Karnataka bypolls: Vokkaliga factor may be play in Yeshwanthapura

Johnson TA
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During one campaign, Kumaraswamy said that Somashekhar never showed him respect while he was CM.

The Assembly bypoll in Yeshwanthapura seat of west Bengaluru is expected to be a test of whether the Vokkaliga community --- which accounts for a large population in the region, and almost 25 per cent of the voters --- will punish the BJP for overthrowing a government headed by Vokkaliga leader H D Kumaraswamy.

The Yeshwanthapura by-election was necessitated by the defection of the two-term Congress MLA of the region and a close associate of former chief minister Siddaramaiah to the BJP, along with 16 other Congress and JDS MLAs, leading to the downfall of the JDS-Congress coalition in July and installation of a BJP government headed by B S Yediyurappa, a leader of the Lingayat community --- arch rivals of the Vokkaligas.

One of the signs of the BJP being wary of a Vokkaliga backlash in Yeshwanthapura is the frequent attempt during campaign rallies to highlight its candidate S T Somashekhar's Vokkaliga credentials.

On Saturday, when Yediyurappa campaigned for Somashekhar in the region, the BJP candidate was constantly referred to as 'S T Somashekhar Gowda' on the BJP's public address system. The Gowda name implies the candidate's Vokkaliga credentials.

Meanwhile, the JDS leaders and de facto leaders of the Vokkaliga community --- former prime minister H D Devegowda and H D Kumaraswamy --- are making it a point to campaign in every ward of the constituency.

During one campaign, Kumaraswamy said that Somashekhar never showed him respect while he was CM. "Today he says he quit because he was not given funds for development of Yeshwanthapura. If that was the case, then what did he and Siddaramaiah do when Siddaramaiah was CM for five years and he was an MLA?'' Kumaraswamy said.

The JDS candidate in the bypoll is T N Javarayi Gowda, a veteran local leader of the party, who lost the 2018 Assembly poll to Somashekhar --- who was with the Congress at the time --- by just about 1,000 votes. He is also playing on the sympathy factor on account of back-to-back losses to Somashekhar in the 2013 and 2018 polls.

"There is a sense that the Vokkaliga community is keen to avenge the political loss of having a government headed by a Vokkaliga leader overthrown. This factor is likely to be in play in the bypolls in a few seats in south Karnataka, where the Vokkaligas are in large numbers and could hurt the BJP in two or three constituencies," a government political observer said. One of the constituencies where the Vokkaliga factor will be in play is Yeshwanthapura.

"The Congress has fielded a dummy candidate. It is a straight fight between the BJP and the JDS. If the Congress workers back Somashekhar, then the BJP will win," Rajanna, a BJP campaign worker for Somashekhar, said.

The BJP, which won the seat in 2008 when it fielded Shobha Karandlaje --- a close aide of Yediyurappa --- has now deployed Karandlaje, who is also a Vokkaliga, to rally support for Somashekhar.

To win, the BJP is banking on a Rs 760-crore development fund grant for the region provided by Yediyurappa after Somashekhar defected to the BJP. "Please look after your own interests --- the Congress candidate is invisible and the JDS candidate will rarely be visible. Since the state and central governments are with the BJP, all our constituencies will see development if the BJP is supported,'' the disqualified Congress MLA Somashekhar said while campaigning alongside Yediyurappa.

"The JDS promised to share power with us but ditched us. We cannot afford to have elections every few months. I will not betray voters like the Congress and JDS but will ensure development," Yediyurappa said while campaigning.

The BJP needs to win at least eight of the 15 seats where bypolls will be held on December 5 to get a majority in the 224-member Karnataka Assembly, where the party has 105 seats and the Congress has 66 and the JDS 34. There are two other MLAs and two vacancies.