Around the Kagwad and Athani region of Karnataka’s Belagavi district rows and rows of tractors laden with the year’s sugarcane produce can be seen on the roads rolling towards sugar factories. Missing from the rows of farmers waiting to get their sugarcane produce crushed at the factories are hundreds of farmers whose crops were wiped out by massive floods that occurred in Belagavi and surrounding districts in August this year. Nearly 1.7 lakh hectares of agricultural land was wiped out by the floods that hit Belagavi between August 5 and August 15.
With the BJP government headed by chief minister B S Yediyurappa, which came to power in July this year, yet to hand out compensation to farmers who lost crops in the August floods, Yediyurappa and the BJP are set to face a stern electoral test in by polls scheduled for December 5 in three assembly constituencies in Belagavi – Kagwad, Athani and Gokak.
The defection of three Congress MLAs from Belagavi to the BJP – Shrimanth Patil from Kagwad, Mahesh Kumatahalli from Athani and Ramesh Jharkiholi of Gokak – along with 14 other MLAs, helped the BJP topple the Congress-JDS coalition and assume power just ahead of the floods.
In many villages – in the Athani and Kagwad seats- banners have appeared asking the rebel Congress MLAs Mahesh Kumatahalli and Shrimanth Patil not to enter the villages to seek votes since the legislators never turned up in the villages to check on people after the floods.
“There is a lot of anger against Shrimanth Patil who is now trying to get re-elected as a BJP MLA from Kagad. He never paid the dues of farmers last year at his sugar factory. This year after the floods he never bothered to visit villages. He has not dared to appear in Ainapur until today,” Korgund Mallappa, a farmer from the Ainapur area in Kagwad said Monday while waiting for Karnataka chief minister B S Yediyurappa to campaign for Patil in the small town.
“There has been no compensation paid for the crop loss by the government. An amount of Rs 10,000 has been paid for the loss of houses but nothing for crops as yet,” the farmer said.
Sensing the local anger in the Belagavi district – which is dominated by members of his own dominant Lingayat community – chief minister Yediyurappa has carried out two rounds of campaigning in the flood hit regions to assuage anger with the promise that all problems will be solved after December 9 if the BJP wins the majority of the 15 by poll seats.
In his campaign run through the Belagavi seats Yediyurappa has been playing the Lingayat card strongly and has called on voters to set aside their anger and vote for the BJP candidates in the interest of enabling him to remain in power for 3.5 years more.
“You should remember that each of the votes you cast is for me and not just for the candidate,” Yediyurappa has said in his speeches in the region in the second round of campaigning. In the first round he had implored voters not to allow a single Lingayat vote to go to any other party other than the BJP – if the Lingayats want to see him continue as CM.
One of the problems that the BJP is facing in Kagwad – apart from the anger against the party candidate – is the fact that the Congress has fielded a Lingayat man Raju Kage – who switched to the Congress last month after the BJP inducted the Congress rebel Patil as its candidate.
“There is additional trouble for Shrimanth Patil because he is not from the local Lingayat community. He is a Maratha. There is sympathy for Raju Kage. Despite the chief minister’s efforts Patil may lose,” the Ainapur farmer Korgund Mallappa said.
In an effort to bolster support for its candidates in the flood affected seats which go to the polls on December 5 the BJP rolled out its pantheon of Lingayat leaders to campaign in Kagwad and Athani on Monday. “Don’t look at the caste of the candidate in Kagwad. Think of Yediyurappa and vote,” the former union minister Basavaraj Yatnal said at Athani on Monday.
In the Athani region the BJP seems to have the going easier than the neighboring Kagwad despite the Congress rebel Mahesh Kumatahalli needing the support of BJP deputy chief minister Laxman Savadi – whom he defeated in the 2018 polls – to win the seat in the by polls. The going also seems easy for Kumatahalli despite the flood linked anger of people seeing the emergence of banners barring him from campaigning in some villages in Athani.
“There was some resistance to the BJP newcomer in the beginning. That is all sorted out now and deputy chief minister Savadi is backing the candidate Kumatahalli. The chief minister has assured people that flood problems will be addressed after the polls,” a founding member of the BJP unit in Athani – Shankar Rao Kottur said.
“The local leaders of the Congress and JDS in my village have all joined the BJP in recent days. The Congress candidate is a non entity. The field is clear for the BJP to win in Athani. It is the work of Savadi the deputy chief minister,” a farmer Ishwar Athani said in Athani.
The BJP is also seemingly on a good wicket in the Gokak seat in the region where the battle is within the family of the scheduled tribe Jharkiholi brothers – the Congress rebel Ramesh Jarkiholi for the BJP and his brother Lakhan Jarkiholi being fielded by the Congress.
“Though the JDS has fielded a Lingayat candidate in the form of Ashok Poojary – a former BJP leader – the battle seems to be going the way of the Jarkiholis in the BJP,” a local official said. The Gokak seat is a traditional strong hold of the Jarkiholi family – which has interests in the sugar business – and family members battle across party lines to retain control of the region.
The BJP which needs to win at least eight of the 15 by poll seats to maintain its slender majority in the Karnataka assembly is also promising to make all three BJP candidates from the Belagavi region ministers in the Yediyurappa government if they win the polls with Ramesh Jarkiholi of Gokak tipped to be a deputy chief minister.