THE FORMER prime minister and 90-year-old Janata Dal (Secular) leader H D Deve Gowda has difficulty walking. He needs to be supported by his security staff in getting on and off the stage, using ramps laid for his benefit. When he gets the microphone though, Deve Gowda is lucid and clear.
With his son, former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy, 63, laid up in hospital due to exhaustion after extensive campaigning for the May 10 Karnataka Assembly polls over the past four months, Deve Gowda has taken the lead in campaigning for the JD(S) for now.
On Monday, his first day on the campaign trail, Deve Gowda took a helicopter from Bengaluru to Sira taluk of Tumkur – a district where the JD(S) won nine out of the 11 Assembly seats in 1994. The party sees a chance to rekindle JD(S) support in the region.
The first halt is the Pattanayakanahalli Mutt, headed by the seer Nanjavadhoota Swami, with a following among the Vokkaligas that can influence 11 constituencies in the region. The Vokkaliga population in these seats ranges from 10 to 40%. Deve Gowda remains the tallest Vokkaliga leader in the state, with the Congress’s D K Shivakumar hoping to wrest the mantle.
The statement by some BJP leaders that a member of the dominant Lingayat community will always be the party’s first choice to be CM, might further consolidate the Vokkaliga vote behind it, the JD(S) hopes. The BJP has since tried to distance itself from the statement.
Deve Gowda remains the tallest Vokkaliga leader in the state, with the Congress’s D K Shivakumar hoping to wrest the mantle.
After prayers at the Pattanayakanhalli Mutt, Deve Gowda heads for JD(S) rallies, in Sira, Madhugiri and Koratagere, traversing 51 km during the day.
Over and over again, he talks about his advancing age and the “achievements” of the JD(S). He also talks about the “humiliation” of his 2019 Lok Sabha defeat from Tumkur seat, blaming it on the failure of then allies JD(S) and Congress to work together.
“I have taken up this work at 90 years of age. The elections are on May 10… I will work till the evening of May 8,” Deve Gowda says in Koratagere, adding that his “relentless” toil is not simply to see his son Kumaraswamy as the CM. “He has already been the CM twice. However, if there is any CM who completes challenges when he takes them up, it is Kumaraswamy alone.”
He goes on to talk about Kumaraswamy ensuring that his promise to waive farm loans was kept, after the JD(S)-Congress formed a short-lived coalition government following the 2018 elections. “There was no money, the Congress was giving freebies like rice bhagya, milk bhagya… They wanted money for these programmes and to later allow a farm loan waiver. But he (Kumaraswamy) implemented it in the end,” Deve Gowda says.
Addressing the women in the crowd, he adds: “Who gave you reservations in taluk, zilla and gram panchayats?… Who gave Muslims 4% reservation? Please speak the truth. We have lived in a truthful way, and will die the same way,” he says.
The BJP government in Karnataka recently scrapped the Muslim quota, sharing it with other groups, while moving Muslims to EWS category. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court stayed that order till May 9.
The JD(S) candidate for Koratagere is former MLA Sudhakar Lal, whom Deve Gowda praises as “a genuine person from an ordinary family”. The seat was won by the Congress’s G Parameshwara, a former deputy CM, last time.
“He (Sudhakar Lal) is not the son of a rich father. You have nurtured him and now you must support him,” Deve Gowda says, linking the result to his own 2019 defeat. “By helping your friend Sudhakar win, you must redeem yourself and help me forget the pain of the loss.”
JD(S) state president C M Ibrahim, who also speaks at the meeting, raises issues such as the withdrawal of Muslim reservation, crackdown on cow slaughter, and efforts to curb the sale of halal meat – from which Deve Gowda himself refrains.
Addressing the crowd in Urdu, Ibrahim says: “Has Parameshwara ever spoken about Muslim reservations? Why did the Congress ask its leaders not to speak on the ban on hijab in (pre-university) colleges? Why should an outsider decide what our children should wear or eat?”
He adds that unlike Sudhakar, who is always accessible, “Parameshwara speeds between Bengaluru and Koratagere in his car. He does not have time to stop and speak to ordinary people.”
Apart from Sudhakar Lal and Parameshwara, there is a third serious contender in the contest: BJP candidate B H Anil Kumar, a former IAS officer.
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Laxminarayan, a councillor from Koratagere, believes this only helps the JD(S). The presence of Anil Kumar could lead to a split of Scheduled Caste (25% of total votes in the seat) and Lingayat (30%) votes between the BJP and Congress, he says.
By 5 pm, Deve Gowda takes off in his helicopter from Koratagere for Bengaluru, a distance of 85 km.
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Next day, the 90-year-old will be back in the air, heli-hopping to two constituencies in the Mysuru region.