Belagavi, the Sugar Bowl of Karnataka, has more often than not delivered a sweet treat for the Congress with the mighty sugar barons throwing their weight behind the ruling party and making sure their interests were always protected by those in power. But this time, the political scene has drastically changed after the Mahadayi row with Goa, which has set farmer passions on fire. Adding to the discomfort of the Congress is the campaign for a Lingayat religion which was championed by party stalwarts but seems to have reached nowhere leaving the Lingayats wondering why it had to be raised in the first place. There are 18 seats up for grabs in this big district with the Congress and BJP launching a hectic campaign though there are a full three months to go for the polls. Both parties know quite well that this is a region where their fortunes are intricately intertwined with the political stance adopted by influential families like the Jarkiholis, Kattis and Hukkeris. Another factor which could severely upset political calculations is the strong cooperative movement with many of the current leaders rising to the top with the support of lakhs of farmers who are associated with sugar factories, cooperative organisations and banks. Owning a sugar factory is probably the most powerful tool to rise on the political ladder – the Jarkiholis have four sugar factories with two coming up and have sent three members of their family to the Assembly. Other legislators like Umesh Katti, Ganesh Hukkeri, D.B. Inamdar, Laxman Savadi, Raju Kage and Shashikala Jolle too are associated with sugar factories. Naushad Bijapur traces the evolution of politics in Belavavi where sugar has shaped many a politician’s future-and at times proved to be a bitter pill for some.
Until the Bharatiya Janata Party gained prominence with the rise of current state president B.S. Yeddyurappa as a mass leader in 2004, the Congress won most of the seats in Belagavi barring two or three which were bagged by the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES). But the 2013 poll came as a shock to the party when a resurgent BJP reduced the Congress tally to a mere six seats while the saffron party won nine and the MES three.
Of late, both the Congress and BJP have been battling infighting but both claim they will win at least 12 seats this time round. What could prove to be a point of worry for the Congress is the dominant Lingayat community whose votes were till now split between the Congress and BJP and could swing towards the BJP considering the failure of the Lingayat movement which the Congress could not take to a logical end.
The community is upset that the Congress attempted to split it in an election year for political gain. The BJP played it safe adopting a neutral stand on the Lingayat issue and projecting Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, as its CM's candidate which will help it garner a major share of Lingayat votes. But this is no backyard of the Hindutva brand of politics which the BJP has played to its advantage in the coastal districts.
In fact many are apprehensive if the BJP's decision to name firebrand MP and Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde as the in-charge of several constituencies in Belagavi, may backfire as he seems to be in favour of playing the ‘Hindu card’ to the hilt rather than harping on the Lingayat issue while picking candidates.
The party is likely to face major hiccups and a rift between Yeddyurappa and Hegde when it comes to choosing candidates, say sources. There is no region in the state where family oriented politics is so dominant like Belagavi. A few politically influential families have held sway winning most recent elections.
The Jarkiholi brothers- Ramesh, Satish and Balachandra- have been legislators four times and are most likely to win a fifth time now. And irrespective of their political affiliations, the Jarkiholis have been winning elections with ease. Satish was MLC twice as a JD(S) leader before winning the last two assembly polls on a Congress ticket from Yamakanmardi constituency while Ramesh (on a Congress ticket from Gokak) and Balachandra (BJP from Arabhavi), have won the last four assembly elections!
After being ejected from the Cabinet by CM Siddaramaiah last year, Satish is seriously contemplating joining the JD(S) but the Congress elevated him to the post of AICC secretary to prevent him from defecting. With his ongoing movement against superstition and his attempts to unite the backward communities, Satish is seen as another powerful leader of backward classes after Siddaramaiah in the state.
To further bolster the family politically, the Jarkiholi brothers are keen to launch their youngest brother, Lakhan Jarkiholi (Congress) into big-time politics by fielding him in the coming election. The family of six-time MLA Umesh Katti (from Hukkeri) also plays a pivotal role in politics in Belagavi and Chikkodi due to their strong links with the cooperative sector. Ramesh Katti, younger brother of Umesh won the last Lok Sabha polls from Chikkodi and is seen as a fast emerging leader of the BJP.
And who would downplay the enormous influence of Chikkodi MP, Prakash Hukkeri who has won six assembly elections in a row from Sadalga constituency and is so popular that his son Ganesh won the last assembly elections riding on his father's popularity. In Kittur, MLA D.B. Inamdar (Cong) has won seven assembly elections and plans to launch his son Vikram in the coming polls.
In Belagavi, two-time MLA Feroz Sait has been promoting his son Faizan and brother Asif with plans to launch them into politics soon. Many young leaders of the Congress are at loggerheads with the high command over the party's support for `family politics' in Belagavi. Several leaders switched parties and some turned rebels, warning the party of consequences in the coming elections. Both the BJP and Congress are keen to field new faces in the coming assembly elections, although they have popular old stalwarts capable of winning with ease.
