On Saturday afternoon, 40-year-old Sasikala woke up with a shooting pain in her stomach . A few months ago, she had undergone a surgery to have her swollen appendix removed. Since then, she has been plagued by bouts of severe stomach ache.

But help was not easy to get. The primary health centre in her village, Siddaramanahundi, in Karnataka’s Mysuru district was locked from the inside.

“I have been standing here for an hour,” she complained, struggling to complete her sentences. “There are neither nurses nor doctors.”

Villagers said the doctor at the centre rarely showed up – even though Siddaramanahundi is the native village of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. It is also part of the Varuna Assembly constituency, which he won in 2008 and 2013.

In the upcoming Assembly election on May 12, the Congress has nominated Siddaramaiah’s son S Yathindra from Varuna, while the chief minister is contesting from neighbouring Chamundeshwari constituency.

Congress activists have projected the shift as a father’s sacrifice to improve his son’s prospects. But on the ground, conversations with voters suggest this could have been an attempt to avoid the sting of anti-incumbency. “How will we vote if he cannot guarantee proper hospitals?” asked Sasikala’s husband Mahesh.

Not that the situation in Chamundeshwari is very different. A widely popular narrative is that Siddaramaiah is nervous about the poll outcome here and has, hence, also chosen to run from a second constituency, Badami in North Karnataka. A government official close to Siddaramaiah said that Congress internal surveys showed a photo finish in Chamundeshwari.

But in Badami, too, the Congress is not expecting a huge victory.

The primary health centre in Siddaramanahundi. Villagers here claim the centre hardly functions. (Credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan)

Return to base

Home to the famous Chamundeshwari temple on the Chamunda hills, about 15 km from Mysuru, the constituency is seen as Siddaramaiah’s bastion. He has contested here seven times and won the seat five times. Three of those victories, however, came as a candidate of the Janata Dal (Secular). The party is led by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, who belongs to the Vokkaliga community, the dominant caste in Chamundeshwari. After falling out with Gowda and quitting his party, Siddaramaiah contested the bye-poll from the same seat in 2006. He scraped through with a narrow margin of 257 votes.

In 2008, he moved to Varuna, which was considered safer after delimitation. Since 2013, Siddaramaiah’s former party colleague and friend, GT Devegowda of the Janata Dal (Secular), has represented Chamundeshwari. In fact, this association has fuelled a conspiracy theory: Devegowda, it is claimed, will deliberately lose the seat. In the meantime, given that Siddaramaiah is contesting two seats, he will relinquish Chamundeshwari after he wins in Varuna, induct Devegowda into the Congress and give him the seat in the bye-election. Gowda has dismissed this story as a Congress conspiracy.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has fielded Gopal Rao, a Brahmin. This has led to the Congress alleging a secret pact between the BJP and Janata Dal (Secular). The BJP has denied this and pointed out that Rao is a prominent member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from Mysuru.

Conspiracy theories aside, the caste matrix of Chamundeshwari presents a challenge to Siddaramaiah’s politics of AHINDA – the Kannada acronym for Alpasankhyataru or minorities, Hindulidavaru or backward classes, and Dalitaru or Dalits. Although the state’s dominant castes, the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, are officially counted among the backward classes, as far as electoral politics is concerned, the Congress’ AHINDA strategy pits other communities against these two groups. This is because most Lingayats are considered to be supporters of the BJP, and most Vokkaligas of the Janata Dal (Secular).

In Chamundeshwari, the Vokkaligas are the dominant caste. Local estimates put their numbers between 70,000 and 80,000. Lingayats have a smaller presence – around 30,000 voters. Siddaramaiah’s community, the Kurubas, along with Muslims and Dalits, account for over a lakh of votes. The Congress hopes that their votes will be enough to propel the chief minister to victory.

But while the Kurubas appear to be solidly behind the chief minister, the support of Dalits seems less certain.

A tough field

The tea shops and saloons in Chamundeshwari are abuzz with discussions on the elections. What you hear primarily depends on the social composition of the immediate area. This also brings out the stark division in the candidate preferences of various communities.

The most vocal and angry at the moment are the Lingayats. In March, Siddaramaiah accepted the demand of a section of the community and recommended to the Centre that followers of Basavanna, the faith’s founder, be recognised as a religious community distinct from Hinduism.

This has created a deep crisis of identity for many Lingayats. “Should I throw the pictures of Hindu gods in my prayer room because Siddaramaiah wants a political victory?” Mahadevaswamy of Telur village retorted when asked about the Congress government’s move.

A disabled man running a small shop in the village, Mahadevaswamy said the idea of dividing the Lingayat community was a long-time dream of the Kurubas and Vokkaligas in the area, who want to become the major caste by dethroning the Lingayats. “There is nothing more to this move,” he said.

But even those Lingayats who are angry with Siddaramaiah concede that he has managed to win the support of a small section of their community. In past elections, they said no Lingayat would even think of voting for him.

“This is all because of selfish motives of some pontiffs,” claimed Shankara of the same village. “They want benefits from the government. So they have sold the community to the Congress,” he said. His wife Mythili concurred: “We are Hindus. Who is Siddaramaiah to say we are not?”

The Dalits are also not totally convinced about rallying behind Siddaramaiah. In the constituency’s Dalit localities, there is a feeling of neglect by the Congress, which they say is taking their votes for granted. They are not willing to back the BJP either.

