In Shirthadi, a village in the forested area of Moodbidri in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, the residents of the village patiently wait for the arrival of Congress candidate Mithun Rai for a roadshow.
Mithun, 34, is the surprise young candidate picked by the Congress party in its bid to end the continued dominance of the BJP in the coastal district. He is popular in and around Moodbidri and in the southern parts of Mangaluru, and has launched an aggressive campaign to wrest the Dakshina Kannada seat away from the BJP, which has won the last seven Lok Sabha elections held in the district.
The saffron party has fielded two-time MP Nalin Kumar Kateel and Mithun is hoping to capitalise on the BJP leader’s perceived misgivings - the failure of completing developmental works including Pumpwell and Thokottu flyovers, and the development of National Highway 169 running from Mangaluru to Bengaluru.
Protest by Congress leaders in Mangaluru over incomplete works on National Highway 169
Criticism over incomplete development works
Speaking on the sidelines of his roadshow in Shirthadi, Mithun says, “The honourable MP has been here for the past 10 years. He has not raised a single question regarding development, employment, communal harmony, social justice and about the overall development of the district. The works on Pumpwell, Thokottu flyovers and National Highway 169 are yet to be completed. We should ask him what is completed.”
The Congress has also criticised Nalin and the BJP for failing to prevent the merger of Vijaya Bank, a bank built by a group of farmers in Mangaluru in 1931. It was merged with the Bank of Baroda on April 1, a day that Congress workers and leaders in the district marked as a ‘Black Day’.
Campaigning in Puthige, around 15 km away from Shirthadi, Nalin appears to be calm in the face of the stinging criticism levelled by the Congress. “It is common in politics that when development is done, there will be criticism and this is all politically motivated. The reason for delay in Pumpwell flyover is partly due to the state government as well. There are other reasons but when there are elections, the opposition parties will use it to their advantage. The decision to merge Vijaya Bank was taken under UPA rule and we are hopeful of saving the name,” he says speaking to TNM.
The decision to merge Vijaya Bank was taken under the leadership of Finance Minister Chidambaram during the UPA's rule however the merger went through only on April 1. The Congress is now pointing towards the profitable nature of the bank as the reason to stop the merger.
Nalin Kumar Kateel campaigning in Puthige, Dakshina Kannada
Nalin, an experienced campaigner, also reiterates that the people of the district will once again vote in favour of the ‘Modi model’ of development. “The development of national highway, port, airport, jetty for fishermen, coast guard training center, a plastic park, coconut park have been taken up in my tenure. The developmental works are still starting and when they are completed, the people of this district can clearly see the work done. For this, we need another five years,” adds Nalin.
Many residents in the district however have grown impatient with the slow progress of developmental works. “The construction works of the jetty have taken years to complete and have been marked by delays by both the central and state governments. To improve the economy of Mangaluru, more facilities should be made for the fishermen community,” says Nandakishore HK, a boatmaker from Mangaluru.
Answering the cycle of communal violence
Mithun further chose to focus on the topic of communal unrest in Mangaluru. “Ours is a secular party. We follow all religions which means I worship my Hindu religion and respect other religions. This is the motto everyone should follow,” he says.
Mithun Rai campaigning in Shirthadi
In contrast, Nalin, who has spoken about the murders of BJP workers in Parliament, points out that communal violence has reduced ever since the district largely voted for BJP MLAs in the 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections. Nalin raised the issue of political murders in Karnataka in a January 2018 Parliament session, days after Deepak Rao, a BJP volunteer, was murdered in the district allegedly by four Muslim men.
“There were Congress MLAs in Dakshina Kannada district in the last five years and in this time, there were murders of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. But in the last year, 7 BJP MLAs were elected here and there have been no violent incidents that are communal in nature,” Nalin says before adding, “We have also made a request to establish a branch of the National Investigative Agency in Mangaluru to ensure the safety of people.”
Nalin Kumar Kateel poses with his supporters
According to data compiled by activist Suresh Bhat Bakarabail of the Karnataka Komu Sauharda Vedike (Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony), there were 741 communal incidents in Dakshina Kannada from 2013 to 2018 including 228 incidents in 2015. The numbers however have reduced to 108 since the start of 2018. “The number of incidents have reduced since the state elections last year and both the BJP and the Congress are claiming that it is due to their efforts,” explains Suresh, who has compiled data on communal incidents in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi dating back to 2010.
The number of incidents usually spike in the time of elections but that has not been the case this time around. Suresh and other residents of the district remain hopeful that this election will be free of violence, and that the focus stays on the candidates and their vision for the district.
All photographs by Dhruv Khanna