Railway minister Kharge on track in Karnataka (Election Special)
In this backward northern region of Karnataka, the Congress is hopeful of bucking the anti-incumbency trend haunting its UPA government by riding on the fortunes of Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, contesting again from this reserved (SC) constituency in the April 17 Lok Sabha elections.
As the largest and bustling district in the Deccan region, about 650 km from Bangalore, Gulbarga has been the ruling party's bastion for decades barring two terms in the 1990s when it lost to the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) in the 1996 general elections and to the BJP in the 1998 snap polls.
Though winning elections has been a habit for the 72-year-old Kharge, a record eight times to the state assembly from Gurmitkal and once from Chittapur reserved segments since 1972, he was forced to contest the 2009 general elections from Gulbarga after his party lost in the May 2008 assembly poll and the chief minister's post again eluded him.
Switching over to national politics after winning from Gulbarga by a narrow margin (13,400 votes), becoming a cabinet minister for labour on his parliamentary debut in 2009 and subsequently the railway minister in 2013, Kharge retained his hold on the constituency through a slew of socio-economic benefits to the region.
"I wish I had more time to complete pending projects on fast track and initiate a few more to improve connectivity and rail density in the state for passengers and freight," Kharge told IANS here, taking a break from the heat and dust of electioneering.
The sudden resignation of his predecessor, Pawan Kumar Bansal, over corruption charges in May 2013 catapulted Kharge into the hot seat after he could not return to state politics despite his party's victory in the May 2013 assembly elections, as incumbent Siddaramaiah upstaged him with the backing of the party's high command.
Be that as it may, in the eight-nine months he has been in the railway ministry, Kharge has been on overdrive to complete as many projects, flag-off 17 new trains, sanction a dozen new trains in the interim railway budget for 2014-15 and modernise a number of stations across the state, with escalators even on Gulbarga's platforms.
"I have also fulfilled a long-pending demand for making Gulbarga a divisional headquarters in Central Railway, sanctioned new lines, a coach factory at Yadgir in the region and set a year's deadline for expeditious completion of the Gulbarga-Bidar line that remained in limbo for the last 25 years," Kharge asserted.
More than rail projects and getting the Rs.2,000-crore ($332 million) Employmees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) super-specialty hospital and a medical education complex at Gulbarga when he was labour minister for over four years (2009-13), it is the 70 percent reservation in educational institutions and 75-85 percent government jobs for locals that is working in Kharge's favour as the four-decade-old struggle to set right the regional imbalance has paid off.
The recent 118th amendment to Article 371J of the Constitution has conferred special status to the six backward districts in the Hyderabad-Karnataka arid region, giving domicile preference in education and government service.
The districts are Bellary, Bidar, Gulbarga, Koppal, Raichur and Yadgir.
"The special status has empowered the local people to develop the region, which has a huge potential to grow rapidly and is centrally located between Mumbai and Hyderabad for attracting investments," an upbeat Kharge observed.
With the parliamentary elections being held within a year of the May 5, 2013, assembly polls, it's advantage Kharge, as the Congress holds sway in seven of the eight segments across the Lok Sabha constituency.
Kharge's main rival, Revu Naik Belamgi of the BJP, a former minister who gave him a tough fight in 2009, is going all out to wrest the seat by wooing young voters angry with the UPA government for jobless growth, and ordinary people, frustrated with soaring prices and corruption in the corridors of power.
"Growing unemployment, rising prices and rampant corruption have hurt the people most. Kharge has no answers for these issues raised by the electorate. Development in the region remains neglected as no special funds have been allocated in the budget for this fiscal (2014-15). Towns and villages still reel under four-to-six hours' power cuts daily in this hot summer," Belamgi told IANS on the campaign trail.
Though the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has fielded former minister B.T. Lalitha Naik and the JD-S D.G. Sagar, the contest is mainly between Kharge and Belamgi, a wrestler in his heydays who belongs to the Banjara community.
"People, especially youth, are fed up with the (Congress-led) UPA government, which has made life miserable. They want a strong leader like our prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi who transformed Gujarat into a developed state," Belamgi noted.
The merger of the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) with the BJP and the return of its former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to the saffron party fold will also prevent splitting of votes, which benefitted the Congress in the assembly polls last year.
(Fakir Balaji can be contacted at email@example.com)
(Posted on 12-04-2014)
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