Dalit villagers in Badami say that despite the promise of daily drinking water supply from the Kabini dam, pipes have run dry. (Credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan)

The Congress has maintained that it is a friend of the community, pointing to its staunch support of reservations in promotions in government positions and efforts to ensure proper use of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe sub-plan funds

Standing near the water tank outside their colony, a group of Dalit youngsters in Udubur said unemployment was a serious problem that the state government has neglected.

“There are 30 graduates in this area. None of us have jobs,” they said. “We will vote for the party which shows solid proof of employment opportunities for us.”

Caste is another dividing factor. The youngsters say the Kurubas and Vokkaligas have joined hands to deny them entry to the local Narayanaswamy temple. They had even lodged a complaint with the police and the district administration. “No politician dares to come to our rescue when we are treated like animals,” an angry young man said before walking away, accusing the media of giving attention to Dalits only during elections.

The Dalit women of the village said they were more concerned about everyday problems that the men do not bother about.

“We get water only twice a week,” said Shankari. “They laid pipes and said water will come directly from the Kabini dam. Only air comes from the pipes.”

In the run-up to the elections, the village road was dug up to lay a new concrete road. But work was stopped midway. “Who are they trying to fool by doing these things just before elections?” Shankari added.

Then there are allegations of corruption under the state government’s Dr BR Ambedkar Awas Yojana to build housing for the economically marginalised, with villagers claiming they are forced to pay commissions to get bills sanctioned. Siddaramaiah has often said that his government has spent over Rs 60,000 crore on Dalit empowerment in the last five years.

Many Dalits in the area are supporters of V Srinivasa Prasad, a stalwart of the community in Mysuru who left the Congress in 2016 and moved to the BJP. He contested the bye-election to the Nanjangud Assembly seat in Mysuru last year and lost. Dalits here feel he was victimised because of his community and that the Congress ran an anti-Dalit campaign. “Now they want our vote,” said Vijaya of Sindhuvalli.

Local Congress activists believe Siddaramaiah’s decision to contest a second seat was primarily because of the uncertainty in winning the support of Dalits in the region. “If part of the community votes against Congress, it would be a very tough battle,” said Lingappa, a Congress activist who is campaigning door-to-door in the Talluru area.

Villagers in Badami constituency. Unemployment is the biggest problem here. (Credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan)

Fight of outsiders

In Badami, Siddaramaiah’s second battlefield, residents are happy about the prospect of the constituency turning into a chief minister’s seat.

The constituency has a mix of Kurubas, Lingayats, Dalits, Valmikis and Muslims. According to Congress officials, Kurubas are the dominant community in Badami, followed by Lingayats and Dalits.

The BJP has fielded B Sriramulu, the current Lok Sabha MP from Bellary and an aide of former minister and mining baron Janardhana Reddy. With Sriramulu being a member of a Scheduled Tribe, the BJP is hoping to take advantage of a consolidation between the community and the Lingayats.

For the electorate in Badami, their biggest problem is unemployment. The constituency, located in backward Bagalkot district, has hardly any industry. Agriculture is the only viable livelihood. But life is a struggle in the off-season.

Voters here say there has not been much of a difference between BJP governments and Congress governments. Across several villages, residents accused both the BJP and the Congress of failing to properly implement the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which guarantees 100 days of wage work a year to each household. The villagers said most people here hardly got 10 days of work a year under the scheme.

In the Dalit hamlet of Sulla, a painting of Ambedkar welcomes visitors. Sitting under a tree with a group of villagers, Ningabasappa said people have begun to see the rural job scheme as nothing but a fraud. Villagers have been given job cards, but not jobs. Ningabasappa said panchayat members take away part of the wage by getting signatures on withdrawal slips. “They gave us Rs 1,000 as cash for 10 days work and left,” he alleged.

Under the scheme, workers are supposed to be paid Rs 236 per day, credited to their bank accounts.

Holding up his job card, Ningabasappa wondered if the problem was specific to Dalits or if all communities in the area face the same problem of unemployment.

In the Dalit village of Sulla in Badami, residents claim they have been given job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme but not jobs. (Credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan)

But despite the anger against a Central government scheme, the villagers have good things to say about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They say that demonetisation proved his credentials as a clean man.

This was echoed by Imam Sab in Heballi. The shop owner said he voted for Modi in the 2014 general elections and was quite happy with his performance – though he was disappointed that the prime minister had not deposited the promised Rs 15 lakh in the bank accounts of citizens. He said demonetisation hurt people who had too much money. But he is not quite willing to vote for the BJP in the May 12 elections in the state as he hopes that having a chief minister as their legislator will help solve many of their problems

“Let the campaign begin, I will decide later,” he said.

In Cholachagudda, a group of Lingayat elders sat near the village temple, talking about the upcoming farming season. “It is April 24 and there is not a drop of water for the fields anywhere,” said Ramalingappa.

The 72-year-old said that having divided the community on religious lines, Siddaramaiah will have to prove his credentials by offering something substantial to the constituency.

MV Kulkarni, an ex-serviceman, said it was devastating for voters here to have to choose between two “rank outsiders” in Siddaramaiah and Sriramulu. “If Siddaramaiah becomes an MLA, are we supposed to go to Bengaluru every time to get our problems sorted?” he asked.

Many in the region said it was Janata Dal (Secular) candidate Hanumantha Mavinmarad, a Lingayat, who had been meeting them consistently during his campaign.

The only vote bloc the Congress appears confident about is the Muslim community. Saddam Hussain, a teacher in Kittali village, said there was no point in voting for the BJP, accusing the party of running a communal campaign. “The BJP itself is saying Siddaramaiah is a Muslim sympathiser. So why should we vote anyone else?” he reasoned.