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September 9, 1999

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Campaign Trail/ George Iype in Hassan

Deve Gowda finds Hassan is no pushover

For the local populace, Hassan is renowned for a statue, two temples and one politician. The gigantic statue is of Bahubali at Shravanabelagola, the temples are at Belur and Halebid and the politician is, of course, former prime minister H D Deve Gowda.

But Hassan, Deve Gowda's home district, is today a cauldron of political rivalry. Politics in the district, home to many former ministers, is very different from the ideals of detachment and renunciation that the Bahubali statue symbolises.

These days, Deve Gowda who is seeking re-election to the Lok Sabha from the constituency, never gets out of Hassan. Accompanied by Special Protection Group personnel, the former prime minister is camping here not for re-election alone. He wants to ensure his son, the dismissed Karnataka housing minister H D Revanna, also romps home to the state assembly to take sweet revenge on their bete noire, Chief Minister J H Patel. Revanna is contesting the Holenarasipur assembly seat.

Hassan's voters have a reputation for ruthlessness. In the 1994 assembly poll, six former ministers contested the election and lost. This time, four former ministers are trying their luck from Hassan district Revanna, H C Srikantappa from Shravanabelagola, H K Hanumamegowda from Hassan and K P Mallappa from Arkalgud.

Apart from these high profile leaders Hassan has another attraction the tractor, the poll symbol Deve Gowda's Janata Dal Secular party has been allotted by the Election Commission.

When Deve Gowda travels across the constituency, a tractor leads his fleet of Ambassadors. "I am sure the people of Hassan will vote me to victory. I have done so much for this district," is his stock response to newspersons, inquiring about his chances.

After the Janata Dal split bruised him, Deve Gowda begins his campaign speeches with a single theme: "The BJP is communal and the Congress is corrupt. We will keep an equi-distance from the BJP and Congress. Ours is the only party that cares for you farmers."

If he has an edge in Hassan today, it is not because he has looked after the constituency well. "There is a general feeling in Hassan that we should vote for Deve Gowda because he is a former prime minister," says Siddananjappa Kumar, a local engineer in the public works department.

Lack of manpower and resources has hit Deve Gowda hard. In the undivided Janata Dal, the former prime minister had his party's support base to fall back on whenever he campaigned in Karnataka. But outside Hassan, he has few supporters these days and the rump he heads is virtually non-existent in many parts of the state.

Deve Gowda's followers claim his strategy is "to make enough capital out of the new political equations in Karnataka." "His game plan is to ensure that at least 20 of his candidates win assembly seats. He expects a hung assembly and hopes our group can give outside support to a Congress-led government in Karnataka," one supporter disclosed.

It is a tough fight for the former PM though he has won a Lok Sabha election twice from the constituency. Friend-turned-foe G Puttaswamy Gowda of the Congress is his principal opponent.

"The voters of Hassan have been always merciful to me. They know I care for them," Deve Gowda says as he enlists various welfare schemes he has launched for Hassan's farmers. "I brought an industrial estate project worth Rs 8,000 crore to Hassan," he adds.

The powerful Vokkaliga community in the constituency has stood behind the man who calls himself a humble farmer. Vokkaligas form 35 per cent of the electorate in Hassan. Christians and Muslims number 2 and 6 per cent respectively while scheduled castes are some 17 per cent.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress have launched a blistering campaign against him. Puttaswamy Gowda begins his speeches, saying "Deve Gowda has been a liability for the people of Hassan."

"Deve Gowda proclaims he has done many things for Hassan. But what are these many things?" he roars. "Nothing! His claim that he is a farmer politician is a joke. Has this humble prime minister done anything for Hassan? Nothing!" Puttaswamy Gowda tells his audience. The Congress candidate claims the industrial estate the former PM has brought to Hassan is a tamasha. "No industry has so far been established in this industrial estate project. It is now a wasteland."

Hassan with eight assembly segments has 12,16,816 voters. In 1998, Deve Gowda polled 336,000 votes and defeated Congress candidate H C Srikantaiah who secured 305,000 votes. The Congress hopes it can make up the difference -- 30,000 odd votes -- and defeat Deve Gowda.

The BJP, which is handicapped by the absence of an able leader in Hassan, is nevertheless giving both Gowdas a tough fight. In the last election, BJP candidate Susheela Shivappa polled 205,628 votes. After its poll alliance with the Janata Dal (United), it is uncertain if Shivappa will eat into the votes of Deve Gowda and Puttaswamy Gowda this time.

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