Congress banks on development work to win seats in Hyderabad-Karnataka

Bengaluru: A short ride around Kalaburagi in the late 1990s would have thrown up sights of streets with patches of tar, smeared with foul smelling garbage, and walls splattered with beetle juice stains.

Two decades on, the city is a study in contrast, graced with well-laid and wide roads, smooth flowing traffic, huge government buildings, neatly painted dividers and large green signboards at every junction providing directions.

Kalaburagi, earlier known as Gulbarga, is part of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region that is set apart from the rest of the state in its food habits, culture and even dialect of Kannada.

The region is also home to some of the most backward districts, whose low social, health and economic indicators stand out in a state that is one of the most prosperous in the country.

Literacy rate in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region was around 65% compared to the state’s average of around 75% before it was accorded special status. Dropouts were high at over 5.5% compared to the average of 3% in the state, according to government data.

In the last four years, the Karnataka government has allocated over Rs4,500 crore for the region, which benefits from a special status, courtesy of a Constitutional amendment introduced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2012. Article 371 (J) aims to promote inclusive growth and development in the region, including through reservations and jobs and education.

With its large population of Lingayat and scheduled castes (SC), Hyderabad-Karnataka has become a key battle ground for assembly elections due later this year.

The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Karnataka is hopeful that the money allocated to this region would be enough to secure a majority of the 45 assembly seats spread over six districts.

It seems to be working in unexpected ways.

“Earlier people were hesitant to give us brides. There were no jobs. Now we are number one on matrimonial sites,” Priyank Kharge, IT/BT minister for Karnataka and legislator from Chittapur (Kalaburagi) said, adding things changed as there is stability in jobs and education for the local population.

“This {work done under Article 371 (J)} is a game changer and a face-saver for us.”

Locals say that the development is largely focused on visible infrastructure.

However, only Rs2,300 crore of the allocated Rs4,500 crore has been released in the last three years, of which Rs2,000 crore worth of works have been completed, according to Harsha Gupta, secretary of the Hyderabad-Karnataka Region Development Board and regional commissioner of Kalaburagi.

Slow pace of works, coordination between multiple agencies among other reasons have resulted in projects piling up and deadlines being extended, Gupta said.

The Congress is hoping that the physical and social infrastructure would create a “Caste plus” consideration for voters.

Caste plus, Kharge said, means that voters are likely to take into account development expenditure, job creation and educational opportunities among other benefits along with caste considerations when they head to polling booths later this year. He added that 30,000 jobs have been created and another 24,000 will be available by April.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has used the backward status of Kalaburagi to attack Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha who has been elected a record 11 times from the city.

“If Congress is repeatedly elected to power, the result inevitably will be backwardness and abject poverty of people. There’s no bigger proof than Mallikarjun Kharge’s 9 times election as MLA and twice as MP of Kalburgi. It remains one of the most backward districts in India!,” BJP Karnataka said on Twitter on 15 February.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi toured the region for four days earlier this month, reminding every crowd he addressed about Article 371(J) and the Congress’s contribution towards it.

Priyank Kharge admits that Article 371(J) is the “key” to victory in the region and critical to retaining the 27 seats the Congress won in Hyderabad-Karnataka in the 2013 elections.livemint