Vijaya Bank merger plan poses hurdle for BJP in Mangaluru ahead of Lok Sabha polls

The merger of Vijaya Bank with Bank of Baroda has faced stiff opposition from the influential Bunt community as it was established by a group of farmers led by a Bunt.
Vijaya Bank merger plan poses hurdle for BJP in Mangaluru ahead of Lok Sabha polls
Vijaya Bank merger plan poses hurdle for BJP in Mangaluru ahead of Lok Sabha polls
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The decision to merge two nationalised banks - Vijaya Bank with Bank of Baroda - has sparked a political debate in Mangaluru and could affect the candidates contesting in the Lok Sabha Elections this year from the coastal district.

Vijaya Bank, which was established by a group of farmers led by Attavar Balakrishna Shetty on Vijayadashami day in 1931 (hence the name 'Vijaya') in Mangaluru, will be merged with Bank of Baroda in March 2019. The bank is historically linked to the coastal city.

The move faced stiff opposition from Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and several other like-minded organisations which came together to protest the decision on January 3.  The protesters decried the Union government's decision to merge a bank built in Mangaluru and raised concerns that it will limit job opportunities for people from Mangaluru and Karnataka in the bank. A placard at the protest read ‘Shetru Bank Kattidru, Modi Bank Muchchisidru’ which translates to "(Sundar Ram) Shetty built the bank, Modi closed it.”

Among the voices resisting the merger of the bank is that of the influential Bunt community in Mangaluru. They are one of the largest ethnic groups alongside the Mogaveeras and Billavas in the coastal districts of Karnataka. "The Bunt community was not taken into confidence with this decision. Vijaya Bank was earning profits while Bank of Baroda made a loss in 2018. It may have a higher employee count but that is not a justification merge the bank that is a guiding light to many households here," says Asha Jyothi Rai, President of the women's wing of the Buntara Yane Nadavara Sangha, an organisation set up in 1907.

The Bunt community has various Sanghas which works to protect the interest of its community members and are influential in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. 

The community members are now venting their ire against Mangaluru's BJP MP Nalin Kumar Kateel for not averting the merger. Not long ago, Nalin had protested alongside community members in their bid to name Light House Hill Road in Mangaluru after the late Sundar Ram Shetty, the former chairman of Vijaya Bank, in 2017.

A government notification to name the road after Sunder Ram Shetty was stayed by the previous Siddaramaiah-led government based on an objection raised by Congress MLA JR Lobo.

Nalin protested alongside members of the Bunt community to oppose the Congress plan to keep the name of the road as St. Aloysius Road. 

The issue became a point of contention in the run-up to the Assembly Elections in 2018. JR Lobo was defeated and BJP's Vedavyas Kamath won from Mangaluru South constituency.

But in less than a year, the tables appear to have turned and Nalin Kumar Kateel is now fighting to save the identity of the bank. He, along with UdupI-Chikkamagaluru MP Shobha Karandlaje and Mumbai North MP Gopal Shetty, approached Finance Minister Arun Jaitley asking for a review of the decision to merge the bank. The trio requested whether the identity of Vijaya Bank can be kept even after the merger. 

Sources in the BJP told TNM that Nalin's candidature from the Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituency in the upcoming election is far from a foregone conclusion. Since the constituency was carved out of the Mangalore Lok Sabha constituency after the delimitation process in 2008, Nalin, who also belongs to the Bunt community, has contested and won both the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. 

He, however, faces a fight to maintain his stronghold over the constituency in the face of rising public pressure. The failure to complete the works for the construction of flyovers in Pumpwell and Thokottu in the city more than eight years after it was sanctioned also hangs over Nalin’s head. 

The latest threat to his candidature however is far bigger - the merger of Vijaya Bank. "The bank was profitable and had negligible non performing assets. The MP Nalin Kumar Kateel did not raise his voice to save the bank until it was too late," adds Asha. 

It remains to be seen if the BJP opts to stick with the MP for a third time in a row as its candidate from Dakshina Kannada and if they do, whether the merger of the historical bank will affect his chances. 

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