As the late evening bus from Shahpur to Gulbarga hurtles into the night, a dozen mobile phone screens come alive all around.
On some screens it is the latest news on Elections 2019 — Gulbarga voted on April 23, with the electorate split between “Sol illada sardar” or “undefeated leader”, the Congress’s Mallikarjun Kharge, and Congress turncoat Umesh Jadhav. Some screens flit between IPL games, film songs and political news.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s boast at some of his rallies that his government has given the country “low-cost smartphones and the cheapest data costs in the world” is clearly no jumla on this bus ride.
Lok Sabha Elections 2019 | Polling schedule, results date, constituency-wise results, how to check live counting
Around 20 km into the 70-km journey, the bus makes a stop and a young man with a backpack enters, carrying a carton. Nobody notices the carton until the bus starts moving and the conductor asks the passenger what is in it. “Alcohol,” comes the reply.
The conductor whistles for the bus to halt and orders the man out. “There will be checking along the way and I will be held responsible,” he says. As the man leaves, one passenger pipes up to tell the conductor, “You must be alert about these things. Modi has warned that people will be enticed with liquor in the polls.”
As the BJP tries to wrest the Gulbarga parliament seat from the Congress, the PM is a key factor — making it a Modi vs Kharge contest, rather than Jadhav vs Kharge. A two-term Congress MP from the Scheduled Caste reserved constituency, Kharge has never tasted defeat across the 11 elections he has contested from here (including Assembly), since the 1970s.
“Modi has worked for the country. Look at the awards conferred on him by countries like the US, Israel and Russia. They have recognised what he has done for the people. The Congress fellows never won such awards,” auto driver Basavaraj says in Gulbarga city.
He goes on to talk about corruption having come down “since Modi became PM” — another refrain heard all around Gulbarga.
“Although the main concerns here are farmer suicides, unemployment and the alarming economic situation, the BJP has made Modi and Pulwama, Balakot their main issues,” says a Gulbarga resident, C B Patil. “This has become a presidential type of election, with BJP candidates being just namesakes for Modi.”
Congress supporters too mention Modi, to make the point that the PM had himself acknowledged Kharge’s credentials as a parliamentarian (he was the Congress’s leader in the outgoing Lok Sabha). “Modi said Kharge saab is an exceptional MP and he wishes for him to be a part of the next Parliament,” says Bhima Shankar, a Congress worker from Afzalpur region in the constituency.
The other name that surfaces repeatedly is of RSS ideologue Chakravarthy Sulibele, whose statements around the state were a part of the poll buzz, including in Gulbarga. Shankar points out that Sulibele said the Congress had done nothing for the country in 60 years it had ruled the country. “A father works for 60 years and turns blood into water for the sake of his children. The children then turn around and say what have you done for us. This is the situation of the Congress in India,” he says, also questioning Modi’s silence over quotes by BJP leaders about “changing the Constitution”.
Many Congress workers in the region carry a booklet on Kharge, where he is projected as a defender of the Constitution.
However, among some section of the voters, there is a general fatigue at the name-calling by leaders, rather than any outlining of vision for the future. “There should be a limit to lying,” says Raju Patil, about the Congress’s promise of Rs 72,000 per annum to poor families. “There is no faith in these promises. The BJP too had promised Rs 15 lakh to every one last time.”
At the same time, Kharge, known for getting the region special status, helping youths get government jobs, introducing specialised government hospitals and medical and engineering colleges, is seen as facing a challenge due to the distancing of the backward class and Scheduled Tribe votes from the Dalit and minority base behind Kharge.
Says M R Patil, “It is true that Kharge has contributed to development of this region, but old developments do not count in a new election. Kharge will be in trouble if the traditional Congress base does not consolidate on the ground.”