In Karnataka elections, BJP bets on serial party hopper to woo the powerful Vokkaligas
Surveying the lake next to her pork stall in Kodambahalli village in Channapatna taluk about 80 km South-West from the state capital Bengaluru, Uma Raju says much work has been done on irrigation, “but this only benefits those with land.”
On the eastern side of the lake is a plaque announcing that it was rejuvenated because of the efforts of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s candidate for the constituency, CP Yogeshwar, who has won five elections from the seat.
Yogeshwar, a Vokkaliga leader, while he may be with the BJP now, is a serial party hopper. He has previously been with the Congress, BJP and the Samajwadi Party (SP). Between 1998 and 2013, Yogeshwar contested on a Congress ticket twice, once each on a SP and BJP ticket and also as an independent. He has in the past served as a minister in the previous BJP government.
The largely land-owning and agrarian Vokkaligas are the second most powerful community in the state after the Veerashaiva - Lingayats, and are concentrated mainly in the Old Mysyru regions of Mandya, Hassan, Mysuru, Chamarajanagar, which accounts for 61 of the 224 seats in the state. BJP has found it hard to convince Vokkaligas to back it, having won a mere 4 of the 61 seats in this belt during the last election.
In 2017, they tried beefing up their Vokkaliga leadership roster, by inducting former Congress chief minister SM Krishna ahead of by-elections to two seats. But that gambit failed.Now the BJP has pinned its hopes for the Old Mysuru region in the May 12 polls on Yogeshwar, hoping his presence will also have a ripple effect. However he is up against the former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, who is also a Vokkaliga, belonging to the Janata Dal (Secular). Kumaraswamy wants to avenge the defeat of his wife Anitha in the previous election at the hands of Yogeshwar.
As a result, the Channapatna election has been pitched as the battle for the Vokkaliga heartland. According to taluk panchayat member C Prabhu, there are 219,000 voters in the constituency, with the Vokkaligas being the numerically biggest caste, accounting for around 95,000 votes. Locals feel defeating Kumaraswamy would be a much more difficult proposition unlike defeating his wife.
Yogeshwar’s camp, however, is upbeat, pointing to the lake rejuvenation work he has undertaken over the past five years. “Thanks to him, around 150 lakes and tanks are full. Farm produce has increased manifold and people like me have moved back to agriculture, leaving jobs in Bengaluru,” said G Kumar, who is Yogeshwar’s social media incharge.
“Despite not having ever seen the SP symbol, people voted for him in 2013 because of his work. This time, he will help the BJP do well in this region,” Kumar avers confidently.
However, Yogeshwar’s tendency to switch parties has been a topic of discussion in Channapatna. “Till last year, he was with the Congress, and I would have definitely voted for him if he had stayed there,” said Uma Raju, who hails from the backward Bestha caste (traditional fishermen community).
Local JD(S) leaders said there was no question of Kumaraswamy losing. “Yogeshwar claims to have done a lot of work but he is only reaping the rewards of the work HD Deve Gowda (former PM and Kumaraswamy’s father) did for the district. It was because of his efforts that we have the Iglur dam.Is bringing water to lakes from this dam the bigger effort?” said Rajanna Rampura, a local leader.
Making the contest more interesting is the Congress candidate, transport minister HM Revanna, who hails from the backward Kuruba ( shepherds) caste.
Chandru, a petty shop owner in Channapatna town who is also a Kuruba, felt the key to this election would be Revanna’s performance. “If he (Revanna) gets more than 15,000 votes, Yogeshwar will lose because, despite their pronouncements, a large number of Vokkaligas will vote for Kumaraswamy. So, the battle really is for votes of the other castes.”
With uncertainty looming large over the BJP’s fortunes in the northern regions after the state government decided to notify the Lingayat sect as a minority religion, party president Amit Shah had ramped up efforts for a better showing in the south.