As her roadshow winds its way through a cluster of villages near the Krishna Raja Sagara dam in Srirangapatna, teenagers with selfie requests force Sumalatha Ambareesh to a halt, elderly men cling to the window of her Innova, crack jokes and then promise to vote. Sumalatha Ambareesh, Independent candidate from Mandya Lok Sabha constituency, pauses a second longer near the women who have stepped out of their houses to bless her. “Namaskara ma, ashirwada madbeku neevella (Your blessings are all I need),” she says.
It’s the day after Mandya saw a staggering spectacle of strength when Nikhil Kumaraswamy, actor and son of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, filed his nomination for the Lok Sabha elections — with lakhs in the audience, the CM on stage and Congress minister D K Shivakumar in attendance. But as the response to Sumalatha, a former actor, on the ground — as well as the huge crowd that turned up when she filed her nomination 10 days ago — suggests, this Vokkaliga-dominated seat might not be a walkover for the JD(S). “When I filed my nomination, I was as taken aback as anybody at the number of people who came. If they saw it as a challenge, and tried to match it, I am okay with that… But I am not scared,” says Sumalatha. Click here for more election news.
Dressed in a pale grey sari, she climbs atop mini-trucks at village squares, to speak to small, cheering crowds about the work done by her late husband, who passed away four months ago. Ambareesh, a Vokkaliga actor with a phenomenal fan following in this lush Cauvery belt, was a three-time MP from Mandya and, for a brief while, a minister in the Manmohan Singh government in 2006. She breaks off her speech to listen to the crowd, emphasises she is not here to talk ill of her rivals — and gently ticks off exuberant workers when a volley of firecrackers interrupts her speech. “Please don’t. I am scared of firecrackers. They are a waste of money and only cause pollution,” she says. A cheer goes up in the crowd.
“For us, Ambareesh was Mandya’s swabhimaan. And because of him, we will stand by her. The JD(S) has money, but she will win. Sumalatha speaks with grace. They have insulted her, but did you see? She has not said a single harsh word,” says Najeeb Pasha, a labourer in his 50s in Belagola village, and among thousands of Ambareesh abhimanigalu (fans) in the district. “Nikhil is too young. Will it look good for the elderly jajamans in our villages to turn up with folded hands before him? It would have been a different picture if the candidate was someone else,” he says.
The JD(S)-Congress coalition which governs the state appears absent on the ground. “The rivalry in Mandya between the JD(S) and Congress is like a Pakistan-India encounter. Now, you are asking them to fight a war together. That is not going to happen. Congress workers are unhappy because they know this would have been a sure seat for them. But they are solidly behind me. Even today, so many of the people you see are Congress workers,” says Sumalatha. Seven local Congress leaders have been expelled from the party for openly supporting Sumalatha. She also has the backing of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRSS), a farmers’ collective shaped by the late farmer leader K S Puttaniah, as well as popular screen actors Darshan and Yash. The BJP, sensing an opportunity to break into a region where it has no presence, has agreed to back her too, inviting allegations that she has betrayed Ambareesh’s secular legacy. “Ambareesh was secular. But he had friends in all parties, from the BJP to JD(S) and the Congress. And that’s how I see myself,” she says.
JD(S) leaders dismiss the groundswell of support as the draw of glamour. “Stars can campaign, but can’t win elections. You also should not forget that Ambareesh, while being a tall Vokkaliga leader, was defeated twice by the JD(S),” says Tanveer Ahmed, the party spokesperson. The JD(S) does admit that the Congress might not be playing straight. “There are two-three leaders like Cheluvarya Swamy and Ramesh Babu who are using her to get sympathy and who are misleading her. They are neither loyal to the Congress, nor to the JD(S),” says Srirangapatna MLA Ravindra Srikantaiah.
The X-factors, sources said, remain the extent of the Congress’s silent mutiny, and how far former chief minister Siddaramaiah is ready to set aside his animosity with the H D Deve Gowda family — or forget his own crushing defeat from Chamundeshwari in the last Assembly election, for which he blames the JD(S). Siddaramaiah, sources said, has always got along well with Kumaraswamy’s brother Revanna — and hence the other scion in the fray, Prajwal Revanna, might have it easier in Hassan Lok Sabha constituency.
But with eight JD(S) MLAs in the district, the lack of a cadre by her side, and with Kumaraswamy making it a prestige fight, Sumalatha is up against huge odd. Also, no Independent has won a Lok Sabha seat in Karnataka in five decades.
Sumalatha says the Vokkaliga votes will split, and she is banking on the Dalits and Kurubas, who make up the traditional Congress vote bank. “I stand for more than any one community. All those who dismiss me as just an actor forget that Nikhil is an actor too. Here, they see me as someone who can replace Ambareesh. Because I stand for what he stands for,” she says.
A small crowd of fans has slowed down the cars again. “I will be back, in just about an hour. Vote kudi. Give me your votes,” she says as the Innova finally takes off. In the distance, the crackers go off again.