In Dharwad prestige fight, BJP turncoat looks to hold fort against all odds

The Hubli-Dharwad Central constituency has been a BJP turf for three decades.

BySumedha Mittal
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In Dharwad prestige fight, BJP turncoat looks to hold fort against all odds
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“Who is going to win the seat? BJP or Mr Shettar?”

It’s a question Shilpa Shettar never imagined asking guests – amid preparations for her husband Jagdish Shettar’s campaign – at the couple’s house on Keshwapur road. Shettar, after all, has held the Hubli-Dharwad Central constituency in Karnataka’s Dharwad district for three decades on a BJP ticket.

But this time, the 67-year-old former Karnataka chief minister is up against the BJP’s Karnataka general secretary Mahesh Tenginkai on a Congress ticket – both of them are Lingayats from the Banajiga subsect.

Shettar, who is known for mobilising the Lingayat vote for the BJP in north Karnataka and seen as a leader with a family linked to the RSS, had joined the Congress on April 17 after the BJP decided to field Tenginkai. The BJP, after announcing its decision, had indicated that Shettar was being considered for a role in Delhi.

It’s not just Shettar. The BJP, ostensibly sensing anti-incumbency across several districts, has denied tickets to around 20 of the 115 sitting MLAs. And these include prominent Lingayat leaders, such as deputy CM KS Eshwarappa. Around half of the 20 legislators, including Shettar, have switched to other parties, while the remaining leaders such as Eshwarappa accepted the party’s decision.

Lingayat sentiment

Lingayats form around 18 percent of Karnataka’s population and are an influential voter in more than 100 of the total 224 assembly segments across the state. Eight chief ministers from Karnataka have been from the community.

A perceived injury to Lingayat pride had cost the BJP in the 2013 polls when the party’s vote share was reduced by 20 percent. And Shettar is trying to target the BJP using the same sentiment – by linking the denial of a ticket with community pride.

Located between Hubli and Dharwad, the constituency has around 73,000 Lingayat voters, 43,000 Muslim voters, 32,000 from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 26,500 Christian voters, 22,000 Brahmin voters, and 22,700 voters from other communities.

In his campaign, Shettar is telling leaders that the BJP is sidelining tall Lingayat leaders such as former CM BS Yediyurappa to make way for a Brahmin leadership – pointing to national general secretary BL Santosh from Udupi and union minister Prahlad Joshi from Vijayapura.

However, he has adopted a conspicuous silence on prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah. Pictures of Modi, Shah and BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee adorn the walls of Shettar’s residence. “Because we did not have a problem with those people. They are good people…it’s the people in the state who have betrayed us,” said Shilpa Shettar.

Development a passing reference

The BJP, meanwhile, is focussing on delivering the message that Shettar has cheated Lingayats by switching to the Congress. After his exit, the party has launched an aggressive campaign, with rallies by top leaders such as Modi, Shah, Yediyurappa, and door-to-door campaigning by local Lingayat leaders.

While the BJP has relied on a heady mix of Hindutva and welfare schemes in this election, and the Congress on corruption, issues linked to development are barely touched upon in the door-to-door campaigns of the two parties in the constituency.

Only two top Congress leaders – Mallikarjun Kharge and Priyanka Gandhi – have campaigned in Dharwad district so far. 

BJP’s Dharwad spokesperson Ravi Naik claimed, “The main issue we are telling people about is the person…the second message we are giving to the people is that the development in the constituency has nothing to do with Shettar. The funds came from the central and state government. We are telling them that it is due to the hard work of Prahlad Joshi.”

Sixteen candidates are in the fray in the constituency. Besides Shettar and Tenginkai, another prominent face is JD-S candidate Siddalingesh Gowda Mahanta Wodeyar.

The contest doesn’t appear to be triangular – the JD-S clocked around 10,000 votes in the last election.

BJP watching

While Shettar claims his exit from the BJP will impact the party’s poll prospects in at least 20 constituencies, sources part of his campaign say that it has been marred by an alleged lack of support from Congress grassroots workers, who are “disappointed” over his candidature, and his supporters who have just left the BJP “being watched.

Amid signs that the party will not field Shettar, 16 BJP councilors and 49 party office-bearers had tendered their resignation in support of the Lingayat leader in Dharwad district. While they subsequently withdrew their resignation, the BJP sacked 27 people from party posts.

Ravi Naik said, “Councillors are involved in ground level campaigning for the party. They influence voters. Staying in the BJP, you can not work for the opposition. Therefore we did some monitoring and we know how to do that…we will sack more people if we find they are showing any sympathy for Shettar.”

A councilor, who did not wish to be named, said, “The party is constantly watching us. You can not even imagine how bad it is…someone is always standing outside our house and following us wherever we go. Our phones are also being tapped.”

