For his age, Nikhil is quite clued in. This second-year engineering student in Mangaluru takes a keen interest in tracking how each public representative has performed in the eight constituencies of Dakshina Kannada. Nikhil is clear he will make an informed choice by voting for the right candidate, rather than going by the party the candidate represents.
“We need a broad-minded MLA, not someone who will encourage gangs that indulge in moral policing. We need an MLA whose focus is development instead of merely ranting about communal ideas,” says Nikhil.
His classmate Charmee concurs. I have met them at a pizza joint in Mangaluru, where they have come with four other classmates. Charmee feels the primary concern of an average first-time voter in Mangaluru is to get rid of the atmosphere of fear.
“My parents won't let me go to a pub though these kind of outings to a pizza outlet are okay. One also feels scared. Here, too, I would have thought twice before coming alone with a male classmate,” says Charmee.
This is because Mangaluru has had groups from both ends of the religious spectrum - from Bajrang Dal to Popular Front of India - targeting couples where the boy and girl are from different faiths. While the right-wing groups raise the bogey of ‘love jihad’, alleging hundreds of Hindu girls have gone missing, lured away by Muslim boys, the Islamic group frowns upon any deviation from the faith.
About 350 km away in Hubballi, the farmers are adamant that NOTA will be their preferred option. That is because despite their agitation that has lasted 1010 days, the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre has not been able to persuade the BJP government in Goa to share Mahadayi River’s water with the four districts of northern Karnataka that are parched.
“The tyranny of distance is at play. Far away from Bengaluru, far away from New Delhi, no one cares for what the issues of the poor farmer in this part of Karnataka are. The elections are the only opportunity for us to show our might,” says Murugesh Patil, a farmer.
On the other end of Karnataka, in Ballari, the voter is not spoilt for choice. In most constituencies, he is faced with having to choose between a tainted miner and a tainted miner. The return of the Reddy gang, now fronted by Gali Janardhana Reddy's trusted aide B Sriramulu has focused the country's attention on this iron ore-rich district. Electing the BJP candidates - seven of them in Ballari and neighbouring Chitradurga - will mean handing over Ballari on a platter to the Reddy brothers. May 12 will be the day when they will have to decide if they want to return to the days of ignominy.
What these three instances demonstrate is that local issues dominate the discourse on the ground this election in Karnataka. But as Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi provide air cover, the issues they have focussed on so far has nothing to do with people's choice of the next occupant of Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru. By focusing to expend lung power speaking about Jawaharlal Nehru, General Thimayya, the Rafale deal and Nirav Modi, it is almost as if Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi have lost the plot.
Ditto with TV debates. Whether Rahul stood up for Vande Mataram or not is immaterial to the agrarian voter in Srirangapatna. He is more concerned about whether he will get Cauvery water for his standing sugarcane crop. Whether Nehru conspired to get Ambedkar defeated makes no difference to the voter in Belagavi because he is more bothered about getting jobs locally instead of having to migrate to Goa or Mumbai.
Travelling through Karnataka, what you realise is that there is no pan-Karnataka narrative this election. Issues vary from constituency to constituency, from district to district and most certainly from region to region. It is as if six different states - Old Mysuru, Coastal Karnataka, Mumbai Karnataka, Hyderabad Karnataka, Central Karnataka and Bengaluru - all with different concerns, are voting in the same election.
This is also a waveless election. While there most certainly is an anti-incumbency wave against select MLAs - and that should be a matter of concern to the Congress since they have renominated most of their lawmakers - there is no major anti-incumbency against the government. While there is unhappiness about the quality of governance and corruption in departments, the charges of personal corruption against Siddaramaiah have failed to stick.
What should worry the BJP is that its aggressive campaign against the Congress has not translated into a wave in BS Yeddyurappa's favour. The people of Karnataka, you realise, are not willing to make an uninformed choice. Even in the countryside, people compare the Siddaramaiah regime of 2013-18 with the governments of Yeddyurappa, Sadananda Gowda and Jagadish Shettar between 2008-13.
But with just a week to go for elections, the air is thick with rumours of cash moving in. In Badami, where Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is pitted against Sriramulu in a high-profile contest, the going rate for a vote is reportedly Rs 5,000.
The seizures so far also indicate that cash wants to be king in Karnataka. Rs 65 crore has been seized in raids until Tuesday – a 350% increase from 2013 when Rs 14 crore was seized. The following year in the Lok Sabha elections, Rs 28 crore was seized. With political parties getting into last-minute pinch-hitting mode, the Election Commission has its task cut out to ensure pockets in Karnataka do not go Chennai's RK Nagar way.