The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ash waxes, Congress wanes

Mangalore, April 15: When Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty shine in Mumbai — and who will doubt they are shining — the Congress is in trouble in south coastal Karnataka.

So, what’s the catch'

Both are Bunts, once an influential community in this part of the state. Like Ash and aila re Shilpa, many of them are now influential elsewhere. And, unlike the two Bunt beauties and the Bunt brawn Suniel Shetty, many are still here — and shining not in reflected glory alone.

“We no longer feel bad about what happened to the community under Devraj Urs. Perhaps, but for the shock treatment, the community would have lagged behind in education and business. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise for us to come out of the village and develop competence and successfully compete in today’s world,” said A. Sadanand Shetty, till recently the president of the Bunts Association.

In the early 1970s, Urs, the Congress chief minister, vigorously implemented land reforms and in the then South Kanara district — now split into South Kanara and Udupi — the landowning Bunts bore the brunt of the dramatic social change.

As the tiller became the owner of land, the Bunts ceased to be the centre of rural power and lost their traditional leadership at political and administrative level.

So pronounced was their dominance until then that with under 12 per cent share of the region’s population, they held the political reins of the district and virtually monopolised all ministerial representation in successive Congress ministries.

The Rais, Shettys and Alvas were in powerful positions in the Congress. After Urs’ policy intervention, little-known leaders from the Other Backward Classes and the minorities emerged to take their place.

So the Rai was replaced by the Poojary — first name Janardhana, now the state Congress chief — the Shetty by the Moily — Veerappa, who has been chief minister — and the Alva by the Fernandes — Oscar, an AICC member.

And the other Fernandes too: George, that is. But this one took the road to Mumbai; Ash and Shilpa came decades later.

Mumbai, a thousand kilometres away, is where the Bunts quietly went almost in an exodus to educate themselves and pursue careers in business — show and other kinds.

There were, of course, demonstrations of cycle chain-wielding muscle-power in initial resistance to the land reforms, but the Bunts obviously knew better than to be just angry with the Congress. “There is no looking back. Now, we are again a very proud community,” said Krishanand Shetty, who was a classmate of Aishwarya’s father Krishnaraj Rai in the mid-1950s.

Shetty is now the chief administrator of Shree Devi Education Trust that runs several professional colleges in Mangalore.

Three decades since the Urs-administered shock, the Bunts have undergone a complete social transformation within. They are now successful businessmen, owning hotels, restaurants and other enterprises, not only in the region, but also across the country, particularly in Mumbai.

A large number are settled abroad — doctors and engineers making a living as professionals in the US, the UK and the United Arab Emirates.

They have invested heavily in professional colleges and institutes, which again has consolidated their standing as community leaders.

Fifteen months ago, the Bunts celebrated their comeback as a dominant social power at a grand two-day “world convention” here.

Ash and Shilpa were on stage, basking in the fawning attention of the entire community which feted them as symbols of the Bunts’ arrival in the much bigger national arena.

Defence minister George Fernandes was there, too, having climbed from the shamiana-covered dais of the trade union movement to the seat of power on Delhi’s Raisina Hills.

While the Bunts were plotting their turnaround, the stars of OBC leaders like B. Janardhana Poojary, M. Veerappa Moily and Oscar Fernandes, who had flourished in the ’80s and early ’90s as undisputed Congress leaders, had begun to wane.

Poojary lost thrice in a row from his Mangalore Lok Sabha seat, Moily twice and Fernandes once.

There is some more bad news for them in what Sadanand says. “Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee deserves another term. Like us (the Bunts), India is also shining,” he said.

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