It’s only 7 am, but guests have already begun trickling into the guest house in Tumkur, where H.D. Deve Gowda is up and bright, browsing newspapers and sipping coffee. At 85, the political veteran is foraying into new territory. This is the first time he is contesting from Tumkur, where his party last won a Lok Sabha election in 1996, the year he became Prime Minister. Over the past few weeks, he has also been busy crisscrossing southern Karnataka, which goes to polls on April 18.
“There is malicious propaganda against me, but it won’t carry any weight as people are not going to take it seriously,” Gowda tells Outlook. He is referring to the BJP playing the dynasty politics card—Gowda’s grandsons, Prajwal Revanna and Nikhil Kumaraswamy, are contesting from the neighbouring seats, Hassan and Mandya respectively. “There used to be an HMT watch factory in Tumkur. It shut down, didn’t it?” remarks a BJP campaigner during a roadshow in Gubbi. “Now, people will shut down another HMT—Hassan, Mandya and Tumkur.” However, Gowda isn’t perturbed. He claims that he had decided not to contest these elections, but senior leaders persuaded him to.
Tumkur, many reckon, is a safe bet for Gowda even though his party hasn’t won the seat in years. The election math adds up—put together, the JD(S)-Congress vote share in Tumkur in 2014 was impressive. Gowda’s community, Vokkaliga, has a sizeable population here. Close behind are the Lingayats, who form the BJP’s support base. “As far as Tumkur is concerned, we are quite safe,” claims G. Parameshwara, the Karnataka deputy chief minister and Congress leader who hails from the city. He believes the votes of the significant ‘others’—communities like the Dalits, OBCs and minorities—will be the deciding factor and give the coalition an edge.
The JD(S) is strong in Hassan and Mandya, but it still needs the Congress’s support. The rumbles of discontent within the Congress were aplenty earlier this month, when the party’s sitting MP had to give up his claim on the Tumkur seat so that Gowda could contest. “Those hiccups are over,” says Parameshwara. Over the last couple of weeks, Gowda has been holding joint rallies with Congress leader Siddaramaiah, his protege-turned-foe-turned-ally, to get their party workers to toe the line. “Put your differences aside. We have to be sincere,” he exhorts supporters at a rally in Mysore, Siddaramaiah’s hometown.
The BJP’s campaign is centred on PM Narendra Modi, but it also taps into local issues to pin the ‘outsider’ tag onto Gowda. They accuse him of not doing enough to bring water from the Hemavathy river to Tumkur, even though it flows through his pocket borough, Hassan. But community and caste matter more here than such issues, claims a local journalist. G.S. Basavaraj, 77, the BJP’s candidate, has won the seat four times—thrice as a Congress member and in 2009, as a BJP nominee.
Gowda believes that regional parties will play a major role in these elections and had thus called for all secular parties to come together regardless of who becomes PM. “Of course, I have to stand by Rahul Gandhi because we are running a coalition government here (in Karnataka),” he elaborates.
Although Gowda says that the Congress-JD(S) coalition is eyeing 20 of the 28 LS seats in Karnataka, it hasn’t been an easy going. “In the three constituencies where my grandsons and I are contesting, they are harassing us,” Gowda remarks, referring to the raids by I-T authorities. In the last week of March, the department raided close associates of JD(S) leaders across the state. Again, on April 16, I-T personnel conducted searches in the premises of people with alleged links to the JD(S) in Mandya and Hassan districts.
In this charged environment, barbs are bound to fly. In Mysore, Gowda replies to a Modi jibe about his vow to take political sanyas in 2014. “I was not born to be a sanyasi. I’m a farmer’s son,” the stalwart thunders. He is, he emphatically reminds the crowd, a 24/7 politician. And that, at 85.
- This is the first time Gowda is contesting from Tumkur, a seat where his party last won the elections in 1996.
- G.S. Basavaraj, the BJP nominee, has won the seat four times—thrice on a Congress ticket and as a BJP candidate in 2009.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Tumkur