It was part of two governments in the state since 2004, but Karnataka’s southern region, or Old Mysuru as it is called, has always eluded the BJP. In 2008, when B S Yeddyurappa formed the first BJP government in south India, the party won seven of the region’s 55 seats. And that was its best showing ever.
Five years later, the BJP was reduced to just two seats, further emphasising its lack of experience or leadership in this farmers’ belt that is also the heart of Vokkaliga politics. Five days to go for voting in another election, senior BJP leaders in the region admit their chances are no different but believe they can still affect the outcome.
“The BJP has no support base in this region. Though our organisation is strong, we have few Vokkaliga leaders here. But we can still hurt the Congress. And that is our main aim… There are many seats where we will not win. In such seats, we tell many of our voters to move to the JD(S) instead. If we cannot win here, neither will the Congress,” says a senior party functionary in Mandya.
On the campaign trail, this strategy is clearly visible. BJP candidates in the region — Maddur, Malavalli, Mandya, T Narasipura and Bannur — make it a point to decry Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and his government’s performance. They praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but stay silent on former PM and JD(S) chief H D Deve Gowda and his son H D Kumaraswamy.
“We have been told that we have no chance here. The BJP is doing well, but we are at least 10 years away from making an impact. So the decision is simple. Don’t waste BJP votes, push them to the JD(S) and stop the Congress,” says a district BJP SC/ST cell chief.
In Mandya, where Vokkaligas number more than 1.2 lakh, BJP candidate Chandagala Shivanna hit the campaign trail through the heart of the city Monday atop an open jeep.
“Farmers here feed Karnataka and the nation. Our sugarcane and rice is sent everywhere. But in Mandya, there are many who need the government’s welfare schemes and free rice. Is that what our farmers want?” he asks a crowd. “No,” they shout.
Over the next two hours, Shivanna tours Mandya with a similar message: helping farmers, getting them good rates and assuring water supply. Asked about the JD(S), he says, “See, the problem here is the state government. I will talk about them. Why should I refer to others?”
In the neighbouring Malavalli constituency, there are no clear markers to identify the BJP office other than a string of faded party flags wound around a tree. “It is very hard for the BJP here. The JD(S) and Congress are very powerful here, so we are running a low-key campaign. If we cannot win, neither should the Congress,” says a party functionary.
Officially though, the BJP and JD(S) have vehemently denied reports of a tacit understanding in the region. “Such rumours were started by the Congress. The BJP and Congress want to end regional parties and split votes. This is just a tactic they are using,” says JD(S) national spokesperson Danish Ali.
Late Monday, Deve Gowda and his son cancel their appearance in Bannur, a reserved constituency, 50 km from Mysuru, but at least seven local JD(S) leaders take the stage to attack the Congress.
A JD(S) supporter shows a video that purportedly shows Yeddyurappa and Kumaraswamy on a stage together. “See, it is obvious. They are together, so they are an unstoppable force now,” says Gangadhar R, a farmer from Bannur.
The video is at least 12 years old and from when the BJP and JD(S) ran a coalition government in Karnataka. “No, no. I got this on WhatsApp recently. It can’t be old. I got this message after Modiji said Rahul Gandhi disrespected our leader (Deve Gowda) in his speech recently,” says Gangadhar.
Sunitha Veerappa Gowda was among the first candidates to win on a BJP ticket in Mandya district. Elected to the Assembly in 2004 from Bannur before it was reserved, she quit the party two years later to join the JD(S) before returning to the BJP recently. Gowda hopes the BJP can do better this time but admits it needs work. “We are trying hard… I would not like a coalition government in Karnataka, but if there is one it will most likely be another JD(S)-BJP government,” she says.