Who will win Mandya Lok Sabha seat? It's a million dollar question that has split this Vokkaliga bastion wide open.
The contest between two debutantes chief minister H D Kumaraswamy's son Nikhil and independent candidate Sumalatha Ambareesh is likely to go down to the wire.
Will it be "
Dodda Gowdara mommaga" (Deve Gowda's grandson) or " Mandya da Sose" (daughter-in-law of Mandya) is the point of discussion, whether in sugarcane fields or at road-side tea stalls, suggesting the JD(S) candidate is on a sticky wicket.
Mandya, known as "
Sakkare Naadu" (land of sugarcane), has been the hotbed of Cauvery politics and the present contest has made it no less than a sensational drama.
There are 22 candidates in the fray, but the straight contest is between Nikhil, Congress-JD(S) joint candidate, and Sumalatha, backed by BJP.
Nikhil, 31, is the third-generation political entrant from former prime minister H D Deve Gowda's family, and Sumalatha, 55, is the widow of popular actor-turned-politician M H Ambareesh.
There is a clear split among voters in Mandya, with both candidates banking on their family's political legacy.
The Gowda family hails from the neighbouring Hassan district, and many in Mandya see Nikhil's candidature as imposition of dynasty politics.
"Why is the Gowda family imposing their dynasty politics on Mandya? Don't they have any able candidate in the party from here? After Channapatna and Ramanagara, Mandya too is being taken under the family fold," 58-year-old Eerappa said, during a roadside discussion in Gejjalagere.
Ningappa, a farmer, praised Sumalatha and Ambareesh for the goodwill they share with Mandya, and questioned Kumaraswamy how development can come all of a sudden if Nikhil becomes MP when nothing happened despite having 8 MLAs and 3 ministers from the district.
A JD(S) supporter retorted to Ningappa, pointing at crores of rupees worth of projects sanctioned for Mandya under the present government.
While there is a visible support for Sumalatha, who is riding on Ambareesh's popularity, the question is will it translate into votes. That she enjoys the support of BJP and a section of disgruntled Congress workers in Mandya, her strength at the booth-level is not clear.
As the poll in a way is seen as a fight between Sumalatha and the chief minister himself, there is lot at stake for Kumaraswamy as winning the seat will establish continued JD(S) dominance over the Vokkaliga heartland.
There is considerable anti-incumbency against the JD(S) MLAs and ministers, and wide-spread backlash against their dynasty politics, which may add to Nikhil's worries.
Sumalatha had sought to contest from Congress, the party Ambareesh represented from Mandya, but decided to be an independent after being denied ticket.
All is not well between the alliance partners, as several Congress leaders, including former MLAs N Cheluvarayaswamy, P M Narendraswamy and Ramesh Bandisidde Gowda, are miffed over their party's decision to cede the seat to JD(S).
Also upset over comments made by Kumaraswamy allegedly against them, they have not joined the election campaign.
Many Congress workers have extended support to Sumalatha, despite recent suspension of seven block presidents in Mandya.
Conceding that there is some bickering, Kumaraswamy said, "Along with BJP, one section of Congress friends, some farmers' organisations and local media are completely supporting the independent candidate. But it will not help and my son will win with a thumping majority, with the blessings of people," he said.
Nikhil has the political might of his party, Sumalatha has several personalities of Kannada film industry on her side, with film stars like Darshan and Yash actively campaigning for her.
"I know I'm pitted again a very formidable opposition. You can't discount the fact that their whole family is into politics, they are holding power, there are 8 MLAs, three of them are ministers from here... The very fact that I have taken this risk at the very onset of my entry into politics, should be an assurance for people that I'm there for them," Sumalatha said.
Meanwhile, a campaign is on to question Sumalatha's identity as a "Gowdthi" (Vokkaliga), highlighting her Telugu background.
The prestige battle for Mandya has also seen personal attacks on rival candidates, politics over Income Tax raids on JD(S) supporters and transfer of deputy commissioner on the allegation of being "biased" towards Kumaraswamy's son.
Confident about his win, Nikhil, who has acted in a lead role in a couple of movies, said, "I come from a political background, it is nothing new for me. I don't come from a cinema background. I opted for cinema because I wanted to prove myself and to the world that I can still do something other than politics And I wanted to take little more time before I plunge into politics."
Despite Nikhil's confidence, the role local Congress workers would play during the election is crucial for his victory, as transfer of Congress's votes to JD(S) will be the key, because along with Vokkaliga, the backward classes votes could also be a deciding factor.
Congress and JD(S), arch-rivals in the old Mysuru region which includes Mandya, joined hands to form a government as the May 2018 assembly polls threw up a hung verdict.
The Congress is contesting 21 and JD(S) seven seats as part of the alliance.
According to the election commission, there are a total 17,11,534 voters in Mandya, among them 8,54,859 are males, 8,56,525 females and 150 are third-gender voters.
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