Battleground karnataka: Davangere – Where the Lingayats are keeping everyone guessing

Once known as Manchester of Karnataka, Davangere in the heart of the state is slowly but steadily warming up to the Assembly polls. This is the land of the mouth-watering Benne Dose which has captured millions of hearts across the state and the land where the Communists held sway for a long time because of the several cotton mills which employed thousands of workers. The district has a 16.5 lakh electorate and eight Assembly seats and is no stranger to drought or water scarcity which have left the arecanut growers in dire straits more than once. The problems confronting Bhadra canal tail-end farmers and drinking water issues in rural areas are other poll issues which could soon become raging topics of discussion in the district. The BJP sank its roots in the district in the 2008 election winning six seats and wresting Jagalur constituency through ‘Operation Lotus’. But the Congress had its revenge winning seven Assembly seats in the next polls in 2013. As D-Day approaches, the Congress is riding high on the development plank of the state government while the BJP is posing a tough challenge by trying its best to revive the  Narendra Modi magic. The PM is scheduled to address a mammoth rally in Davangere on February 27 to mark the birthday of the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa and that could well mark the beginning of a determined onslaught by the party to capture  this Lingayat-dominated district. Vittal Shastri analyses the unique political trends in Davangere and finds out if voters will continue to repose their trust in the Congress and its veteran leader Shamanur Shivashankarappa or decide it’s time to break with the past. 

Once upon a time, the cacophony of cotton textile mills used to be reverberate in Davangere reflecting the dominance of the working class. The Communist party ruled the roost for two decades in the Assembly and city municipality polls before the BJP and Congress wrested control during the 1990s  and after the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid row.

More than fifty per cent of the population was dependant on the textile sector in one form or the other as the town was known for producing quality dhotis, saris and other clothing. The Communists had to bite the dust after the shutdown of all seven mills which its leaders attribute to the agreement on tariff and trade (GATT). More than twenty thousand textile labourers employed in these mills were forced to migrate or take up petty business to eke out a living. The townships that have come up in the vast areas these textile mills once occupied, stand mute testimony to the period of Communist dominance. With the disappearance of the cotton based industry, there was a shift to paddy and sugarcane from cotton which was then grown in more than 20,000 hectares.

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The centre point of Karnataka is a much sought after venue for all political parties to launch their poll campaigns as it helps them mobilise a large number of voters from across the state. And here, like in many other parts of the state, it’s one family, belonging to the predominant Lingayat community- which comprises almost half of the electorate- which determines what’s good and bad for Davangere.  

Read | No effect of Lingayat religion row on my poll prospects: Shamanur Shivashankarappa

As the polls approach, freebies are in full flow-clothes and many other gifts. “This is the place when CPI candidate Pampapati won elections  three times by getting notes as well as votes from the public. The people used to serve food to us and our party workers when we visited their doorstep seeking votes. Our party had won the Assembly poll in Davangere even when there was a Congress wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Now, our vote share is restricted to a few thousands as the working class has deserted the city after closure of the textile mills”, said 77-year old Communist leader H.K. Ramachandrappa, who is one among the six CPI leaders who has served as president of the Davangere city municipality.  These Communist leaders have no option but to stay away from politics due to increasing money power and the predominance of  caste in polls. Their activities are confined to organizing workers in unorganized sectors such as Anganwadis, mid-day meal scheme workers and construction workers.

For the Congress, the leading face has always been Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha president Shamanur Shivashankarappa, who runs educational institutions and industries. He has his own helicopter to fly to Bengaluru for attending Assembly sessions and for work in other cities. Unmindful of his old age, the octogenarian is keen to enter the poll fray again from Davangere South. He has already intensified his campaign to woo voters. But the three-time legislator may face a tough challenge from BJP district president Yashvant Rao whose name is doing the rounds for the poll ticket. It is rumoured that the Congress may deny the ticket to Shivashankarappa citing his old age as his son and horticuture minister S.S. Mallikarjun is set to contest from Davangere North. There is pressure to give the ticket to a Muslim or a woman candidate in one of these constituencies as dynasty politics has continued for more than a decade in the city with the father-son duo calling the shots.

Though riding high on his achievements to develop the city, the horticulture minister will face a tough challenge from his traditional rival and BJP leader S.A. Ravindranath.

Former chief minister J.H. Patel’s son and JD(U) state president Mahima Patel is also testing his election fortunes by trying to capitalise on the image of his late father in the arecanut growing belt of Channagiri assembly constituency. Though the chances of his victory are remote, the few thousand votes he may bag, could  wreck the prospects of the BJP’s Madalu Virupakshappa or current Congress legislator Vadnal Rajanna, who are locked in a close contest. The Congress legislator had managed to win the previous polls due to division of votes between the now defunct KJP and BJP. The JD(S) has already declared its State Scheduled Tribe Cell president Hodigere Ramesh as its candidate.

Caste politics has played a pivotal role in Harihar Assembly constituency as only two dominant Lingayat and Kuruba community leaders have been elected till date. A close fight is on the cards between JD(S) MLA H.S. Shivashankar and BJP ticket aspirant B.P. Harish who had lost in the previous election due to a division of  party votes after the entry of the KJP candidate.

Internal bickering has been posing a threat to the BJP in Harapanahalli constituency as two factions led by former minister Karunakar Reddy, who has distanced himself from brother Gali Janardhan Reddy and B. Sriramulu, and local leader Kotresh are vying for the party ticket. The tug of war between the two factions had forced B.S. Yeddyurappa to cancel his Parivarthana rally in the town. Kotresh enjoys the support of the Reddy brothers. The constituency is expected to witness a direct fight between Congress MLA M.P. Ravindra and the BJP candidate.

In Honnalli, Congress MLA D.G. Shantangouda will face a tough challenge from BJP ticket aspirant and former minister M.P. Renukacharya who is a close confidant of Yeddyurappa. He had lost in the previous election while contesting on a KJP ticket.

In the ST-reserved Jagalur constituency, it will be a cakewalk for the BJP’s S.V. Ramachandrappa if the Congress gives the ticket to its present MLA H.P. Rajesh who is facing the wrath of his own party workers for not taking them into confidence. The constituency is expected to witness a direct fight between both national parties with Congress ZP member K.P. Palayya too a ticket aspirant as he is loyal to Congress leader Satish Jarkiholi.

In the ST-reserved constituency of Mayakonda, both the  BJP and Congress have a tough time shortlisting their candidates owing to the big list of aspirants. Sources said current  legislator  Shivamurthy Naik is unlikely to get the ticket again.

Politics has undergone a drastic change in Davangere where economic factors have forced the Communists out with the Congress and BJP now ruling the roost. Will the Lingayat religion campaign which the Congress had to put on the back-burner after it turned out to be too hot an issue to handle, affect its prospects? Will Yeddyurappa, with a generous helping hand from the PM, salvage the pride of the BJP after the disastrous show in 2013? Or will it be Shamanur again, calling the shots to ride the Congress to victory?  With the poll scene still too hazy for a definite forecast, the sweltering heat in Davangere is sure to extract its share of sweat from every candidate in the fray, toiling for victory.

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