Gung-ho Congress looks to unsettle BJP

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Hubli: The BJP State president, Pralhad Joshi, faces an uphill task to retain the Dharwad parliamentary constituency which the saffron party has not lost in the last 18 years.

The ruling Congress is doing everything it can to break the BJP’s winning streak. Joshi had it easy during the previous two elections. This time too, he was in a relaxed mood until the Congress declared its candidate: Vinay Kulkarni, the sitting MLA from Dharwad.

Kulkarni’s entry into the political arena has changed the equation in this constituency. A total of 17 candidates are in the fray, including hardline Hindu leader Pramod Muthalik who is contesting as an Independent, Hanamantappa Bankapur of the JD(S), P Y Hemant Kumar of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Gangadhar Badiger of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI).

Of the eight Assembly segments in this constituency, four are held by the Congress, three by the BJP and one by the JD(S). The BJP lost its grip on Dharwad district in the last Assembly elections. Big leaders like B S Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu might have returned to it but they no longer command the loyalty they once did.

Joshi’s record as a parliamentarian brought him good name. He regularly attended the Parliament proceedings and actively took part in the discussions. He was also easily accessible to people. But both urban and rural voters feel he has not done any visible development works in the constituency.

Joshi is therefore seeking votes “to make Modi the prime minister.” The strong undercurrents of caste politics in the district have shaken him. His unease can be gauged by the fact that he is canvassing extensively on his home turf, skipping the rallies of BJP’s national leaders in other parts of the State.

The BJP has its own vote bank, like the Congress. But the Congress, keen on capturing this seat at any cost, fielded Kulkarni, who belongs to the Panchamasali Lingayat sub-caste. His grandfather M K Kulkarni represented Navalgund in the Assembly thrice. Besides, Kulkarni is the sitting MLA in Dharwad. These factors were strong enough to earn him the candidature.

“People of my community (Panchamasali Lingayats, the major chunk of voters) feel I am their voice,” has been Kulkarni’s refrain. The Congress is also wooing Muslims (also in sizeable numbers), the Kurubas, the SCs and the STs.

Party-hopping of several politicians has benefited both the Congress and the BJP. The Congress received a boost after president of Anjuman-e-Islam, Hubli, Jabbar Khan Honnalli, former minister P C Siddangoudar, former MLA R B Shiriyannavar and JD(S) leader Ismail Tamatgar joined it. Similary, the BJP stands to gain as C M Nimbannavar, who left the KJP to join the BJP, Tavanappa Ashtagi and others have embraced it.

Kalghatagi MLA Santosh Lad, who stayed away from the district after resigning as minister, is now canvassing for Kulkarni on Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s instruction.

Voters in Navalgund taluk are said have an “emotional bond” with Kulkarni. They regard him as “the grandson of their taluk.” There are chances that the JDS voters there may turn to the Congress.

Besides, Congress leaders in the district, who were not seeing eye to eye until recently, have now put up a united front, boosting the morale of the party’s workers. The row over building a recreational club on the Gymkhana sports ground may adversely affect the BJP.

The BJP is said to be leading in Hubli-Dharwad Central, West, Shiggaon and Kundagol Assembly constituencies, while the Congress has an edge in Hubli-Dharwad East, Navalgund, Kalghatagi and Dharwad seats, making the contest evenly-poised. Thorn in the flesh?

Muthalik may become a thorn in the BJP’s flesh, snatching some of its votes. He is seeking votes to teach the BJP a “lesson” as it “humiliated” him by expelling him hours after he became a member.

The AAP, which had impressed by registering more than 1.51 lakh members, has fielded the leader of farmers’ movement, P Y Hemanth Kumar. But the party is yet to reach the rural areas.

In all likelihood, it would be a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP, with the victory margin likely to be thin.

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