Bantwal, a constituency with 2.2 lakh voters, lies east to the city of Mangaluru on the expressway to Bengaluru. In a belt that simmers with communal tensions, this constituency is no stranger to violence. Last year, within a span of 20 days, the region had witnessed two killings – one an RSS worker and the other an SDPI worker – both said to be ‘communal’ and ‘retaliatory’ in nature. Now, as elections approach, the murders get talked about again as issues of development take a backseat.
While the Sangh claims that it does not engage in electioneering for the BJP in the rest of the country, in the coastal belt of Karnataka, where it has a robust organisation, there are enough indications that it is happening. From booth pramukhs to page pramukhs, Sangh Parivar workers are actively on the ground canvassing votes for the BJP, which needs to win big from the region to offset its expected losses in southern Karnataka. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Mangaluru on Saturday, the BJP is expecting, not without reason, a shift of the core Hindu vote in its favour.
Bantwal, in that context, is an important seat for both the Congress and the BJP. The seat has been held by one man for the longest time — six-time Congress MLA, district-in-charge and considered a close aide of chief minister Siddaramaiah, Ramanath Rai. Rai is currently the forest and environment minister in the state government, but as his personal secretary relished in claiming: he has been a part of three Congress governments in the past three decades handling a range of portfolios from home, excise, transport to fisheries. Each time the Congress came to power and Rai got elected from Bantwal, his position in the government was firm. Last time, his victory margin over the nearest BJP candidate was 18,000 votes. The only time he has lost from the seat was in 2004 when he lost to BJP’s B. Nagaraj Shetty.
Local Congress leaders claim that over the years, Rai has worked extensively to improve infrastructure in the region. From a new state transport bus stand to a sports stadium, roadworks and up-gradation of the talk hospital, they say Bantwal has benefited a lot in the last five years. In an interview to indianexpress.com, Rai said he believed his work speaks for himself and that the BJP is fomenting communal trouble because they ‘don’t have issues to talk about.’
As strong as Rai’s heft may be, it comes up against the tested organizational strength of the BJP and the larger Parivar. Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka, an influential RSS leader in the region, is a name that travels a lot, especially among the Hindu voters. “He’s very strong and influential,” a voter in Bantwal town said.
With minority Muslim votes as much as 30 percent, the saffron party is hoping for a consolidation of the Hindu vote to sail through. And they do that by telling people that Rai is ‘anti-Hindu’, which the minister sternly dismissed. A local BJP leader said it in clear terms:”He says he won here with the support of the minorities. Why did he say that?’
Indications that this thought is percolating among the voters were proven when a Hindu shopkeeper in Bantwal town repeated the same: “Yes, I read in the papers that he said that. He has worked very hard here, I accept. But it’s true that he gives more preference to the Muslims.”
Adding to this twist is the withdrawal of nomination of the SDPI candidate, which is now expected to swing the entire minority vote in favour of Rai. “Congress will win for sure because the entire Muslim vote bloc will go that way. Young Muslim boys are all joining the SDPI. If they had put up the candidate, it could have easily split the anti-BJP vote,” said a driver in Bantwal town.
While voters, the IndianExpress.com spoke to, acknowledged that work has been done this time unlike past years, they didn’t dare to venture a guess on who could win. Putting two fingers close to each other, a shopkeeper in Bantwal town put it simply, “It’s very, very tight. We can’t say anything.”