Lok Sabha polls: Sumalatha Ambareesh poses serious challenge to HD Kumaraswamy's son in JD(S) bastion Mandya

The election campaign of Sumalatha Ambareesh, an independent candidate supported by the BJP, is assuming the shape of a thunderstorm in the Mandya Lok Sabha constituency of Karnataka, threatening to torpedo the winning chances of the newest star of the state’s 'first family'.

Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy’s son, Nikhil Kumaraswamy (29), was chosen to contest from Mandya, in what was supposed to be a perfect launch to his political career from a safe constituency.

But the entry of Sumalatha into the electoral fray – after the death of her hugely popular actor-politician husband Ambareesh last November – has rattled the Gowda family so badly that they have resorted to several insensitive remarks against her to lower her self-esteem.

But the dignity and poise with which Sumalatha 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.

While Ambareesh is a cult figure in Mandya, whom fellow Vokkaligas worship, Sumalatha has her own standing as a multi-lingual actress of yesteryears, who has acted in over 200 films. Ambareesh was a three-term MP, and a former minister both at the Centre and the State.

 Lok Sabha polls: Sumalatha Ambareesh poses serious challenge to HD Kumaraswamys son in JD(S) bastion Mandya

File image of Sumalatha Ambareesh. News18

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 so 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.”

Though Sumalatha’s plea for a Congress ticket was not accepted because of the coalition’s compulsions, what has emboldened her is that the Congress cadre – resenting the party leaders’ decision to cede Mandya to JD(S) – has largely shifted its loyalty to her. The BJP, whose candidate polled 2.7 lakh votes in the recent by-election, has declared its support to Sumalatha, indirectly hinting that she may join BJP later if she gets elected.

On this issue, 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.”

How the plays went awry

A little over six months ago, when HD Kumaraswamy zeroed in on Mandya Lok Sabha constituency for launching his son Nikhil Kumaraswamy’s political career, it seemed the place and the timing of the decision were near perfect for the political arangetram for the newest member of the Gowda family.

After all, though the Janata Dal (Secular) had won only 37 seats in the Assembly, the stars had conspired to catapult Kumaraswamy to the chief minister’s post for the second time, the Congress had pledged its support to him for five years, and Mandya – the heartland of Vokkaliga politics – had elected JD(S) MLAs from all seven Assembly segments.

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

In November, the sudden and unexpected death of popular actor-politician, MH Ambareesh, who hailed from Mandya, seemed to create a political vacuum which Nikhil could fill perfectly. Kumaraswamy, as chief minister, took a lot of care 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.

Once the Lok Sabha elections were announced, the JD(S) put pressure on its coalition partner, the Congress, for 10-12 seats, with Mandya and Hassan, the two family bastions, being non-negotiable. Family patriarch HD Deve Gowda vacated Hassan for his younger grandson Prajwal Revanna. Shivarame Gowda of the JD(S), who had won by an impressive margin of 2.7 lakh in the by-election from Mandya, made way for Nikhil Kumaraswamy to make his electoral debut.

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 seems 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? Why was IRS officer Lakshmi Ashwin Gowda, who was promised a ticket earlier, completely sidelined?”

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 up in a fiasco.

As for Sumalatha, reaching the victory podium will be a stupendous task: No independent candidate has been elected to the Lok Sabha from Karnataka since DD Dattatrey did so from Kanara constituency in 1967, a good 52 years ago.

Updated Date: Mar 31, 2019 17:45:45 IST