No poll pomp and show: On the ground in Karnataka's Mangaluru

Aditi Phadnis
Walking around in Mangaluru, you would not know a cut-throat election campaign is on in the state. There are no cutouts, walls are not painted with graffiti or plastered with posters and there are absolutely no speeding vehicles blaring cacophonous music and messages on loudspeakers.

The politics is in the subtext. At the BournBon Bakery (among other things, they serve a Bournvita mousse) youngsters looked at each other when asked about politics, shrugged, and a wit among them commented: ‘ask around. You won’t get Chateaubriand in these parts’. In a city of gourmets and gourmands, the reference was clear. The divide between Hindus and non-Hindus runs deep.

One of the most cosmopolitan cities in Karnataka, Mangaluru also has as many as 40,000 RSS shakhas, and a wide network of like-minded affiliates, including the VHP, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Vedike and the Shri Rama Sene. At the heart of their campaigns are themes of ‘love jihad’, cow slaughter and “protection of Hindu culture”. The “danger” of Hindu girls “falling prey to boys of other communities” is the dominant worry, says a store owner.

In large swathes of the city, Christians (mostly Catholic) and Muslims have a significant presence. In terms of voting preferences, the result has been that the victory of the Congress in 2013 (for the first time since 1989)  was a record of sorts. This area has been a BJP bastion since 1994. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, however, BJP was able to cool the assembly election fever and Mangaluru was won by the party defeating the Congress.

Kishore Rai, the BJP’s Dakshina Kannada general secretary says: “In 2013, there was an anti-government wave which was why we lost 7 out of 8 seats in the district. But this time, we are looking to win all 8 seats. Sangh Parivar is very strong here. Since last year, vistaraks have been sent to every booth. The 19-point programme of Amit Shah by involving booth pramukhs and panna pramukhs is being followed. We have been preparing for this election for the last one year.”

Coastal Karnataka contributes just 19 seats to the Karnataka Assembly out of 224. Yet, the region has contributed two chief ministers – Veerappa Moily and Sadananda Gowda. The contest in this region is not between BJP chief minister designate BS Yeddyurappa and Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah — it is between Narendra Modi and Siddaramaiah.

“This area has always been ahead of the curve: it benefited from education through Christian missionaries. It took the ball and ran. The people have always been entrepreneurial and there is an element of competition:  ‘if he can do it why can’t I’. Business comes to people easily — otherwise why would a small region in the state — Mangaluru and Udupi —  have given India five banks (Syndicate Bank (1925), Bank of Karnataka (1924), Canara Bank (1906), Vijaya Bank (1931) and  Corporation Bank (1906)?’ says Dr MS Moodithaya, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Nitte University.  KV Kamath is among the most famous and celebrated local boys.

Moodithaya says the contest in this area is not a contest of parties — it is a contest of leadership. He says somewhat cryptically that the region is poised for change. Locals say Siddaramaiah is populist. He listens to the voice of the poor and gives them what they are asking for – and such leaders are needed too. But Modi is aspirational. And there is much hanging on Modi’s visit to Coastal Karnataka on 5 May.

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