It is set for a battle royale in Karnataka. Two desperate and heavyweight politicians are fighting for Lok Sabha stakes and the battle has begun in right earnest. Karnataka Janatha Paksha (KJP) leader, former BJP chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa and the current incumbent Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah are locked in a battle of attrition. As soon as the BJP high command and the party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi gives the green signal, the former is set to return to his natural habitat, which brings him in direct collision with the latter.
With Karnataka gearing up for the Lok Sabha, both political formations are looking for issues that can quickly grab public attention – in other words swell their vote banks. While the Siddaramaiah government is banking on sops and schemes announced on an urgent basis to appease the first-time voter, opposition parties, especially Yeddyurappa, is leaving no stone unturned to find faults with these schemes branding them ‘opportunistic.’
After the somewhat aborted social welfare plans announced by the state government and Siddaramiah’s less-than-fruitful attempts at cobbling up a Dalit-minority coalition, AHINDA (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits), farmer politics is taking centre stage.
The plight of sugarcane and areca nut growers is dominating the agenda these days in Karnataka. After the suicide of sugarcane farmer Vittal Arabhavi outside the Belgaum assembly, site for the state’s winter session, protests and agitational politics by opposition parties has picked up.
Siddaramaiah is caught in a bind between two sides. The sugar sector in Karnataka is on the boil and myriad reasons are being cited for the present state of affairs. Theoretical positioning apart, the state government is caught in the cross fire between owners of sugar factories and the large number of sugarcane growers spread across ten districts in the state.
Siddaramaiah does not know who to please. Owners of sugar factories and the large number of sugarcane growers spread in these districts are two powerful vote banks which the government can ignore at its own peril. While growers are threatening to intensify their protest demanding a higher price for sugarcane, sugar barons are preparing for a confrontation if the government imposes an additional financial burden on it.
This has become the first real challenge for Siddaramaiah. Opposition parties, sensing the government’s discomfort, are working hard to discomfit them further: they are demanding an increase in the minimum support price (MSP) of sugarcane to at least Rs 3,000 per tonne – as opposed to government’s announcement of Rs 2,500.
Under pressure, Siddaramaiah announced an additional incentive of Rs 150 a tonne, which would be paid from its own coffers. Even as the government is mulling a further raise, sugar factories are preparing for a legal battle. Their stand is pretty uncompromising: if pushed to the wall they will close down their sugar mills.
With the Siddaramaiah government barely getting a handle on things, the results of the battle of nerves still pending, Areca nut growers have joined the political arena.
Considered a pro-farmer government, the chief minister has to constantly shuffle between Delhi and Bangalore to resolve this new crisis. What has triggered off this fresh round of crisis is the reported move by the central government to ban areca nut. In political terms, it means at least five Lok Sabha constituencies across the Malnad-coastal region are going to be affected directly; indirectly, there could be more. Interestingly, the ruling Congress is saying the decision has been taken in the interest of nut growers themselves.
BJP is keen to raise the political pitch on the areca nut crisis in order to make inroads back into its traditional vote bank. A combined opposition of the BJP and KJP – the latter a motley collection of ex-saffronites who left with Yeddyurrapa – have closed ranks while the other opposition party JD (S) is watching the drama unfold, not sure what its next move should be.
Recently, 15 BJP MPs from Karnataka staged a 30-minute demonstration before the Gandhi statue in Parliament seeking that the Union health ministry withdraw its affidavit filed in the Supreme Court calling for a ban on areca nut, alleging that the move will severely affect growers.
‘Yeddyurappa will occupy his pre-eminent position if he rejoins BJP’
KJP campaign committee president and former union minister V Dhananjaya Kumar says Yeddyurappa is not desperate to take center stage; he is instead trying to fill the vacuum of an opposition leader. Excerpts:
What are Yeddyurappa’s future plans?
BJP Lok Sabha member from Uttara Kannada Anant Kumar Hegde said that the centre was trying to ban the product without any valid reasons. His party would raise the issue in Parliament too as the subject was very sensitive involving the lives of areca nut growers and farmers. The BJP’s intent is quite clear, they want to make an issue of this with elections in sight.
On the other hand Yeddyurappa is trying every trick in the book to be relevant, desperately attempting to placate voters as well as the BJP high command, to take notice of his activism. He began a dharna when the state government announced the Shadhi Bhagya scheme for poor Muslim girls. His demand: that the facility be extended to all sections of the poor, not just Muslims. That dharna lasted a month.
If Yeddyurappa was running out of ideas, the suicide of farmer Vittal Arabhavi outside the Belgaum assembly house came to his rescue. By ending his assembly dharna, the former chief minister used the opportunity to attack the government, backing the agitation by farmers demanding a remunerative price for sugarcane. Either way, he wants back his king maker role after the Lok Sabha elections. Though the crisis ridden state BJP is keen on taking him back, the party's central leaders have been delaying the decision for reasons best known to them.
Says state BJP chief Prahlad Joshi: “Yeddyurappa will be re-admitted to BJP in a few days. I raised the issue of his homecoming with the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi when he visited Karnataka, but a decision has yet to be taken.’’ Look at it any way, the farmer, willy-nilly, is certain to find himself at the centre of state politics at least up till the Lok Sabha elections.