The wife of IPS officer Hemant Nimbalkar, Dr Anjali is the Congress face from Khanapur this time and is expected to win the majority of Marathi votes in Khanapur, a Maratha stronghold while MLC M.D. Laxminarayan is likely to be the Congress candidate from Belagavi South, which is dominated by the weavers community to which he belongs. Laxminarayan was a close friend of Yeddyurappa until the former Chief Minister dissolved his party, KJP, to rejoin the BJP. The Congress wants to field Lakhan Jarkiholi from Yamakanmardi constituency by shifting Satish to Raichur and is looking for young faces in Saudatti, Kagwad, Hukkeri and Athani constituencies.
The BJP’s prospects may be looking bright but they have their share of problems as the party is struggling to draw up its list of candidates with factions led by Anant Kumar Hegde and Yeddyurappa believed to be at loggerheads. A section of BJP leaders want Nikhil Katti, son of Umesh Katti to be fielded from Belagavi North while a pro-Hindu leader, Dhananjay Jadhav, wants the party to field him from Belagavi Rural where sitting MLA Sanjay Patil has already won the last two elections.
The party is keen to field young faces from Khanapur in place of MLA Aravind Patil, and Jagadish Metgud in place of Vishwanath Patil at Bailhongal. If BJP sources are to be believed, the two factions are likely to have a faceoff over candidates in the next few weeks in Belagavi.
As the polls near, Belagavi politics presents a heady mix which no sugarcane factory could ever imagine of brewing-of hot issues like the lingering Mahadayi water row, non-payment of sugarcane dues and the attempts made to divide Lingayats.
The clash in most assembly segments will be a close affair between the BJP and Congress while the MES may hold on to its traditional seats. A hardcore Hindutva strategy may not work for BJP but the tangle in which the Congress has landed because of the ‘mishandling’ of the ‘ Lingayat religion issue, certainly will.
It remains to be seen how the Congress plan its strategies to counter the BJP.
Meanwhile, farmers in Belagavi are looking forward to more water and a better price for their cane which is all that seems to matter to them. They have ensured the downfall of many a sugar baron in the past and they may not mind doing a repeat if the bigwigs of Belagavi politics keep playing truant in redeeming their many promises.
Chikkodi MP, Prakash Hukkeri who is keen to rejoin state politics, will create a record of sorts if he wins the coming Assembly elections. He has already won seven Assembly elections in a row and is set to win the eighth. BJP MLA Umesh Katti is aiming for his seventh victory from Hukkeri while Congressman D.B. Inamdar with victories in the last six of seven Assembly polls from Kittur, is set for his seventh term. MLAs Raju Kage, Balachandra Jarkiholi and Ramesh Jarkiholi have won the last four Assembly polls and are gearing up for their fifth term.
Leaders at the crossroads
Shivangouda Patil, a senior leader of the Congress and former chairman of the APMC in Belagavi, recently switched to JD(S) contending that he had to quit as the party neglected loyal leaders in Belagavi. He said he had no option but to join JD(S) and will be pitched against Congress candidate Laxmi Hebbalkar in Belagavi Rural assembly constituency.
A poll debutant, Congress leader Dr Anjali Nimbalkar asserts that elections in Belagavi and Khanapur in particular will be fought on the issue of development and not on language or caste factors. She says she could connect with most voters and respond to their problems during the last few years and is confident that they will rally behind her.
Belagavi MLA Feroz Sait who aspires to win a third time as MLA from Belagavi North, refuse to accept that it was because of Muslim voters that he could win twice and says a large section of non-Muslim voters rallied behind him. While denying that elections in Belagavi are dependent on caste or language, he asserts that developmental issues will decide the fortunes of candidates.
Freebies in full flow... and games too!
Even before political parties can draw up their list of candidates, leaders in several Assembly segments in Belagavi are already squandering crores and showering voters with gifts besides holding various events to appease them. Attractive sarees, bags, compass boxes, cookers, silver coins, shawls and household utilities are being distributed on a large scale to woo voters. Lakhs of rupees are being spent by candidates on holding sports events like kabaddi, cricket, bodybuilding and art and cultural events.
At least 8000 soldiers and ex-servicemen were felicitated by a candidate in her constituency and iron boxes were presented to each of them. At the wedding ceremony of his nephew, another candidate gave costly gifts to thousands of people. In the past few months, local authorities are asphalting each and every road in Belagavi under pressure from local MLAs. In the last six months, most important roads in Belagavi have been illuminated with high-tech streetlights giving the city a new look in the name of the Smart City Project. According to sources, the Congress high command has issued orders to all ministers in the state to attend to the phone calls made by every party candidates in the fray until the day of elections. Every civic problem raised by voters is being promptly attended to by the authorities on the instructions of Congress candidates, sources added....