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|August 20, 1999||
Caste will play a vital role in Bellary
George Iype in Bellary
Bellary is famous today. The sleepy, dusty little town surrounded by rocky mountains has become a high-profile political battleground.
Sonia Gandhi, inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is contesting from Bellary, one of the poorest constituencies in the country, and Sushma Swaraj, the BJP's rising star, is the party's swadeshi answer to "the foreigner Sonia".
But as their high-decibel campaigns begin, it may not be Gandhi's charisma or Swaraj's 'swadeshi-versus-videshi' slogan alone that will determine their political futures.
Caste has always been an important factor in Bellary. The district, bordering Andhra Pradesh, was a part of the Madras Presidency before Independence. Telugu is widely used here. The district is known for its rich iron-ore deposits, but caste and local politics have ensured that most people of the constituency have remained poor and illiterate.
"The unfortunate thing about Bellary is that it has remained the most backward constituency in the whole of south India. The Congress party has never done anything for the development of this constituency. My emphasis therefore will be to educate the voters that the Congress has been fooling them all these years," says Swaraj.
"Sonia Gandhi does not understand poverty and squalor. She came here, filed her nomination papers and left in 30 minutes. I am here to feel the pulse of the people," the BJP candidate points out.
The Bellary parliamentary constituency comprises the Bellary, Siruguppa, Kurugodu, Sandur, Kotturu, Kudligi, Hadagali and Harapanahalli assembly segments.
Tekur Subramanyam, who happened to be political secretary to Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru, was the first member of Parliament from Bellary. Subramanyam represented the constituency for three terms --1952, 1957 and 1962.
Thereafter, renowned economist and educationist V K R V Rao was elected from Bellary for two terms -- 1967 and 1971.
Among others who served as MPs from here were K S Veerabhadrappa (1977), R Y Ghorpade (1980), Basavarajeshwari (1984, 1989 and 1991).
In 1996 and 1998, local industrialist and Congress politician K C Kondaiah was elected from Bellary. Kondaiah, who has gifted his constituency to Gandhi to become her poll manager, says: "The day Soniaji filed her nomination, Bellary achieved glory."
Kondaiah dismisses the BJP's charge that his party has done precious little for the constituency. "I am the only MP in Karnataka who used his entire constituency development fund for Bellary," he asserts.
"I have built roads, bridges, schools and colleges. Development does not happen in a day... Bellary is waking up from backwardness and poverty because people like me who are from the backward classes are leading the constituency," Kondaiah says.
But privately, Kondaiah and other Congress politicians admit that caste politics has helped the party in the last 12 elections. The constituency has 12,53,000 voters. More than 70 per cent of them belong to the backward classes and minority communities.
It is the Lingayats (17.23 per cent) who have dominated politics in Bellary. Lingayats are traditional Congress supporters. Also, the Congress has a solid support base in the Kurubas (11.33 per cent), Harijans (15.08 per cent) and Muslims (14 per cent).
The BJP's main support base is the Brahmin community, which accounts for a little over 2 per cent of the voters in Bellary.
But the BJP's poll manager, Subhash Kaushik, who worked abroad for many years before finally settling down in Bellary, says the Congress has deliberately ensured that Bellary remains Karnataka's poorest constituency. "It is easy to win votes from illiterate, poor people. Neglect of the constituency has been such that Bellary can be compared to the poorest constituencies in Bihar or Orissa," he says.
Despite its spectacular victories in the last 12 elections, the Congress's hold on Bellary has been slipping. The anti-Congress votes in the last three Lok Sabha elections have been on the rise. The Congress's vote share in 1991 was 44 per cent. In 1996, it came down to 42.57 and slipped further to 38.60 per cent in 1998.
But despite this, many believe Sonia Gandhi has an edge over Swaraj for two reasons. First, the Gandhi family appeal still sells well here. Second, Sonia Gandhi's image as a "poor widow" is expected to go down well with the rural poor.
Congress strategists, in fact, assert that Gandhi's presence in Bellary will have a spin-off effect on neighbouring constituencies, boosting the fortunes of party candidates in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
On the other hand, the BJP's strength in Bellary comes from its coalition partners -- Lok Shakti and the Janata Dal (united). Moreover, top BJP leaders like Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani are likely to campaign for Swaraj.
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