Old political rivals swap places and set stage for an interesting battle

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Athani, a small town on the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, has become a constituency to look out for this Assembly election with the traditional political opponents — Mahesh Kumathalli and Laxman Savadi — having swapped parties.

Mr. Kumathalli is the BJP candidate who is pitted against Mr. Savadi, now in the Congress. This was the other way round in the 2018 polls.

Mr. Savadi, a former Deputy Chief Minister and a three-time BJP MLA for Athani, joined the Congress last week. This was after he got clear signals from the BJP that it would re-nominate Mr. Kumathalli, who had joined the party through ‘Operation Lotus’ in 2019. Mr. Savadi quit his membership of the Legislative Council and the party primary membership and joined the Congress.

Jarkiholi loyalist

Mr. Savadi’s long-time opponent Mr. Kumathalli is a known loyalist of Ramesh Jarkiholi, former Irrigation Minister and the eldest of the powerful Gokak brothers.

Mr. Ramesh Jarkiholi has announced that he would spend more time campaigning in Athani than in his own constituency of Gokak. He is also visiting houses of BJP workers who are expected to follow Mr. Savadi into Congress. On his part, Mr. Savadi is busy touring villages. He says his campaign had begun long ago, as he organised several meetings of various community leaders, before making the switch to the Congress.

A fertile taluk

Athani is one of the most fertile taluks of northern Karnataka with black cotton soil and two rivers flowing through it — Krishna and its tributary, Agrani. Introduction of lift irrigation, drip irrigation, and tank-filling programmes have increased the area under sugarcane. Cane growers feed not only the five sugar factories in the four hobli towns in Athani, but also some factories in Maharashtra.

The taluk is largely rural, with over 84% of the population living in villages. The Panchamasalis, who are the traditional land holders in the villages, are said to be in relatively larger numbers than other Lingayat groups. The BJP nominee Mr. Kumathalli is a Panchamasali while Mr. Savadi is a Ganiga Lingayat.

Between ‘Sahukars’

The defections and counter-defections of leaders and workers in Athani may have caught the eye of the people in the State. But it seems to matter little for the voters here. They see it as a fight between the two “Sahukars”: Savadi Sahukar and Jarkiholi Sahukar. Mr. Kumathalli is seen only as a titular head, in this battle. It seems that the modern-day battle of Athani is between individuals and not parties.

The taluk has an interesting history. Established in 1853, the Athani town municipal council is one of the oldest in the State. The Ghorpade kings of Jamakhandi defeated Kashimulla Khan, a Mughal general in the Athani battle fought on the large plains of the Krishna in 1690. Johan Mandelslo, a German chronicler of the 17th century, notes that Athani was a market town between Miraj, Bijapur, and Goa.

An interesting trivia is that former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde chose Athani as a safe seat for former Minister Hulikuntemath Leeladevi Renuka Prasad or Leeladevi R. Prasad in 1985. She went on to win the 1994 polls too. Ms. Prasad who served as a Bangalore city corporation member in 1956, was a well-known writer and speaker on vachana literature. That Ms. Prasad’s father hailed from Dharwad helped her. He had worked for decades in organising the Veerashaiva Mahasabha events in the villages. She has maintained her contacts in Athani and visits the town regularly.

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