“It was out of the question for me to vote for the BJP. But in 2008, when Basavaraj Bommai was given the ticket, I clearly remember that he stood outside my shop and said, ‘Don’t look at the party. Vote for me as I will work for you.’ And I did vote for him.”
That’s Majid Khan, a shopkeeper in Haveri district’s Shiggaon assembly segment, where chief minister Basavaraj Bommai is eyeing his fourth consecutive victory – when Karnataka holds elections for 224 assembly seats on May 10.
Bommai, whose government faces allegations of breeding corruption and communalism, has continued to win the seat despite a tough challenge from the Congress’s Syed Azeempeer Khadri in the last three elections. And this time, he even hopes to improve his victory margin while riding on the back of a Lingayat quota and the absence of a strong opposition challenger.
The contest has been dulled by the Congress’s initial indecisiveness over its candidate. The party had first deliberated on the name of Panchamasali Lingayat leader Vinay Kulkarni as its Shiggaon candidate and subsequently decided on Anjuman-e-Islam president Mohammad Yousaf Savanur. But Savanur was subsequently replaced by local leader Yasir Ahmed Khan Pathan.
Kulkarni is said to have a stronghold on the Panchamasali community, who make up 75,000 of the total voters in Shiggaon, while Bommai belongs to the Sadar subset of Lingayats, who compose 12,000 of the total voters.
A senior Congress leader, on the condition of anonymity, told Newslaundry, “Bommai might have lost to Vinay, since he has not been winning by a great margin. It is funny but this is common practice in politics where the opposition parties do not field strong candidates against big leaders. So, it is easier for them to win.”
Meanwhile, the Janata Dal (Secular) is fielding Sashidhar Channabasappa Yaligar. The party, which is popular among Vokalingas, has only been securing 1,000 to 3,000 votes in the constituency over the last three assembly polls.
From Congress turf to Bommai stronghold
Since 1957, the constituency had been the Congress’s stronghold until Bommai’s 2008 victory changed that.
In those five decades, the only time Shiggaon voted for a party other than Congress was in 1999 when the Janata Dal (Secular) fielded the same Syed Khadri – who credits Basavaraj Bommai for that victory. Bommai was part of the JD(S) during the election, but later quit the party and joined the Janata Dal (United), which his father SR Bommai was part of. The two factions were formed after the Janata Dal split in 1999.
“I was only 29 years old and just a party worker. And Basavaraj Bommai always believed in combination politics. And by giving a regular Muslim candidate like me the ticket, as Lingayat leader, he proved his secularism,” claimed Khadri, adding that the now chief minister had then pressed for the party to field a Muslim candidate.
At his home in Hulgur village, Khadri digs out a picture from an old photo album, showing a young Bommai gifting a bouquet to Khadri to celebrate his victory. “Basavaraj even campaigned for me, in which he echoed the message of secularism by calling me his brother. I think even today he is secular at heart but to retain his power he has bowed down to the RSS.”
Muslim voters in Shiggaon echoed Khadri’s remarks about Bommai, who joined the BJP in 2008 after quitting the Janata Dal (United).
“I voted for him in the last three elections because his schemes impartially benefitted all of us,” said Mohammad Jaffar, a migrant laborer from Malagatti, a village dominated by the Lingayat community.
But the hijab ban in educational institutes, and the scrapping of the four percent Muslim quota to make way for a two percent quota each to the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities in government jobs and educational institutes, has raised concerns about livelihood in a constituency already grappling with issues of employment.
Shiggaon has over 2.10 lakh voters, with 36.4 percent from the Lingayat community, over 25 percent from the Muslim community, around 10 percent voters from the Scheduled Castes, and over five percent from the Scheduled Tribes.
Rural areas form 70 percent of the segment, including 101 villages in Shiggaon block and 43 villages in Savanur. The constituency is considered backward, because it does not have enough fertile land – most of the population migrates to cities to work as labourers or other districts to work on farms.
Besides, the BJP’s overt support to right-wing groups and the introduction of anti-conversion law in the state has triggered anxieties about communal tension.
“In the past, there has never been communal tension in our village. But now I can sense that communal divide is slowly making its way into our villages,” said Majid Khan, a shopkeeper.
However, it remains to be seen if the minority community’s resentment will reflect in the ballot. “I am unsure if Shiggaon Muslims’ resentment against Bommai would translate electorally because they do not have an option of a strong candidate from Congress and they need someone for their regular problems,” claimed Khadri.
“New communal issues are being created in the region ahead of the elections. Muslim vendors in Bankapur town in Shiggaon are being told to not set up their carts at the markets. Such things did not happen here before,” claimed Noor Ahmed Dorali, councillor at Bakapur municipality in Haveri.