Naik denied the allegation about tapping of phones and did not detail the “monitoring” done by the party.

Former councillor Mahesh Burli was among the 27 people sacked by the BJP and has now joined Shettar’s team in the Congress. “We were being followed all the time…I had switched off my phone for two days.”

Dwindling support?

It’s not an unusual sight to spot Shettar’s house bustling with activity in the early hours – he returns home after programmes across the area to plan his itinerary for the next day. 

“Because of the BJP’s decision, my family has gone through tumultuous times physically and mentally. My elder son, a software engineer, is not interested in politics but this is the first time he has come for elections to give moral support to his father. It is a do or die situation for us,” said Shilpa Shettar.

However, the BJP’s campaign seems to have found some resonance on ground against Shettar, who won with a margin of 20,000 votes – the highest in his career – in the last election.

KB Angri, a Lingayat, said, “BJP is with Lingayats, not Congress. Shettar has betrayed us. Congress is trying to defame Lingayats leaders such as Bommai by saying that they are corrupt. In reality, they are corrupt. There are CBI cases against Congress leaders like DK Shivakumar, not BJP leaders.”

Sarojini Heramath, another 60-year-old Lingayat of Keshwapur, said, “It’s the BJP which will come to power in this area. Shettar has not solved any problem in this constituency; roads have not been constructed, we do not get regular water supply. We have complained to him so many times but he just does not listen to us. In the past as well, we did not vote BJP in his name. We were voting for leaders like BS Yediyurappa, Bommai, and especially Modi.”

However, Suresh Kotri, a Lingayat trader, said it was under Shettar’s leadership that the BJP was “mobilised on the ground level in north Karnataka”. “It went from zero seats to winning 74 seats. Everyone knows his contribution to the party. He comes from the Banajiga subsect of Lingayats and I am sure this time these Banajiga are going to vote against the BJP.”

The Basavaraj Bommai government’s decision to scrap the four percent Muslim quota and distribute it among the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities, as well as a slew of communal themes linked to the BJP government – from the hijab ban to the conversion law – have also struck a chord with some voters.

Shettar’s campaign manager Shaktiraj Dandeli said, “In our door to door campaigning we are telling people that the BJP has betrayed Shettar. But they are being provoked and they feel that it is Shettar who has betrayed the BJP and acted power hungry. This has become our main challenge.” 

Shipatrapa Sambhalegi, a Lingayat voter sitting outside the Hanuman Mandir, said, “This country is developing under Narendra Modi’s leadership. India is emerging as a global superpower. He is ruling like a king.”

“Congress has always supported Muslims and given reservations to them. Banning the hijab was also the right thing to do by the BJP government. What sense does it make to wear your religious identity to education institutes? Shall we start wearing saffron shawls?” said Angri.

However, in Dharwad, the communal roots go deeper. 

Lingayat voters outside a temple

Lingayat voters outside a temple

The shrine that was demolished has been shifted to another location

The shrine that was demolished has been shifted to another location

Polarisation over the decades

At the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the early 90s, the BJP had launched another campaign, to unfurl the Tricolour at the Eidgah mosque – leased to Muslim outfit Anjuman-e-Islam by the Hubli-Dharwad city corporation in 1921 for 999 years for Eid prayers.

In 1994, six people were killed in communal violence when BJP leaders Uma Bharti, Anantkumar Hegde and Lingaraj Patil dodged security personnel to hoist the national flag on the venue.

The town became an epicentre of communal tensions, paving the way for communal politics in Karnataka. Over the last one year, the city has seen several incidents.

Last year, workers from the Sri Ram Sene, VHP, RSS and BJP organised Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at the same Eidgah maidan. And in December, a Muslim shrine near ​​Bairidevarkoppa was demolished to widen the road under the Hubli-Dharwad Bus Rapid Transit System project. 

Several opposition leaders had hit out at the BJP government, questioning the absence of land acquisition.

Promising a caste census, Muslim quota, and a ban on Bajrang Dal, the Congress is eyeing a return to power in Karnataka this time.

M R Mulla, a senior advocate and former vice president of the Anjuman-e-Islam, said, “These are crucial elections for us. That is why all the BJP national leaders are also coming here to rally. We are conducting several minority community meetings and we have realised the voter turnout will be at least 5 to 10 percent higher among the Muslim community. Moreover, we also respect Jagadish Shettar…He had no role in the shrine’s demolition so we respect him.”

“Modi has instilled a sense of fear in us. We can not express ourselves anymore. But we have faith in Allah. This time we will go out to vote more, so that we can rule out the BJP from the constituency,” said another voter.

Additional reporting by independent journalist Shivaraj G Arakeri.

Update at 10.24 am, May 4: M R Mulla was erroneously mentioned as the former president of the Anjuman-e-Islam. This has been corrected.

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