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Seeking to revive his political fortunes in one of the toughest battles of his chequered political career, former prime minister H D Deve Gowda is contesting the February 21 by-poll for the Kanakapura Lok Sabha seat, a Congress bastion.
The by-election in Kanakapura, which is spread over several assembly segments in Bangalore to Mandya districts, was necessitated by the death of sitting Congress MP M V Chandrashekhara Murthy.
Earlier, when Gowda made it known that he would enter the fray, there was no question of a contest.
However, the Congress was in a combative mood and decided to give the former prime minister a tough fight by fielding state Cooperation Minister D K Shivakumar, a controversial figure for his style of functioning.
More or less evenly matched in terms of resources, Gowda and his high-profile Congress opponent are engaged in a high-voltage no-holds-barred contest.
Comfortable in the rough and tumble of politics and known for his fighting abilities, Gowda first ensured unity within his ranks by entering the fray as the common candidate of the Janata Dal (Secular), of which he is the national president, and the Janata Dal (United), led by his bete noire Ramakrishna Hegde.
Gowda made the first move by calling up Hegde just before the poll, in the first direct contact between the two after over five years, while the Congress dithered on its candidate till it decided on Shivakumar.
Though both candidates hail from the dominant Vokkaliga community, which constitutes a significant percentage of the 2.49 million electorate, Gowda faces an uphill task as Kanakapura's partiality towards Congress candidates has wavered only twice, in 1994 and 1998, so far.
In 1994, Gowda's son H D Kumaraswamy won the seat on a Janata Dal ticket while in 1998, the BJP's M Srinivas triumphed over former Union minister and six-time winner M V Chandrashekhara Murthy.
This time, the BJP has fielded K S Eshwarappa, a senior leader who hails from a backward community. A former state BJP president, Eshwarappa is likely to be squeezed between the heavyweights though the party lost the seat in the last election by a narrow margin of 34,000 votes.
The Congress has gone on the offensive against Gowda by pooh-poohing his candidature with Karnataka Chief Minister S M Krishna saying, on more than one occasion, that the main contest is between the Congress and the BJP.
Having been humbled in 1999 on his home turf, Hassan, Gowda is not biting the bait. "I have been forced to contest the election by JD (S) and JD (U) leaders," he tells the electorate adding that he is contesting the poll to fight the 'maladministration' of the Congress in Karnataka.
In his own way, Gowda is trying to cut into the Congress support base by telling people that he would not have entered the fray had the Congress given the ticket to Chandrashekhara Murthy's wife.
A bitter political foe of Gowda, Shivakumar is harping on the fact that he is not an 'outsider' like Gowda.
"The good work done by Chief Minister Krishna will not be forgotten by the electorate and they will certainly favour a youngster," he says.
A crucial factor is the mood of the voters in Uttarahalli assembly segment in Bangalore, which accounts for nearly half the total electorate of the Kanakapura
Lok Sabha constituency.
While BJP leaders say that they have the support of urban voters, the Congress is confident that Krishna's popularity in Bangalore gives them a distinct advantage.
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