Home india-news K’taka election: Barred from district, Cong candidate banks on digital campaign | Latest News India

K’taka election: Barred from district, Cong candidate banks on digital campaign | Latest News India

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K’taka election: Barred from district, Cong candidate banks on digital campaign | Latest News India

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It is the evening hours inside a small commercial space at Kittur, a historical town on the border of the Dharwad and Belagavi districts of Karnataka.

Vinay Kulkarni’s wife Shivaleela campaigning on his behalf in the constituency.
Vinay Kulkarni’s wife Shivaleela campaigning on his behalf in the constituency.

The small town, surrounded by acres of agricultural land as far as the eyes can see, was once home to Rani Chennamma, a woman ruler of the princely state of Kittoor who challenged the British East India Company, who were seeking to place the state under suzerainty. Seeking to reclaim independence from the British, Rani defeated them in the first battle of 1824. However, she succumbed as a prisoner of war after the second battle in 1829.

The Pune-Bengaluru highway, built as part of the golden quadrilateral during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, runs just outside the town, providing a link to the major towns, like Belagavi in the north and Hubballi-Dharwad and beyond in the south.

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Falling just eight kilometres on the Belagavi side of the border with Dharwad, it is here that Congress leader and candidate for Dharwad constituency, also referred to as the Dharwad rural constituency Vinay Kulkarni has set up base.

Accused in the murder case of BJP zilla panchayat leader Yogeshgouda Goudar in June 2016 and barred from entering the Dharwad district as one of the conditions when, after nine months of incarceration, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court August 2021, Kulkarni, a former minister of mines and geology in the cabinet of then chief minister Siddaramaiah as well as the minister in charge of the Dharwad constituency, is forced to improvise his campaigning.

“Every morning between 11 am and 2 pm and later in the evening between 4 pm and 8 pm, he holds video meetings and teleconferences via giant video screens set up on mobile vans that travel through various areas of the constituency,” an aide of the former minister said.

Also Read: Cong worker splashes blood and writes slogan as a response to BS Yediyurappa

During the rest of the day, the vans play pre-recorded messages as they drive through the lanes and bylanes of the constituency.

Kulkarni, 56, is no novice to electoral campaigning. A veteran of five electoral contests — two Lok Sabha and three state assembly elections — Kulkarni debuted from the Dharwad constituency in 2008, where he lost narrowly to Seema Masuti of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

His only electoral victory came in 2013 when he defeated his closest rival, Amrut Desai, then of the Janata Dal (Secular), in what was a handsome margin of more than 18,000 votes.

However, in 2018 Desai, now a BJP candidate, defeated Kulkarni by a similarly huge margin of 20,000 votes.

As a Congress candidate for the Lok Sabha polls, Kulkarni unsuccessfully ran against Pralhad Joshi of the BJP in 2014 and 2019.

Now, Kulkarni once again squares up against Amrut Desai.

Primarily a dairy farmer who owns the Vinay Dairy, one of the largest private dairies in the Dharwad district, Kulkarni has claimed assets totalling 19+ crore, including 11 crore moveable and 7 crore immovable assets.

The criminal case

Kulkarni is a known muscleman. As per his affidavit filed before the 2008 and 2013 assembly elections, Kulkarni was facing three cases, with charges related to rioting, rioting armed with a deadly weapon, and charges related to obstructing. However, by the time of his 2018 candidature, he had cleared himself of all charges

But Kulkarni’s criminal past has now come to haunt him. Yogeshgouda Goudar, a BJP-affiliated member of the zilla panchayat, was murdered in his gym in Hubballi by unidentified assailants in June 2016.

The local police initially arrested six people in the case and blamed the murder on a property dispute after a sale deal went awry. However, after a change in government in 2019, following a series of defections, the state government handed over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which arrested Kulkarni and seven others. The CBI named Kulkarni as a conspirator in “the commission of pre-planned cold-blooded murder of the deceased Yogishgouda Goudar and hatched a conspiracy with the help of his henchmen with political power and influence,” according to documents pursued by HT.

