Former prime minister and JD(S) president H D Deve Gowda, 87, who is seeking a seventh term in Parliament, is up against a challenge he has never encountered in six decades of political life — a social media disinformation campaign.
The BJP campaign accuses Deve Gowda of blocking water to Tumkur, the constituency from where the former PM is standing as the candidate of the Karnataka ruling JD(S)-Congress coalition. It is the first time Deve Gowda is contesting from this seat, and the campaign accuses him of stopping water supply to Tumkur from the Hemavathi reservoir in his old constituency Hassan, located next door.
“The BJP spread a rumour linking Tumkur’s water crisis to Deve Gowda, although it was he who brought water to the district,” says the JD(S) campaign manager in Tumkur, Ramesh Babu. The message that Gowda should be taught a lesson for “choking water supply” spread within days of him announcing he was leaving Hassan for his grandson, Prajwal Revanna.
“A share in the water from the Hemavathi is the right of the people of Tumkur, but this has been denied due to Hassan politics,” says the BJP’s former legislator from the Tumkur Rural region, Suresh Gowda.
The BJP candidate in Tumkur, G S Basavaraju, a member of the Lingayat community (nearly 25 per cent of the population) who have interests in agriculture and education in the region, is seeking votes in the name of PM Modi.
Tumkur had been won by the Congress’s
S P Mudde Hanume Gowda in 2014. Of the eight Assembly segments that make up the seat, the BJP and Congress-JD(S) combine had won four each in 2018.
Now, Gowda is trying to take the water issue head-on. At rallies, he goes back to the 1960s to explain the stands he took as irrigation minister, CM and PM on water-sharing, before promising to get his son, Karnataka CM H D Kumaraswamy, to solve Tumkur’s water problems in the next two years — “irrespective of whether I am elected to Parliament or not”.
At a campaign stop this week in Tiptur, located in a barren region of Tumkur, he said there were historical reasons for the water problem. “I have always believed water is God’s gift and drinking water is a basic right. We will provide water to all the villages in Tumkur,” he said.
Gowda’s water promises are gradually finding some traction among the non-Lingayat voters. In Honavalli village, around 15 km from Tiptur, where coconut farmers have abandoned their farms due to water shortage, villagers talk about his promise to fill up a 25-acre lake that has been dry for over five years. The village has now gave up plans to boycott the polls.
“Agricultural workers are migrating to cities for coolie work. If it was not for the free rice scheme of the previous Congress government, people would have starved,” says Mohan Kumar, 52, a member of the Honavalli panchayat.
“Who cares about Pulwama and Balakot when there are existential issues?” Kumar adds, referring to the BJP pitching Modi as a national security champion.
However, water isn’t the only front on which Gowda is fighting on social media. There have been messages suggesting that Gowda’s friend-turned-foe-turned-ally in the Congress, former CM Siddaramaiah, could ask his supporters in backward communities (who make up nearly 35 per cent of the local population) to sabotage Gowda’s chances. Together, the Congress and JD(S) have a joint vote base of nearly seven lakh among the 12-odd lakh electorate.
In fact, the Tiptur rally was the first time Siddaramaiah campaigned for Gowda. The audience, largely featuring the backward communities of Tumkur, looked for signs from the Congress leader, and he kept the same for the fag end of his speech. Siddaramaiah first delved into his own achievements, attacked the Modi government, then urged the people “to defeat the BJP”, before saying, “They are spreading false messages that Siddaramaiah has instructed the backward classes not to vote in Tumkur, Mandya and Hassan because the JD(S) will not vote for us in Mysore. These are all lies and that is why I am campaigning for Deve Gowda.”