Karnataka polls: BJP's failure to nominate any Hindu fishermen could hurt poll chances in Uttara Kannada's Karwar

Karwar: The fishing community in coastal Uttara Kannada district is angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Community leaders in Karwar, who have been the party’s mainstay for more than three decades, have joined the Congress after the BJP denied them an opportunity to contest the upcoming Assembly elections. Their desertion could damage the party’s prospects in three constituencies.

"We have been in the forefront to establish the BJP in coastal Uttara Kannada since Jan Sangh days," says Umakant Harikantra, a former member of the Karwar taluk panchayat and president of the Seabird Project Land Loser’s Cooperative Society, a collective of people displaced by the naval base in Karwar. He recalls how fishermen youth acted as the foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar to create a solid base for Hindu organisations in the region.

 Karnataka polls: BJPs failure to nominate any Hindu fishermen could hurt poll chances in Uttara Kannadas Karwar

Fisherfolk protest in coastal Karnataka in December 2017 in the aftermath of Paresh Mesta's murder. Deepak Kumar Shenvi

"In the early 1980s, the BJP was perceived as the party of Brahmins and fishermen in this region. It was the muscle power of the fishing community that played a major role in the surge of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The BJP owes its growth in the region to the unflinching support of the Kharvi, Harikantra and Gabith groups, who constitute about 65 percent of the fishing population," Harikantra explains.

The Hindu fishermen of Uttara Kannada comprise the Harikantra (Kannada speakers), Ambiga, Pagi, Gabith, and Kharvi (Konkani speakers). They are classified as other backward castes (OBCs) while another fisher group, the Mogers, are a scheduled caste (SC) group. These are deep-sea fishermen, while the Padthis fish in the region’s rivers and streams. The population of the community in the district is around 1.25 lakhs.

'Hopes belied, joined Cong in protest'

"After the death of Paresh Mesta, the BJP held a fishermen's convention in Udupi and declared that one fisherman will be given a ticket in Uttara Kannada,” says Jagadeep Govekar, former general secretary of the BJP’s OBC Morcha who recently joined the Congress. Mesta, a fisherman, died under mysterious circumstances in Honavar town last December. His death sparked district-wide communal riots. The BJP promised the agitated fishing community a ticket to contest the next Assembly election.

"The BJP high command had told Ganapati Ulvekar (a fishermen leader from Karwar) they would give him the ticket to contest (from) Karwar. But Roopali Naik, a new entrant to the party, was given the ticket. We were hoping that at least one seat would be given to us and we waited till the BJP declared its fourth list of candidates. But our hopes were belied. To protest, we resigned from the party and joined Congress,” says Govekar.

Ulvekar says although he was given the impression by state BJP leaders that he would be the party candidate from Karwar, he isn’t upset. "I respect the decision of the party and am working for the official candidate," he says, adding, "I won’t quit BJP."

But Harikantra says more than 5,000 youths from the community have defected from the BJP in Karwar after the party declared its candidate list.

The BJP, however, says that the figures are exaggerated. "A few hundreds might have left the party," admits Rajesh Nayak, BJP spokesperson in Uttara Kannada.

“We understand their pain. We don’t deny that the fishermen leaders who quit our party were loyal workers. The party must have another calculation. We will persuade them to return to the BJP fold before the election,” he says.

Peeved with Hegde

Fishermen leaders are particularly aggrieved with Member of Parliament and Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde. Harikanta says that Hegde always plays the Hindutva card for his political benefits. "He was instrumental in choosing the candidates in the district. Money played the major role in the ticket distribution. I was not an aspirant for a ticket or any post in the party. But there are many people who have the ability to do good work by becoming members of the Legislative Assembly. Congress has given a ticket to a fisherman, Mankal Vaidya, in Bhatkal. But BJP is using us as a vote bank. Enough is enough. Anant Kumar should remember that there is only one year left for the Lok Sabha election. We will see how he gets re-elected,” he warns.

Political analysts say the BJP committed a monumental blunder by not giving a ticket to the fishermen community, particularly when it was trying to leverage the anger of the community over the murder of Mesta, allegedly by Muslim youths. By giving the fishing community just one of the six Assembly constituencies in the district would have benefited the party in the entire coastal belt of Karnataka. Instead, the BJP has now given a handle to the Congress to say that BJP uses fishermen as just a vote bank and to arouse communal passions. "When it comes to sharing power, it (BJP) always prefers other communities," says Deepak Shetty, a senior journalist from Karwar.

'Sangh supporters won't defect over fishermen'

These developments have worried the BJP high command and the Sangh Parivar. According to a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary who belongs to the fishing community, this time the BJP has only considered the 'winnability' of the candidate in the district. In each constituency in coastal Uttara Kannada, the fishing community has between 15,000 and 20,000 votes. To win, a candidate needs to poll a minimum of 50,000 votes and there is no guarantee that all the other voting groups would support a candidate from the fishing community.

“We are not sure whether the hardcore supporters of the Sangh Parivar, who have always supported the BJP in past elections, will suddenly cross over to Congress just because fishermen were not given a ticket,” says the RSS official.

“Though some disgruntled fishermen leaders claim that they would defect to Congress, grassroots workers in the community will remain with the Hindutva movement. Everybody knows how the Siddaramaiah government treated the fishermen and slapped serious cases like attempt to murder and rioting on them after the murder of Paresh Mesta. Many are still hiding and trying to get bail while others still rotting in jail. This being the case I don’t think the fishing community would support Congress,” he said.

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Updated Date: May 03, 2018 13:42:44 IST