KANNADA pride at the best of times, has been very ephemeral. On the few occasions the sentiment has sought to go public, it has resulted in movements for primacy for the language, or assertion of the state's rights over some river water, if not in a violent reaction to the attack on Kannada cinema's matinee idol. But political observers struggle to recall an occasion when the state rallied as one to fight a political battle, however prestigious.
Try telling that to H.D. Deve Gowda, the "son of the soil" former PM who is seeking to "rise from the dust" of national politics by riding the Kannada pride he is trying to stoke in town after town. "The Akalis are not putting up a candidate against I.K. Guj-ral in Jalandhar because of Punjabi pride. But here, the one-point programme of some people has been to finish me politically," Gowda laments at meeting after meeting in his Vokkaliga heartland of Hassan, Mandya and Kanakapura in south Karnataka.
Gowda's election speeches are re-runs of his famous vote of confidence speech before he was dethroned in the Lok Sabha. The former PM says he is "trying to appeal to the self esteem of the Kannadigas". "It is for the people to introspect and decide. But there is no way the JD can do worse than in 1996," he thinks aloud.
However, all it needs is a trip to the northern districts where the JD is a shadow of its former self to ascertain the reality on the ground. Battlelines are clearly drawn and the north-south political divide at times is ominous. The hero here is Ramakrishna Hegde, the former chief minister who was expelled from the JD by Gowda and who formed the Lok Shakti to fight the elections with the BJP.
In 1996, the JD won seven of the 12 north Karnataka seats. This time the party would be lucky if it retains even two seats. The JD's losses will certainly help the Congress and perhaps even the Lok Shakti.
The battle that matters more for now, however, is being fought behind the heat and dust kicked up by Gowda and Hegde. It is a battle between BJP and ally Lok Shakti on one side and the Congress and the JD on the other. And all parties are unanimous that it is the Muslim vote which will tilt the balance in most constituencies.
In 1996, the JD came up with its best show of 16 seats with Muslim and backward class support. "We cannot hope to get the same support from the Muslim community this time," confides a senior JD leader from the community. "The weakening of the JD coupled with Sonia's entry into active politics and the apologies for Babri Masjid seem to be taking Muslims back to the Congress."
Both the Congress and the JD are sure that Muslims will vote for the candidate with the best chance of defeating the BJP. Little surprise then that even Hegde is working hard at wooing Muslim voters. A large part of his campaign is about riot-free BJP governments in various states and how it was the Congress that allowed shilanyas at Ayodhya.
The JD's only Muslim minister in the state, Roshan Baig, visits select constituencies to seek votes from the community. Gowda never forgets to deride "the party which wants to build temples and take the country back to the 19th century". Chief minister J.H. Patel's catchphrase is: "Between Rome and Ram, vote JD." And Union minister C.M. Ibrahim—the party's star campaigner in 1996—has been deliberately kept out of the campaign following reports of Muslims being unhappy with him.
Obviously, the stakes in 1998 are highest for the JD in Karnataka. While it does not matter to the party whether the Congress or the BJP records the ; most victories, senior JD leaders, including Patel, are unanimous in private that they need to retain at least half the 16 seats of 1996. Failing which the survival of the Patel government—already destablised by the defection of ministers and MLAs loyal to Hegde—becomes suspect.