As we traveled deeper into the chief minister’s constituency, both Lingayats and Muslims expressed fears of communally charged incidents in the run-up to the polls.
“A lot of fake information is also being circulated now, targeting the other’s religion, which leads to fights in villages. Hence, I am refraining from saying anything,” said Suresh Harijan, 42, of Mahoor village.
Bommai had become the chief minister after BS Yediyurappa stepped down from the position in 2021. And soon, his tenure was marred with allegations of fostering communal tensions. It started off with his government banning hijab in education institutes, reasoning that these clothes “disturb equality, integrity and public order.” It had led to widespread protests across the state. After this, the government was seen as supporting Hindutva outfit Sri Rama Sene’s demand to ban loudspeakers in mosques.
Under Bommai, Karnataka became the sixth BJP-governed state to pass an anti-conversion law.
And now, the BJP government’s decision to scrap the Muslim reservation and increase the quota for Lingayats and Vokkaligas, has given a shot in the arm to Bommai’s image as a Lingayat leader.
“Now, people from the Lingayat community will also get government jobs... Moreover, we are a majority in the state. If a political party aspires to come to power, they will have to keep us happy,” said Yallapa, a resident of Shiggaon, who works as a driver.
“There is a 50 percent benchmark on reservation. So, the BJP was not able to accommodate Lingayats’ demand for reservation. Hence, they took 4 percent reservation away from the Muslims and split it equally into Lingayat and Vokkaligas. This is because in any case Muslim vote is not in favor of them,” claimed a senior Congress leader.
The quota move has added to the resentment among the minority community.
Mohla Saab, 55, of Malaggati village in Savanur block said, “In all the last three elections, I had voted for Bommai. But he has cheated on us by scrapping the reservations.”
The Congress, meanwhile, is silent on issues linked to the minority community for fear of upsetting the majority Lingayat community, workers said.
With frequent jibes accusing the BJP of corruption, the Congress is resorting to door-to-door campaigning, promising welfare schemes including Indira canteen, and a strengthened public distribution system across the state. The party’s workers are also raising the issue of GST and gas price hike.
Corruption has emerged as a major poll plank in this election with the BJP government facing several allegations over the last four years. These include the arrest of an MLA, the death of a contractor, and several outfits writing to the Narendra Modi government over alleged corruption allegations.
Migration from the area during the non-farming season has shot up in recent years due to a shortage of MNREGA work, allege locals. The issue of rural jobs has also been spotlighted by the opposition parties in Karnataka, though it has not become a poll plank like corruption.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a MGNREGA executive in the constituency said, “The whole idea behind this programme was to stop migration from rural areas to the cities…the contractors are now stealing the job cards of the people, getting work done through machines... The worst part is if we try to stop this, we are subjected to political pressure. Sometimes, the MLAs’ PA call us and ask to not interfere.”
“Whenever we ask the contractor about MNREGA work, he tells us that they will employ JCB for the work,” said Niyaz, 18, of Mallagatti village, who works as a construction labourer in Goa.
Several other villagers claimed that their MGNREGA ID cards are kept in the panchayat office so that the middlemen can use them whenever they want.
The residents of several other villages told Newslaundry about an alleged lack of work under MNREGA, claiming that it’s only accessible through “agents who charge commission”.
The allegations have been linked to various schemes.
Suresh Harijan, 42, of Mahoor village said the Karnataka government’s 2021 scheme for rehabilitation of houses affected by floods “is being availed by only those who pay upto Rs 1 lakh to the agents”.
The welfare schemes of the central government do not strike a chord with all voters. “Modi gave us Rs 2,000 under PM-KISAN and free cylinders…but recovered the money back by hiking the price of gas,” said 65-year-old Siddavva Harijan.
The BJP is leaving no stone unturned in the high-stakes poll battle.
Bommai filed his nomination on April 15, subsequently holding a massive election rally in Shiggaon, along with BJP president JP Nadda and actor Kiccha Sudeep. Nadda hit out at the Congress, saying that it will use Karnataka as its ‘ATM’ if it comes to power and also withdraw the ban on the Popular Front of India.
Addressing the public gathering, the CM highlighted his works, of which the lift irrigation project has particularly amassed popularity. The state government’s scheme has worked along the Centre’s Jal Jeevan Mission to ease water woes of the region. Bommai also mentioned the construction of roads, hospitals and colleges in the constituency.
However, whether development and a possible Lingayat vote consolidation will help Bommai sail over the corruption allegations will only be clear on May 13, when votes will be counted.
Update at 11.15 am, May 4: Khadri and Bommai were erroneously mentioned as part of Janata Party in 1999. This has been corrected.