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As the incumbent Congress in Karnataka battles a formidable challenge from the Narendra Modi-led BJP, in a corner of the state the magic of Congress icon Indira Gandhi lives on.
Nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats with lush coffee plantations is scenic Chikkamagaluru or “little daughter’s town.” It’s from here that Indira Gandhi, routed in the post-Emergency general elections of 1977, chose to contest again in October 1978. “Give your vote to your little daughter” was one of her slogans.
Chikkamagaluru’s residents still take great pride in their Indira connection. “No political leader can match her,” says local businessman Rajendra Saklecha, who remembers the 1978 by-election vividly. “Chikkamagaluru saw Indira Gandhi’s maarujanma or rebirth.”
The Chikmagalur victory was a turning point for Indira. In November 1978, she returned to Parliament, defeating her Janata Party rival Veerendra Patil by 70,000 votes. “There was a fever among us at the time,” recalls Venkatesh Naidu, a hotelier. “Like a festival, in which we were all swept up. We felt we had a duty to send the PM back to Parliament. She had lost but was still PM for us.”
Coffee plantation owner Stany D’Silva says: “As a child, I remember jumping over walls to get a glimpse of her. The crowds were huge, people poured in from all corners and my mother worried I’d get lost.”
Coffee trader Cyril Rebello recalls how the crowds were transfixed. “She was very glamorous. Good looking with a boy cut, yet her head always covered with a pallu. She walked very fast. Although of small build, she seemed gigantic.”
Former Congress minister and three-time Chikmagalur MLA Sageer Ahmed was member of Indira’s campaign team. She campaigned for only a month, he recalls, but she walked through rain, rode bullock carts, and campaigned 18 hours a day, living on spoonfuls of dry fruit and juice. Her car was followed by then Karnataka CM and Indira loyalist Devaraj Urs and Congress neta R Gundu Rao. Ahmed recalls the slogan likening Indira to a tigress against puny enemies: “Ek sherni, sau langur, Chikkamagaluru, Chikkamagaluru.”
Janata Party’s firebrand George Fernandes led a strong campaign against her, with posters describing her as a cobra who would bite voters. “Fernandes got his choice of wildlife wrong,” says Ahmed. “In rural Karnataka, the king cobra is worshipped.”
Veteran journalist R K Upadhyay covered the Chikkamagaluru election — the focus of all press corps at the time, including the global media. “All press had to admit in the end that she was just too popular. She was heroine of the Bangladesh war, seen as a woman with guts and a champion of the poor,” he says.
Indira’s campaign was masterminded by Devaraj Urs. “He asked her to contest from Chikmagalur,” says Ahmed. “He assured her he would deliver a victory as Karnataka was then a Congress bastion.” Urs fell out of favour when he dared to challenge Sanjay Gandhi and was expelled from Congress in 1979. Indira’s intolerance of strong state leaders cost Congress dear.
Political analyst Sandeep Shastri was then a politically active university student. He recalls Devaraj Urs’ popularity with the young as the first Karnataka politician who broke the Lingayat-Vokkaliga dominance and built a wide backward caste alliance, created land reforms, and was a catalyst of change.
Shastri had plunged into the Janata campaign to oppose Indira and Congress. He went door-to-door to tell people about the excesses of the Emergency and the crushing of democratic rights by Indira. “But people would not listen. She was their ‘Indiraamma.’ They felt it was their duty to return her to power,” he says.
Chikkamagaluru resident A R Shareef drove Indira’s autorickshaw as she navigated narrow lanes to meet plantation workers and labourers. “The poor benefitted from Congress’ housing scheme. She was good for poor people,” he says. “Every time she saw groups of women she’d say, ‘unke paas chalo.’”
For decades Karnataka was a Congress fortress winning 24 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats even in the post-Emergency elections of 1977 when the Congress scored zero in north India. Lingayats who today form the BJP’s backbone were once staunch Congress loyalists.
But the 1980s were a turning point as the Ramakrishna Hegde-led Janata Party consolidated the anti-Congress vote. In Chikkamagaluru, the Congress decline has been steep. In 2013, BJP won two of five assembly seats here, leaving two to JD(S) and one for Congress. The sitting Chikmagalur MLA is BJP’s CT Ravi and MP of Udupi-Chikmagalur is BJP’s Shobha Karandlaje.
For the Congress now, Karnataka is a do-or-die battle. In its moment of adversity, the party may well look to Indira magic in Chikkamagaluru for hope. D’Silva says, “Chikkamagaluru can never forget Indira Gandhi, after all she put us into the history books.”