| Geetha Shivrajkumar, BS Yeddyurappa
The cool wind that blows from the Malnad (hill range) camouflages the electoral heat in Shimoga, where the daughter of a former chief minister is engaged in the task of avenging her father’s defeat.
In a David-versus-Goliath kind of situation, Geetha Shivrajkumar, daughter of S. Bangarappa and wife of Kannada superstar Shivrajkumar, is pitted against B.S. Yeddyurappa, who could be a central minister if he wins and Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister.
Geetha has been fielded by the Janata Dal (Secular). Yeddyurappa’s son B.Y. Raghavendra, the sitting MP, had defeated Bangarappa in 2009. Bangarappa, who died in 2011, was then contesting as a Congress candidate.
Pushing ahead in a quiet but efficient way is Manjunath Bhandari of the Congress. He belongs to the same Bunt community as Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty.
But Yeddyurappa, the seasoned Lingayat strongman, is not worried. In fact, he’s so sure of winning that he’s spending more time helping his party in other constituencies.
When the BJP fielded this reluctant candidate in place of his son Raghavendra, the sitting MP, the recent rebel who returned to the party in January accepted the responsibility.
Bhandari, a Congress veteran with a clean image, may not be the best choice for the party. But party sources said the Congress was forced to opt for Bhandari, who is popular as proprietor of the Bhandari Gas Agency and has always been the campaign manager for anyone his party has fielded in Shimoga, for a reason.
The estranged brother of Geetha, Kumar Bangarappa, made repeated attempts to get the Congress ticket to take on his sister and Yeddyurappa. But the party thought such sibling rivalry would have kicked up a lot of dirt and harmed its prospects.
Peeved at being sidelined, Kumar Bangarappa was huddled up with his band of supporters till Saturday when he declared support for Bhandari. “I’m a Congress worker and will abide by my party’s decision,” he said.
He’s now an integral part of the Congress’s campaign machinery.
Yeddyurappa appeared least bothered. “My workers are working day and night to ensure that we win,” he told The Telegraph at his Shimoga residence.
“You all know that I didn’t want to contest. But my workers and party leadership wanted me,” said the former chief minister who returned to the party after merging his breakaway KJP that he had formed in December 2012.
He still feels that populist projects announced when he was chief minister would work for him and the BJP. “Seventeen lakh young girls have benefited from the Bhagyalakshmi programme,” he said.
Under the scheme, girl children from poor families get financial assistance from the government. A cash deposit of Rs 10,000 covers her health, annual scholarships and a lump sum amount when she turns 18.
He believes his agrarian policies like automatic loan waivers, free power to operate water pumps and enhanced irrigational facilities would be the eventual clincher.
But that doesn’t stop him from repenting for his “mistakes”.
“I indirectly helped the Congress come to power (in the 2013 Assembly polls) by forming the KJP. It shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
The landscape changes with an 80km drive towards the hills where owners of arecanut plantations and forest dwellers are waiting to vent their anger.
Additional solicitor general Indira Jaisingh had recently moved the Supreme Court for a complete ban on the farming and consumption of arecanut. A report had claimed prolonged use could lead to cancer. Although Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad wrote to Karnataka chief minister P.C. Siddaramaiah there was no ban in waiting, the lakhs of people who earn their livelihood from arecanut are still worried.
The report was prepared by the National Institute of Health and Family Welfare based on a research conducted by the Tata Memorial Institute, Mumbai.
Local people in the Malnad region disagree. “If monkeys can eat these nuts and still be healthy, areca is safe,” said Madappa, a farm worker waiting to watch Geetha.
Although the state votes on April 17, none of the candidates has seriously addressed this issue which could render at least two lakh people working in this sector jobless.
But Geetha is more focused on another issue. Forest dwellers in the area could be literally on the streets if the government evicts these people living on “bagair hokum” land, or land sans titles.
She belongs to the backward Idiga community that forms nearly 3 lakh voters of the total electorate of 15.2 lakh in the eight Assembly segments in Shimoga. “I’ll work to bring a lasting solution to this problem,” Geetha said between campaign stops.
The lone woman candidate in Shimoga, she’s sending across the message through small panchayat-level meetings. “I have been getting a large number of complaints from people who are harassed by forest officials. Many are even thrown out of forests,” she said.
While it’s certain that the Bangarappa family still enjoys considerable support among Idiga voters, it’s her estranged brother Kumar who’s a worry.
Actively involved in the Congress campaign, Kumar Bangarappa could damage her prospects as he too has decisive blocks of supporters among the Idigas.
Bhandari is banking entirely on the traditional Congress voters, backward classes, minorities and his own Bunt community that has a strength of around 45,000 voters. Bunts are from southern Karnataka and the hill regions.
“The BJP robbed people’s wealth during their misrule in Karnataka. We stopped them last year (2013 elections). Now that Modi is their single-point campaign, the people will stop them and elect the Congress,” he told a motley gathering in Sagar, 70km from Shimoga town.
“We are the sure winners this time as our Annabhagya (food programme) is a hit,” said S.T. Halappa, general secretary of the district Congress committee.
With four of the eight Assembly segments in Shimoga with the Congress, Halappa is confident of victory.