The case built by the CBI alleged that there was an altercation between Kulkarni and Goudar in April 206 at a zilla panchayat meeting, which Kulkarni as a minister in charge of the Dharwad district, chaired and of which Goudar was a member. There was a heated verbal altercation after which, according to witnesses, Kulkarni threatened that if Goudar was allowed to grow, he will one day become the leader of Dharwad. Kulkarni had been charged with conspiring to murder Goudar “to eliminate a political enemy growing in the city.”

Such was Kulkarni’s influence that, according to the CBI, he got the local police to frame the case as a property dispute and six people to be arrested in the crime while the real culprits, including him and seven others, were allowed to go scot-free.

Kulkarni was also charged with influencing witnesses — the most high-profile witness being Mallavva, the wife of the slain BJP leader who was allegedly offered 20 lakh and subsequently, the following year, joined the Congress party, while blaming the BJP for harassing her and politicising her husband’s murder. Other witnesses, too, were influenced via cash rewards and sponsored trips to Goa, the CBI has alleged.

According to his election affidavit for the upcoming assembly polls, Kulkarni is facing seven charges, including murder and destruction of evidence, and is likely to be named the prime accused in the case.

Popular leader

Despite his criminal past, Kulkarni remains a popular leader. “People remember the work he has done in the past five years, and at the same time, the present MLA (Amrut Desai of the BJP) is facing anti-incumbency, which could tilt the scales in favour,” a teacher at a school in rural Dharwad said, not wishing to be quoted.

“As a minister in charge of the district, Kulkarni was able to do a lot of good work that he is now highlighting, and overall, across his five-year term, there was an improvement. The constituency is also one that alternates between the BJP and Congress every election as anti-incumbency plays a large role,” the teacher added.

Though not physically present, his wife and BJP-turned-Congress leader Jagdish Shettar led an impressive rally of supporters who wielded life-size cut-outs of Kulkarni to file his nomination on his behalf.

Kulkarni couldn’t be physically present within the district thanks to the courts — first the special court for MLAs and MPs who dismissed his plea seeking permission to enter the district for 50 days and later the high court that dismissed a similar plea pointing to the Supreme Court’s refusal to modify this bail condition while disposing of an earlier plea.

According to Karnataka High Court judge K Natarajan’s order, the Congress party allocated a ticket to a candidate for the MLA election in the Dharwad constituency despite being aware that the Supreme Court had barred him from entering the district. The judge stated that allotting the ticket to the candidate without obtaining a modification of the condition and attempting to nullify the condition imposed by the Supreme Court in the bail order amounts to indirectly allowing the candidate to enter the district. The judge dismissed Kulkarni’s plea seeking permission to enter the district.

The campaign

In Kulkarni’s absence his wife, Shivaleela, and son, with Congress workers, have been travelling door to door campaigning across the constituency, dialling video calls with his voters and handing out fliers with his appeal. The video vans have fanned out across the constituency playing pre-recorded messages for the voters and helping him host virtual meetings with his constituents.

According to analysts, Kulkarni was earlier primed by the Congress to take on Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai in the Shiggaon constituency, which falls just outside the Dharwad district and within the Dharwad Lok Sabha constituency. However, he withdrew from the contest, fearing a loss and instead chose the Dharwad constituency he is more familiar with in the hope that the courts would relax the bail condition.

A member of the influential Lingayat community, Kulkarni also enjoys support among members of his community as well as among rural voters.

“Without the murder case and the ban on entry, Kulkarni had a strong chance of winning the seat. Now there is some doubt in the minds of voters whether, if he is convicted, he will lose his seat, prompting a by-election. The BJP is sure to do everything they can to see he is convicted,” Srinidhi R, a local journalist, said.

The BJP believes the murder case and the ban on entry will help the party’s cause.

“Kulkarni is facing a murder case and has spent time in jail. Our main agenda is development, and we have a lot of development to show for it. The people here are generally fans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and whatever anti-incumbency is there will be patched up by the Prime Minister,” Lingraj Patil, the BJP district in charge, said.

Kulkarni himself has expressed confidence in winning the voter’s sympathy. “I have had to devise a new strategy and campaign. But we have succeeded so far. The voters and party workers have shown a lot of support,” Kulkarni told HT in a brief conversation.

Will the video vans, the virtual meetings, the life-sized cut-outs and his family’s legwork help him sail through?

“We are also keenly watching the election to understand the voter’s mindset,” the journalist said.


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