contest as an independent from Mandya in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. Despite her announcement on Monday, Sumalatha is facing intense persuasion to formally join the BJP and contest as its candidate.
The fight for Mandya is significant as the region has been at the heart of the mind-numbing rivalry between the Congress and the JD(S), and its predecessor, the Janata Dal, for the last two-and-a-half decades. Mandya is located in the centre of the Cauvery river basin, dominated by Vokkaligas – the second largest community (after the more populous Lingayats) in the state, whose fierce caste pride is a matter of legend.
For decades, the politics in this region has surrounded the battle between two tall leaders – JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda representing the anti-Congress/Janata Dal side, and Congress heavyweight SM Krishna. In the run up to the Karnataka Assembly elections in 2018, the political scenario here saw a major shift when SM Krishna used trenchant words against Rahul Gandhi, praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and joined the BJP.
The scene changed yet again after the 2018 elections, when Congress and JD(S) leaders decided they could bury the hatchet and forge a friendship. Unbelievable instances followed this decision, when Congress strongman and a former SM Krishna mentee, DK Shivakumar, held hands with Deve Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy to portray that he had buried his burning hatred for the father-son duo.
This, however, has left Mandya and its surrounding districts of Hassan, Mysuru, Bengaluru Rural, Ramanagaram, and Tumakuru in complete turmoil. “It is okay for the leaders,” a block-level JD(S) leader said, immediately after the coalition government was formed, “But what about us? We have fought the Congress party and its workers tooth and nail every election as far back as I can remember. Murders have been committed, we can’t visit each other’s villages, family members don’t speak to each other because of our political loyalties. How can this vanish overnight?”
With Sumalatha announcing her candidature, she has emerged as an alternative for the Congress party workers to support instead of the coalition’s candidate, Kumaraswamy’s son HK Nikhil Gowda. And the grand old party, by officially supporting NIkhil, is risking shifting of its party apparatus, lock, stock and barrel, to Sumalatha. She is also being formally supported by SM Krishna and the few BJP workers in the district, besides by the fans of her extremely popular husband, who had consistently resisted going to the BJP.
Some of the shift in Mandya’s political scenario was evident when the coalition put up a JD(S) candidate in the 2018 Mandya Lok Sabha bye-poll. The coalition candidate LR Shivarame Gowda of the JD(S) won by a margin of over 2 lakh votes. What amazed the people in political circles was that Shivarame Gowda's BJP opponent, a doctor named Siddaramaiah, gained over 2 lakh votes in a constituency where the BJP has no political presence. The only explanation for this was that disgruntled Congress workers had supported Siddaramaiah, as they could not stomach supporting a JD(S) candidate.
Both the Congress and JD(S) leadership are aware that they are ceding space to the BJP in the upcoming election to set up a base in the Cauvery basin. The saffron party has already gained a foothold in Hassan, another JD(S) bastion, along with Mysuru and Chamarajanagar segments. Mandya and Bengaluru Rural – the fortresses of the Gowda family – were the two other districts where the BJP’s presence was almost laughable. Until now.
In Hassan, the strongest Congress leader – A Manju – has moved over to the BJP as he is unwilling to support the coalition’s official candidate, another of Gowda’s grandsons, Prajwal Revanna. A Manju’s move comes with the fear of losing both his face and base in the region. He is tipped to be the official BJP candidate from the Hassan segment.
In Bengaluru Rural, the seat is wide open for the Congress’s DK Suresh to grab. But the BJP is likely to increase its footprint this time around for the same reason – the JD(S) leaders in Bengaluru Rural are unwilling to support their arch rival, the Congress. In addition, the BJP candidate, Muniraju Gowda, got 4 lakh votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as the party’s candidate in Bengaluru Rural, second only to DK Suresh.
Bets are still on that the coalition’s candidates could win Mandya, Hassan, and Bengaluru Rural. However, it may play havoc with constituencies like Mysuru-Kodagu, which is currently being held by the BJP. If Congress and JD(S) leaders can work together – a scenario currently unimaginable to workers in both parties – politics and power could win as their combined might is more than the BJP. But as minister and JD(S) legislator Sa Ra Mahesh has already warned, unless the Congress cooperates with the JD(S) in Mandya, they cannot expect cooperation in other districts.
Letting go of Tumakuru is still a very bitter pill for the Congress to swallow as the seat is currently held by the party’s Muddahanume Gowda. It is, however, an outright JD(S) stronghold and the Gowdas have demanded it as their right. The constituency usually votes out the incumbent and the JD(S) leadership has pointed it out to the Congress that it is their “turn to win.” And the Congress has ceded to the demand, much to the fury of party workers in the district. Again, the BJP is the likely beneficiary from the differences between the alliance partners.
“We are taking a huge gamble and going for this alliance in the hope that all secular forces will unite against the BJP. It could prove counterproductive in some cases, but we don’t seem to have a choice,” a senior Congress leader rued.
Whether the gamble is worth the costs, especially in other districts like Vijayapura and Udupi-Chikmagalur, is uncertain. Especially since Congress workers are said to be furious with the party leadership for handing over these seats to the JD(S), where it has lesser presence than them. But what does emerge clearly in this scenario, is that the BJP has managed what it has only dreamed of so far: a solid entry into the Congress-JD(S) strongholds of Southern Karnataka.
Views expressed are the author's own.
Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.