In a spiffy white room in Basavangudi, where a group of entrepreneurs have gathered to meet him, and where he walks in amid cheers of ‘How’s the josh?’, BJP candidate for the Bengaluru South Lok Sabha constituency Tejasvi Surya is described, among other things, as a young Sachin Tendulkar taking on Pakistani pacers.
On a street corner outside, though, Surya, 28, is the ‘chhokra’ and ‘chikka huduga (young boy)’, whose candidature has stumped some loyal BJP voters in the party’s bastion of 23 years. “If they had given the ticket to Tejaswini Ananthkumar, there would have been no doubt. Still, we will win,” says Prasada, 63, a BJP supporter.
Over close to two decades, the Bengaluru South seat has been an invincible BJP stronghold. Spanning some of the oldest and more conservative neighbourhoods of the city, it includes a large number of Brahmin and Vokkaliga voters. In the 2014 polls, riding on a Modi wave, late Union minister Ananth Kumar had defeated Congress’s Nandan Nilekani with a margin of over 2 lakh votes. Surya, a Brahmin like Ananth Kumar, is the nephew of Basavangudi MLA Ravi Subramanya.
The Congress candidate is Rajya Sabha MP B K Hariprasad, who belongs to the backward Idiga community but has roots in the city where he was once a student leader. After years, the Congress sniffs a chance in the seat because of the internal divisions in the BJP. In his six terms as MP, Ananth Kumar was ably supported by his wife Tejaswini, whose work through her NGO Adamya Chethana and a women’s network of bhajana mandalis initiated a loyal community of upper-caste voters into a Hindutva ideology. After his death last year, the state unit of the party backed her candidature, but the central command chose Surya, the “millennial Modi fanboy”.
Tejaswini, apparently unhappy at being led on to believe that she was contesting, has since nearly absented herself from Surya’s campaign. In the last few days, rumours surfaced of her supporters distributing handbills asking voters to press NOTA — a charge she has denied. Also, three BJP legislators — R Ashok, B Somanna and Satish Reddy — disgruntled at being upstaged initially haven’t turned up to campaign.
“This is definitely not the BJP campaign in Bengaluru South we have seen over the years,” says Congress spokesperson Kavitha Reddy.
But the BJP remains confident that its core vote of urban voters loyal to Modi will mobilise. “Some leaders are being driven by their selfish interests, but it will not affect us. It is not about the candidate here, it is about Modi,” says BJP treasurer Leher Singh Siroya. A BJP councillor from Chikpet agrees. “Modi ko dekhega aur vote daalega. (Here, they will see Modi and vote.) Plus, the RSS is there. On Ugadi, they went to every house endorsing Tejasvi,” he says. Five of the eight Assembly seats in the constituency are with the BJP.
Complicating equations is the legacy of Ananth Kumar. An open secret of Bengaluru politics is that his longevity as MP was, in part, due to the influence he had over Congress MLAs, and the rapport he shared with H D Deve Gowda, who lives in the constituency. A senior editor, who was a part of the Nilekani campaign, said, “At all times, we had a sense we were being sabotaged,” he said.
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With his demise, those bets are off. “For the first time, I sense that the Brahmin vote could split. Besides, there is a substantial population of backwards, SCs and Muslims in the constituency,” says Congress spokesperson Reddy. Adds veteran seven-time Congress MLA Ramalinga Reddy, “In all elections, there are 10-15 per cent voters who are not ideological, neither BJP nor Congress. They may be put off by Tejasvi’s extremist Right ideology, his anti-reservation stance and the allegations of abuse against him.”
On the ground, the committed BJP voter remains visible and vocal. Microsoft employee Narendra, for instance, has been canvassing for BJP with a band of RSS volunteers in his neighbourhood. “I believe in the Modi government. Surya’s inexperience is a great advantage and the state leadership itself needs to change. It is a 60-40 fight in our favour,” he says.
By evening, Tejasvi Surya’s campaign has moved outside an apartment complex in HSR Layout. “The Congress is contesting only 200-odd seats. It is not contesting to form the government but only to stop Modi. Defeating this design is now a patriotic imperative,” he says in a speech that sometimes veers away from facts — the Congress is contesting 400-odd seats.
But as his car disappears into the darkness, chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ ring out. “Write it down: we will win Bengaluru (South) with a bigger margin than last time,” says BJP’s Leher Singh.