A hoarding on way to Budihal village in Chikkodi, Belgaum district, announces the martyrdom of its resident Prakash Pundhalik Jadhav. The 29-year-old soldier died in a shootout with militants in Pulwama sector of Jammu and Kashmir in November last year. "He was just six months short of finishing his stint in J&K," said his father Pundalik Tukaram Jadhav, his eight-month-old granddaughter in his lap. "The last time he came home was after her birth."
In this region of north Karnataka, it is common to find homes that have sons in the Army or paramilitary forces. "He went because he needed work. Kheti baari kam ho gaya hai yaha," said Jadhav, in a matter-of-fact manner.
With Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy accusing the BJP of misappropriating soldiers, many of whom he said "were from poor families", and Prime Minister Narendra Modi tearing into him for "insulting" soldiers, the sacrifice of defence personnel has taken centrestage in Karnataka politics.
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But for Jadhav, his son is best kept out of this dispute. "Political parties should not ask for votes in the name of soldiers. We can't say one party is better for the Army than the other. Bolne se kya hota hai? They are doing so for political gains. We have not gained anything from it. The Centre has not done anything for us," he said.
Nearly 100 km away, in Devallapur village in Bailhongal, CRPF personnel Akbar Ali is home on leave from Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, where he recently helped conduct polling. "While we were escorting people, the Naxals exploded an IED. Four of us were injured. It is common there, every day someone dies. But it is only when something happens in Kashmir that it becomes an issue," he said. Ali said everyone in the paramilitary forces is against their work being made into an election issue. "We all know they are doing it to pide us and win votes," he said.
Spanning 18 Assembly constituencies, Belgaum district is split into two Lok Sabha seats, Chikkodi and Belgaum, with eight seats apiece; two Assembly seats come under the Uttara Kannada constituency, where BJP's Ananth Kumar Hegde is fighting for a sixth term. The Lingayats, a dominant caste in the area, are believed to be predominantly BJP voters.
Whether nationalism plays out to the BJP's advantage in this region would perhaps be determined by local factors.
In Chikkodi, Congress candidate and incumbent MP Prakash Hukkeri stood his ground even during the Modi wave of 2014 and remains popular across communities.
"This time, the Modi factor is down by 50 per cent at least," said S Patil, a BJP worker.
The BJP's decision to field Annasaheb Jolle, husband of Nippani MLA Shashikala Jolle, has led to a mutiny by influential Lingayat leaders, Umesh and Ramesh Katti. Though Ramesh, who lost to Hukkeri in 2014, turned up at the recent rally by the Prime Minister, BJP workers on the ground admit their campaign is as good as non-existent. "Two of our MLAs (out of four) have told us to go slow. Jolle saab has support from the RSS but he is a businessman. He doesn't know how to mingle with people. Even when he goes to villages, his car window is always up," said Patil. "People will not vote against an accessible leader like Hukkeri because of Balakot. That is not an issue here," he added.
In Gudihal village, even the committed BJP voter appeared listless. "Where are the acche din?" asked Vilas Lohar, a government servant from the OBC Maratha community. "Unemployment and farm distress remain the issues here. But we will vote for BJP because Shashikala Jolle, our MLA, is a good woman," he said.
In Belgaum city and adjoining villages under Belgaum Lok Sabha seat, incumbent BJP MP Suresh Angadi appears to have stolen a lead over his Congress rival V S Sadhunavar, whose campaign has hardly been visible on the ground. "There is a sizeable number of Marathas in Belgaum city, who believe in Hindutva and chant the Modi slogan. It is also true that young men still believe in him. But in rural areas, farmers, even the Lingayats, are unhappy with Modi. The problem is there is no viable opposition," said Babagouda Patil, former Belgaum MP and former minister in the A B Vajpayee government.
At a tea shop in Sampagaon, villagers from the three crisscrossing constituencies sit and discuss their choices. Ashok Juttanavar, a Lingayat in his 60s from the Uttara Kannada constituency, was once a Congress worker, but now says he will vote for the BJP. "It is true that Hegde is a harsh speaker. But the alliance candidate is from the JDS, which has no presence here. While the Modi government has done nothing for farmers, one can say it has at least made the country more secure," he said.