Has anybody heard of Kundapura? Non-Kannadigas can still be pardoned, but do any of the start-up ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls in Koramangala and HSR Layout know of it? Why you ought to know: not as exotic sounding as Coorg, sadly, Kundapura— uthappamed between Udupi and Karwar—offers some breathtaking sights. It has two rivers to its north and east, and the backwaters leading to the Arabian Sea in the west. As you drive through Maravanthe beach in the area, you witness this incredible aqua tug —sea waves lashing at the road on one side and the Souparnika river calmly flowing on the other. In fact, the stretch on the national highway 17 (now renumbered as 66), between Karwar and Mangalore, should be one of the most breathtaking routes once the work for its four-laning is over.
But underneath Kundapura’s blue seas and golden sands, its waterways full up to the brim even before the monsoon arrives and its dense coconut-palm-rimmed fields throbbing with vitality, the social fabric has many wrinkles, and some tears. It is at the heart of coastal Karnataka, always edgy with communal tension. More so now, during elections, as political parties fan the embers. The region, dotted with Hindu matts, like the influential Sri Krishna matt in Udupi, also has a sizable Muslim population. But long-time residents feel there is a new influx from adjoining Kerala, their purses fat with dinars and dirhams from Gulf countries, who are setting up shop here. Om Prakash Mathur, the BJP Rajya Sabha MP from Rajasthan who has come a long way from home to manage the 21 seats in the coastal region, seems to have found his peg. When we meet him in the college town of Manipal, he emphasises that this is the ‘Hindu belt’ that his party will sweep. There have been at least 11 murders here in the run up to the elections, both RSS workers and fringe Muslim leaders have been killed. We meet U.T. Khader, the current food and public distribution minister of Karnataka, at an old-age home run by Christian missionaries outside Mangalore. He goes on to list all these shootings and stabbings in chilling detail, explaining the political reason behind each one of them.
“Karnataka is different,” is a refrain we hear often. In election time, it certainly is. As we travel from Mangalore to Mysore, we have to strain our eyes to detect any election fever. There is none of the earsplitting drumbeats of a politician’s procession, no supporters breaking into frenzied jigs, say, as in the maze of Banaras’ bylanes, no impassioned expert opinion at a gathering around a tea-cigarette shop in Darbhanga about the prospects of each of the candidates, and no detailed listing of election issues by the lady who runs a fish-thali shack in Singur. There is certainly not the chest-beating, cut-out competing, cry-out-loud melodrama of neighbouring Tamil Nadu. In Nanjangud, near Mysore, we stop at a hamlet. Our interview goes something like this: Will you vote? Maybe. Who will you vote for? Haven’t decided. Do you know the candidates? Don’t care. Will it be the BJP or the Congress? Could be either, or JD(S)? Yes, why not. There, the motion is Hung.
So, what sets the Kannadiga apart? The late H.Y. Sharada Prasad, media advisor to Indira Gandhi, offered a view. In his book Exploring Karnataka he wrote: “Allied with this distrust of fanaticism and flamboyance is a certain unsparing insistence of self-discipline and style. It is expressed in the numerous stories about Visvesvaraya, in the fastidiousness of Generals Cariappa and Thimmayya, in the philosophical volumes of Professor Hiriyanna and in the dance of Shanta Rao. In its gentler form, it can be detected in the lines and brush strokes of K.K. Hebbar, in the glances and drives of G.R. Vishwanath, in the meditative aalaap of Mallikarjun Mansoor and in the prose of R K Narayan.”
(The writer, assistant executive editor, Outlook, was on a pre-election tour)