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Checkmate Nikhil: Sumalatha upsets Kumaraswamy’s game in Mandya

Ramakrishna Upadhya | Updated on: 3 April 2019, 11:50 IST
Nikhil Kumaraswamy

Just a fortnight ago, when Sumalatha Ambareesh, an actress of yesteryears, announced her decision to contest as an independent candidate against Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy’s son in the Mandya Lok Sabha constituency, it appeared like a David Vs Goliath fight with little chance of success for her.

After all, Kumaraswamy, who is heading the 10-month old Janata Dal (Secular)- Congress government in Karnataka, had made meticulous preparations for his son Nikhil Kumaraswamy’s (29) political debut, choosing the safest possible constituency in the state.

Mandya, being the heartland of Vokkaliga politics, had elected JD(S) MLAs from all seven Assembly segments in the May 2018 elections. As BJP has negligible presence in the district and the Congress party would not put up a candidate thanks to seat-sharing arrangement between the two alliance partners, Mandya was supposed to be a walkover for Nikhil.

When Sumalatha’s husband, MH Ambareesh, a hugely popular Kannada actor and also a 3-term Member of Parliament from Mandya, died in November last year, Kumaraswamy went out of the way to ensure a fitting farewell to Ambareesh to please his fans, which some critics saw as an attempt to earn their goodwill ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

With an eye on giving Nikhil, a fledgling actor, an image boost, Kumaraswamy invested around Rs 40 crore on quickly making and releasing his second film, ‘Sreenivasa Kalyana,’ which had free screening for the people of Mandya.

Kumaraswamy perhaps calculated that Nikhil could fill the vacuum left behind by Ambareesh perfectly. But, he had failed to read Sumalatha’s secret ambition.

Once the elections were announced and it became clear that Nikhil would be the common candidate of Congress-JD(S) alliance, the local Congress leaders and workers started putting pressure on Sumalatha to stand for election as a Congress candidate. They were upset that in the guise of ‘coalition dharma’ the Congress was losing base in the district.

After being rebuffed by state Congress leaders when she approached them for support, Sumalatha decided to contest as an independent. The BJP – already miffed at losing power to the JD(S)-Congress combine – decided not to put up any candidate and declared its support to her.

Adding heft to her campaign, the Kannada film fraternity, including popular actors Darshan and Yash, are actively canvassing for her. Actor Rajanikanth, who has co-starred with Sumalatha in a few Tamil films, is expected to join later.

In the last few days as Sumalatha’s appeal among the electorate has gained considerable momentum and the Congress workers and local leaders have joined her in droves, the JD(S) seems to be pressing panic button, indulging in vilification campaign against her and also misusing the official machinery to put hurdles in her way.

Sumalatha’s agent Madan Kumar has accused District Commissioner Manjushri of going out of the way to correct the flaws in Nikhil’s nomination papers and clearing them without any reference to the Election Commission. Madan has also pointed out that while allotting the number one slot to Nikhil in ballot order, the DC has given Sumalatha’s the 20th place, pushing her name to the second EVM.

He says that in another diabolical move, the DC has clubbed three more “Sumalathas” – deliberately put up by the JD(S) – along with Sumalatha Ambareesh in order to confuse the voters.

What people have found shocking is that Kumaraswamy and other JD(S) leaders are busy day-in, day-out making insensitive remarks against Sumalatha to lower her self-esteem.

But the dignity and poise with which she has handled those insults and the deft manner in which she is riding on Ambareesh’s lingering popularity in the region, seem to be turning into a wave of sympathy in her favour. If the enthusiastic crowds joining her campaign each day are any indication, she is going to give a serious run for the Gowda scion’s money, influence and power.

Speaking to this correspondent on campaign trail, Sumalatha said, “I was very depressed after Ambareesh’s death. I had no plans (of contesting election). But, when I went round Mandya, people showered much love and asked me to stand for election. I felt they were looking to fill the void Ambareesh had left behind through me….By contesting from Mandya, I have taken on a mammoth opposition. It (winning the seat) will be very difficult, but not impossible.”

On her future plans with the BJP, she said, “The BJP did not approach me directly, but sent feelers through some common friends. When I consulted the people, the overwhelming feeling was that I should contest as an independent. I want to do something good for the people of Mandya and fulfill the dreams Ambareesh had for them. I will take a decision (on joining the BJP), when the time comes, after consulting the people.”

Apart from Sumalatha’s challenge, the JD(S) seems to have completely miscalculated the people’s mood as far as the support for the Gowda family is concerned. Deve Gowda is still the tallest Vokkaliga leader in the state, but the fact that three members of the family – including Deve Gowda himself – have all entered the fray at the same time seem to have triggered a massive backlash which they perhaps did not anticipate.

A cross section of people this correspondent spoke to in Mandya – including JD(S) party workers – felt that the Gowda family was trying to “grab” everything for itself.

Ramegowda, an agriculturist, said, “This (family politics) is too much. Mandya is not Hassan. Why do they have to impose Nikhil on us, as if there is no one else in Mandya good enough to be a candidate? Shivarame Gowda had only five months as MP; why wasn’t he put up again?”

The fact that the Kumaraswamy government’s much-touted loan waiver scheme has largely failed to reach the people, has also led to much anger and resentment among the farming community.

But, it has become a matter of prestige for Kumaraswamy to get Nikhil elected and he can be expected to use all the resources at his command to ensure that his son’s electoral debut does not end in a fiasco.

As for Sumalatha, achieving victory is going to be a stupendous task: No independent candidate has been elected to the Lok Sabha from Karnataka in the last 52 years and she has to re-write history to do so.

First published: 3 April 2019, 11:50 IST
Ramakrishna Upadhya @rkupadhya9

Ramakrishna Upadhya is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, currently working with TV9. Earlier, he was with Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and The Indian Express.