The shade of Gulmohar trees at Hotel Mayura, in the heart of Bellary city, offers respite from the sweltering sun. It also offers a chance to pick up on some political gossip from the locals, who gather under the trees for a cup of coffee or masala dosa.
Opinions are strongly divided in Bellary. Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains a positive factor despite the BJP being linked to the destruction of the region’s thriving iron ore mining industry. But the fact that incumbent Congress MP V S Ugrappa, who won the bypoll in November last year, after the BJP’s B Sreeramulu resigned following his victory in the 2018 Karnataka Assembly polls, has served for only five months also weighs on voters’ minds.
A fellow passenger in the auto-rickshaw ride to Hotel Mayura, Rekha Reddy, says that Modi is a decisive factor among the educated and middle-class in Bellary but not the poor. “Modi is going to have an impact. In my locality, everybody favours him,” she says.
After she leaves, driver Mallikarjuna, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste community, says, “The Congress has done a lot for the poor. Otherwise, we would not have been able to survive… Under the Siddaramaiah government (2013-18), we were given free rice, given land rights.”
On whether there is a Modi wave in Bellary, he says, “There is no Modi factor… The Modi government killed the money supply line with demonetisation. Our earnings have been halved since.”
In Bellary, the Congress has always enjoyed a strong base among the SCs, STs, backward classes and minorities. It was only after the wealth from the iron ore mining boom in the region began flooding the political system in 2004 that the BJP gained control.
Several supporters of former Congress Rajya Sabha MP and Bellary MLA Anil Lad, a mining baron, are camping at Hotel Maurya. Also present is Janata Dal (United)’s candidate in the 2018 polls Tapal Ganesh and civil society members, who are campaigning for Ugrappa. Of the eight Assembly segments in Bellary Lok Sabha constituency, Congress won six in the 2018 polls.
The miner-turned-politician Tapal Ganesh — among the first to raise concerns over illegal mining in Bellary a decade ago — in a discussion with social activist Jagadish K says that the Modi wave in 2014 was “all hype”.
“Last time, there was a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Congress and this was seen as a Modi wave… Now an artificial hype is being created about the Modi wave,” he says, adding, “The Congress is lagging behind in the media and social media race… but there is an anti-incumbency factor against Modi also.”
According to Ganesh, in spite of Modi campaigning in 2018 in Bellary, the BJP lost the Assembly polls due to its association with illegal mining and the Reddy brothers (G Somashekara Reddy, G Janardhana Reddy and G Karunakara Reddy), which led to a “lot of negative publicity”. “Since illegal mining was brought under control there is no flow of big money into elections,” he adds.
The conversation then shifts to the new BJP candidate, Y Devendrappa (67), who is relatively unknown to voters. Says a bystander: “His (Devendrappa’s) son-in-law is an excise department official and he may be able to spend money since the flow of money from the mining industry has almost dried up”.
“People are tired of the one-man show… we are hearing that BJP workers may not support the party candidate. They feel that they need a change because no leaders have value in the present set-up,” says Jagadish K.
Comparing policies of the BJP and the Congress, Ganesh says, “Modi’s allocation of Rs 6,000 for farmers per year is only Rs 2.50 per day”. Jagdish adds that “there are no takers for NYAY either… because people have stopped believing in promises after the Rs 15 lakh promise by Modi was not fulfilled.”
In the Congress camp, supporters of Anil Lad allege that leaders like B Nagendra (Kudligi MLA) and Anand Singh are not campaigning for Ugrappa.
“The amount of campaigning the Congress needs to do to win is only 40 per cent of what the BJP needs. This is because the Congress’s base in the region is intact and there has been no major change on the ground since the 2018 bypoll, which the party won by a two lakh margin. But such a big win looks impossible now,” says B Krishna, a panchayat member.
Around noon, the crowd at Hotel Mayura starts to dissipate. “It is too hot to be outside now,” says a member of Lad’s entourage.