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August 23, 1999



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Reality bites in Bellary

George Iype in Bellary

Bellary is perhaps one of the hottest places in India. Renowned Kannada humorist Beechi once said: "Bellary has only two seasons, besige and athi-besige (summer and severe summer)."

Congress president Sonia Gandhi has spent one hour and thirty minutes in Bellary -- not in the constituency -- but in Bellary town that consists of a main dusty street, a small railway station, the collectorate building and a few shops that sell clothes. Sonia was tired in the hot and humid town during her brief visit to file the nomination last week. She could hardly eat the sumptuous lunch that Meenakshi Kondaiah prepared for her. The lunch consisted of phulka with bhindi fry, a little rice with pepper rasam, curd and some figs at K C Kondaiah's residence. But the scene outside Kondaiah's home at Bharathi Nagar must have upset Sonia's senses: water-logged, potholes-ridden road where children and pigs play together.

The BJP's Sushma Swaraj has been in the town for the last five days. But the day after she filed the nomination, Sushma fell ill. "May be Bellary's food did not suit her," says a BJP worker. Sushma thus remained in her hotel room for two days. But the BJP local leaders are enthusiastic. They have virtually laid siege to Hotel Pola Paradise, the only three-star hotel in Bellary where a double room costs only Rs 300. A local industrialist and a BJP symphathiser has given Sushma his Ford Escort to travel in. "Let us oppose a videshi becoming our prime minister," Sushma often comes down to the hotel portico to exhort the assembled BJP workers.

For the two glamorous woman politicians, Bellary does not offer the facilities of 10, Janpath and 8, Tees January Marg of New Delhi. In Bellary, Sonia and Sushma are coming to terms with squalor and poverty. Their brief glances across the town have convinced them also that since the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952, Bellary's villages have remained the same.

Bellary's has been the story of neglect and callousness since 1952. The Congress has won from the constituency 12 times.

Siruguppa, an assembly segment and a small township some 70 km from Bellary is a typical example. Siruguppa consists of a cluster of remote villages where hundreds of children die of brain fever every year. Mohammad Haneef, a rickshaw puller lives by a roadside. Two of his four children died of brain fever recently. Doctors say the main reason for brain fever is because the disease is spread by pigs. "My children have died. No one has helped me," Haneef says. In every election, Haneef, a devout Muslim has voted for the Congress. But the family tragedy this year has made him aware that politicians and promises are confined to only during elections. Therefore, Haneef will not vote this time.

News of the Sonia-Sushma clash in their constituency is yet to register on Sirugappa. Those who know about it have not been electrified by the news. For the voters in Bellary, both Sonia and Sushma are outsiders. Murugappa, a daily wage worker in a small steel manufacturing company, has also voted for Congress all these years. But this year he says he will vote for BJP because his company owner told him and others that "Vajpayee is a nice fellow." Murugappa has not heard of the Kargil crisis and the nuclear blasts. He also does not know that Sonia is an Italian. He cannot make out what this videshi versus swadeshi debate is all about. "Sonia is Indira Gandhi's daughter," he sums up his knowledge. "I wish to see her. But she will not come here because there are no roads for her car to come here," he adds.

Not all in Bellary are as illiterate as Murugappa. Selvraj and his large family live on the outskirts of Kurugodu. Selvrag gets Rs 1400 a month from his 9 am to 8 pm work in a jeans manufacturing unit. He says the jeans are being exported to foreign countries. Six months back Selvraj bought a black and white television set as he was the only villager who did not have one. Since then his political knowledge has improved dramatically. He has seen the Kargil war that has made him patriotic. "I will vote for the BJP because they have won a war against Pakistan," he feels. Selvraj lows his voice to tell that his father would kill him if he knows that he is voting for the BJP, since the family are traditional Congress supporters. His father, Bhorpede Selvraj is going to see Sonia Gandhi when she comes for campaigning in Sandur on September 27.

Like Selvraj, there are hundreds of young, TV-watching Bellary voters who are switching their political loyalties from the Congress to the BJP. That is the reason why the Congress voteshare has dwindled considerably in the Lok Sabha election in 1991, 1996 and 1998.

BJP leader Hirakar Chandra Naidu, a Telugu settled in Bellary claims there has been "an upsurge in the BJP's vote share in the past one decade." "Sonia Gandhi contesting from here is a non-issue for the people. What is important that anti-Congressism is on the rise among the villagers here," he says.

Congressmen are aware of their shrinking vote share and therefore a little apprehensive. But they are not frightened because "madam is contesting." Kondaiah, who takes pride in telling everyone that "I have sacrificed my seat for Soniaji", ridicules the BJP threat to defeat Sonia. "The people of Bellary loved Rajiv Gandhi. After his death, they continue to love Soniaji, Priyanka and Rahul," he adds.

But Congress leaders are certain that this abiding love in Gandhi family will translate into victorious votes for Sonia. Maybe, the confidence of Kondaiah and his co-workers are justifiable. For decades now, most of the 70 per cent backward class voters have reposed faith in the Congress time and again. It may be difficult to change the mindset of a traditional votebank. Therefore, many believe the name and fame of the Gandhi family would easily help Sonia win from Bellary.

But it is no longer a cakewalk for her after Sushma jumped into the fray. For in the coming days, Sushma's shrill oratorical skills will reverberate through the Bellary villages. "I am ready to give a tough fight and win over Sonia," Sushma exudes confidence.

However, for the Bellary voters, both Sonia and Sushma have not offered an election issue. Nobody is here bothered whether Sonia is an Italian. BJP's swadeshi versus videshi campaign has few listeners in the villages. But many upcoming, educated Bellary-ites also believe that the Congress themes of stable government and national security are boring and meaningless.

For the voters here, Sonia and Sushma are the same: outsiders. It does not matter to them whether one is from Italy and the other from Delhi.

One of them will be just another member of Parliament soon who will disappear from Bellary like the 12 MPs before.

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