Nijaguna Raju is invested in Narendra Modi, who he believes is the most popular person in India after Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar. However, Raju, who runs a resort in Chamarajanagar, believes it is the BSP that will decide the winner in Chamarajanagar Lok Sabha seat. He reels out statistics: Lingayats and Dalits have 3.5 lakh voters each while Vokkaliggas and Muslims number 80,000 each, followed by Kurubas and Upparas, who together are over 2 lakh. If the BSP attracts a substantial chunk of the Dalit vote, the BJP candidate, V Srinivas Prasad, a five-time MP, will win, according to Raju. The assumption is that the Lingayats and Dalits vote en bloc for the BJP and Congress respectively and a split in these votes could influence the election outcome.
Chamarajanagar, a reserved seat, voted on April 18. It is considered a Congress seat and the sitting MP, R Dhruvanarayana, is credited for being accessible and undertaking development works. He won in 2009 and 2014. However, the BJP won three of the 8 Assembly seats in Chamarajanagar, as many as the Congress, in the 2018 Assembly polls. Prasad, who won the seat four times as a Congress nominee, is seen as a formidable opponent of Dhruvanarayana, his protege once.
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But this election is not about Prasad. In Chamarajanagar, Modi is a polarising figure. For every Raju who worships Modi, there is a counter-narrative that holds the PM responsible for demonetisation and GST, which seem to have impacted businesses. Puttasami, a Congress councillor, and Nasarullah, a middle-aged trader, lead the charge at a shack. Across the road at Delux Bakery, a young Mansur speaks about the divisive character of the PM’s speeches. “Is this how a prime minister should speak?” he asks. He then plays an audio clip to press his case about what ought to be the tone and tenor of political speeches. The audio is of South Kanara Congress candidate Mithun Rai, who is arguing that the version advocated by the BJP is antithetical to the Hindu view of life. Mansur says there is nothing wrong in politicians talking about their faith in public, but religion must not be a tool for them to pit one person against another.
Beyond the town, the conversation boils down to livelihood and identity issues. At Nagavalli-Nalloor village, an hour’s drive towards B R Hills, Ganesh, a young engineer, is betting on N Shivakumar, the BSP candidate. Shivakumar, who holds a doctorate in Kannada, is an aspirational figure for many young Dalits, who recognise in his candidature Ambedkar’s prescription for liberation, “educate, organise and agitate”. Sivakumar, 42, is unmarried and trains civil services aspirants in Hyderabad and Delhi. “He is new to politics, but he speaks well, knows his Ambedkar and will attract young voters,” says Ganesh, who argues that Congress MPs have failed to remove the backward tag on Chamarajanagar. In his campaign, Shivakumar is precise in explaining why he is contesting and what he intends to do as an MP. At a gathering in T Narsipura, a town on the Cauvery, he puts the BSP’s presence in the contest in the national context. He speaks about the gathbandhan in UP and reminds the crowd that there is a chance for Akka Mayawati to become the PM. He warns that the Constitution is under threat from the BJP regime. He also holds the Congress responsible for loss of jobs. “Both the BJP and Congress are together in subverting the spirit of the Constitution,” he argues. A small crowd listens attentively and appreciates the prospect of Mayawati becoming PM. A life-size paper mache elephant crafted by Harish and Nanjundaswamy, students from Sri Ravivarma Art Institute, Mysuru, and mounted on a pick-up truck leads the entourage as it wind pasts the bylanes of T Narsipura.
While Karnataka has been home to a powerful Dalit movement and intellectuals like Devanuru Mahadeva and Siddalingaiah wield influence beyond a Dalit constituency, the assertion in Chamarajanagar seems more recent. It also seems to be an extension of a politics of social and cultural empowerment reflected in initiatives like Buddhe Balaga of neo-Buddhists in Nagavalli. The election of N Mahesh, the BSP state chief, from Kollegal, an Assembly seat in Chamarajanagar, in 2018, and his induction as a minister in the JD(S)-Congress cabinet indicates a new phase of Dalit political assertion outside the Congress umbrella. Incidentally, Chamarajanagar has the largest proportion of Dalits in Karnataka.
Social scientist A R Vasavi frames politics in the region in terms of caste and capital combining to facilitate the rise of dominant caste political actors as regional political satraps. “Dalits and OBCs (largely the Uppara) have supported somebody from one of the communities and capital has not been as significant a basis for the choice of candidate or for mobilisation (since the rich or elite are very few). Since the Assembly election of 2018, we see a split among Dalits as the Madigas (or chamars, or leather workers) are now seeking to vote against the Congress and BJP (to indicate their anger against the non-implementation of internal reservation). This accounts for the rise of the BSP in the district,” she says.
A constituency ringed in by forests all around and situated at the junction where Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka borders as well the Western and Eastern Ghats meet, Chamarajanagar, fed by the Cauvery and its many tributaries, is predominantly agrarian. “In recent decades,” according to Vasavi, “the region has been incorporated into the expanding commercialisation and financialisation of agriculture. While productivity and varieties of crops may indicate increases, it is at a tremendous ecological cost.” These concerns, of course, have not made it to the election discourse, which continues to revolve around real and manufactured debates on social identities.
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