Written byAmrita Dutta
| Gurmitkal / Afzalpur (karnataka) |
“People once believed that the Congress could put up a donkey here with Mallikarjun Kharge’s blessings and it would win. Can they be so sure now?”
In Karawal village of Yadgir district in north Karnataka, 35-year-old Motilal’s is one of many voices of scepticism. The villagers, mostly agriculturists, have gathered near the panchayat office to hear JD(S) candidate Nagana Gouda Kandkur’s pitch: a waiver of all farm loans, big or small.
“We have had nearly 50 years of Congress rule here. It’s time for change,” says Masiuddin, a farmer and municipal councillor.
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But this is Gurmitkal, an Assembly constituency considered a Congress fortress for good reason: it elected the party’s tallest Dalit leader in the state, Kharge, eight times on the trot from 1972. A formidable social coalition of Dalits, Muslims and backward castes, including the Kabiligas, has kept the party in the game here for decades. Moreover, while north Karnataka has often complained of being neglected by leaders of the wealthier south, in Kharge, now Lok Sabha MP from Gulbarga, the region has a popular subaltern leader.
A part of the backward Hyderabad-Karnataka region in the state, Gurmitkal is desperately poor, with indicators that put it near the bottom of the state’s Human Development Index. “In these 50 years, the powerful have grown more powerful. But I will vote for Congress, because I cannot forget what Indira-amma did. I cannot be certain that my son will too,” says Malappa, 60, a labourer. His village, Gaanapur, also in Gurmitkal, is a picture of deprivation: there are open drains, toilets are scarce and drinking water a pressing need, and most young men are either unemployed or have moved out. Residents complain that benefits under various schemes are diverted by intermediaries, often from the dominant caste.
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“Kharge’s own people, the Dalits, have over the years migrated to seek work in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Mumbai because there are no jobs, no factories, and no irrigation facilities (in the area). But these issues never come up,” says Vaijanath Patil, a farmers’ activist and Swaraj India candidate from Yadgir constituency.
The question of Kannada identity and language is not an issue in this multilingual region, nor, say Congress leaders, will the move to grant separate religious status to Lingayats affect votes much. “Only a small section of educated Lingayats is bothered about these distinctions,” says B R Patil, a Lingayat and Congress candidate from Aland. In the absence of big issues, it is the arithmetic of identity and caste, as well as the performance of individual MLAs, that may hold the key.
In Gurmitkal, sources say, Siddaramaiah was not happy with the incumbent, Baburao Chinchinasur, who won by 1,650 votes in 2013.
The BJP claims that it is in with a fighting chance in Gulbarga and Yadgir districts. “This is the beginning of the end of Kharge’s rule in this region. I will make sure the BJP gets 15-20 MLAs in Hyderabad-Karnataka,” asserts Malikayya Venkayya Guttedar, a six-time Congress legislator from Afzalpur who joined the BJP earlier this month after accusing Kharge of vendetta.
Not many, however, are sure whether Guttedar, a leader from backward Eediga caste, will sail through. It is a measure of Kharge’s influence here that Guttedar’s badmouthing of the Dalit leader might have triggered off a counter-mobilisation of votes. “His tirade against Kharge has angered Dalit voters so much that they don’t want to let him enter their colonies,” says Siddu Sirasagi, an SC leader whose wife is a BJP zila panchayat member. “It doesn’t matter if we are BJP or Congress. How can he criticise Kharge, who we consider as a second Babasaheb,” asks Sirasgi.
Guttedar, who has business interests in the liquor industry, is also believed to have alienated Muslims and Kabiligas, who account for about 65,000-odd votes, in the constituency.
In Gulbarga district, schools and colleges set up by Kharge’s People’s Education Society have given a generation of people from Dalit and backward caste communities much-needed social mobility. But for a vast section of Dalits in villages with no access to education, Kharge’s worth is more intangible.
“It is not as if Kharge’s rise has given us money or jobs. But it has given us respect,” says Kamanna, 55, from Mallabad village in Afzalpur, who, like Kharge, is a Chelavadi Dalit. He recalls a time when people of “higher” castes would pour water from above into his cupped hands. “It’s different now,” he says.
“It’s different because there is a law to protect us,” adds his son Ashok, 35, who makes and sells papad in nearby villages.
It is the defence of this law, and the Constitution, that weighs on the minds of Dalits. “You want to know the difference between Dalits then and now? Today we have the courage to go up to (BJP MP and Union minister) Anantkumar Hegde and ask, ‘Is this your Constitution?” says Sharanabasava, a 31-year-old editor at a publishing house in Gulbarga city, which has recently printed a book on the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon.
Sharanabasava dismisses the Congress as “chhota gaddar”, compared to the more systemic “betrayal of Dalits” by the BJP. He is more interested in the JD(S)’s alliance with the BSP, an “authentic” Dalit party, never mind talks of a “secret pact” between the BJP and the JD(S). “If the JD(S) does well, the lagaam (reins) will be in the hands of BSP. How can they then run to BJP?”
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