JD-S entry makes Congress jittery in Karnataka by-poll

By Fakir Balaji


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Bangalore : The Ullal assembly by-poll in coastal Karnataka Saturday has turned into a battle of nerves for the opposition Congress as it is pitched against both the ruling parties – Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – while trying to retain the seat.

The triangular contest, necessitated by the death of its legislator U.T. Fareed in February, has made the Congress jittery, as the JD-S is set to play spoilsport by fielding Aboobacker Natekal against its nominee U.T. Khader – Fareed's son – for Muslim votes that account for about 40 percent of the total electorate (155,200).

In what would have been a straight fight between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claims to have a strong presence in the Dakshina Kannada district, the presence of the JD-S has queered the pitch for both the national parties, as is evident from the way the campaign was conducted sans issues till Thursday.

Though the BJP had agreed to a JD-S request not to contest the prestigious Chamundeshwari by-poll, the former's candidate Chandrashekar Uchil, who had lost to Fareed in the 2004 assembly elections by 7,000 votes, is hoping the split in minority votes will help him wrest the seat from the Congress.

The JD-S, which lost the Chamundeshwari seat narrowly to its former rebel Siddaramaiah, who revolted against its supremo H.D. Deve Gowda and joined the Congress, has convinced the BJP that Natekal will neutralise Khader's chances by targeting the same voters.

"We are in the fray as a serious contender to wrest the seat from the Congress, which is our main rival. If the Congress thinks our presence will benefit the BJP, it is not our concern. We are not in a friendly contest but fighting the other two on our own strength and ideology," a senior JD-S leader told IANS on phone from Ullal.

The Congress, however, is hoping to retain the seat by banking on sympathy and its secular credentials.

As Fareed was inactive due to prolonged illness, Khader had been the de facto legislator and is familiar to the local people, especially the Beary and Salafi communities that constitute the minority vote bank.

"The JD-S hardly has a presence in this region. Moreover, by forming an unholy alliance with the communal BJP for the sake of power, it has forfeited its secular credentials. It is mistaken if it thinks it can take away our popular votes by fielding a minority candidate (Natekal) who is a political novice," Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Mallikarjun Kharge said during the campaign.

Though Muslims constitute the largest vote bank, the BJP is counting on the non-minority votes, especially the 35,000-strong Billava fishing community to which its candidate Uchil belongs.

Interestingly, to quell the Congress prospects and woo minority voters, JD-S minister Iqbal Ansari dropped a "bomb shell" in a campaign speech by hinting that Chief Minister H.D. Kumarswamy might continue in office for the rest of the term instead of handing over the reins to the BJP as agreed upon when the coalition partners came to power in February 2006.

But Congress MP Janardhan Poojary said: "It is an election ploy to hoodwink voters. Such a campaign goes to prove the JD-S is an untrustworthy partner and will do anything to remain in power. It not only betrayed us, but is hinting at doing the same to the BJP on whose support it dislodged us."

Refuting the Congress charge, Ansari said his observation that Kumaraswamy would continue in power was based on the "tacit support" assured by a section of BJP legislators to the JD-S.