MYSORE: “it’s a neck to neck fight between the BJP and Congress,” says a smiling young man behind the counter at a coffee shop just off the highway connecting Mysore to Bengaluru. The Citizen team left Bengaluru early in the morning, making our way to the Mysore area, where Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is contesting the polls from the Chamundeshwari seat. “JDS will be the kingmaker this election,” the man continues, setting the tone for what we later found to be a fairly accurate assessment of the ground reality in the area.

Mysore is connected to Bangalore via a long State Highway, SH-17, which passes through the towns of Ramanagara, Channapatna, Maddur, Mandya and Srirangapatna. The area itself is a Congress stronghold, as the current Chief Minister’s constituency is in the Mysore district. The Janata Dal (Secular) has also historically been strong in this area, winning 30 of its 40 seats tally in the 2013 polls from this region. This election, all eyes are on the JDS, which may play a pivotal role in the post poll scenario if neither the Congress or the BJP manage a clear majority.

“The BJP doesn’t have much of a presence in this area,” the smiling young man continues. “But I think they will do well overall because in the North they have a big presence, and in the coastal belt they will gain ground.” Siddaramaiah has announced a second candidature from the Badami seat in the North, where the Congress hopes the government's decision to accord the Lingayat community a special religion status will cut into this traditionally BJP vote. Lingayats make up a significant proportion of the vote at 17 percent in the North, and the BJP’s ability to capture this vote has ensured its solid performance in the region. In the 2013 polls, the BJP won about half of its 43 seats from here. “I don’t think Siddaramaiah will have that much of an impact in the North,” the man says. “He’s from this area. In the North it’s the Reddys who hold sway.”

We finish our coffee and move on, interested in the declaration that the JDS will play the Kingmaker’s role. The BJP and Congress have both announced that they will win clear majority, and dismissed the JDS as a party that will lose seats and be a non-player. As we travel toward Mysore, we find significant support for JDS and particularly, Kumaraswamy, indicating that the party shouldn’t be written off just yet.

(A refreshment stall in Mandya)

This region is considered the Vokkaliga heartland, and former Prime Minister and JDS national president HD Deve Gowda is from this community. A name that repeatedly comes up as we travel through the area is of Deve Gowda’s son. “Kumaraswamy is our leader,” a group of men gathered at a stall just off the road in the Mandya district tell us. “JDS will be the kingmaker.”

The notion that the JDS will play the decisive role is something we repeatedly encounter -- in Bangalore and even more so in the Mandya and Mysore belt. “There’s never a clear majority in Karnataka,” says a customer at a refreshment shop in Mahaveera Circle, Anil Kumar. “It will be a coalition government, that much is certain.”

As to what this coalition government will look like, there’s no consensus. “It’ll be JDS-Congress,” Anil Kumar offers. “No chance,” a man named Mahesh chimes in. “BJP has a solid shot. They might not have a presence in this area, but in the North the BJP is the main player.” A quiet man who identifies himself as Prasanna offers a compromise. “It’s an equal contest,” he says. “The BJP and Congress both have a shot, now let’s see what happens on polling day.”

(Four men with four different predictions in Mandya)

By now, a rough idea of the ground reality in this area is beginning to emerge. The perception amongst voters is that the election is close and tight, with no party having a clear edge. This discounts the role of a ‘wave’ in favour of any party, and makes the election that much harder to predict. A key trend emerging however is the potential role of the JDS, with every second person we encounter speaking in favour of the party. While this trend is limited to this region, it’s significant enough as it can translate into a sizeable number of votes for the regional party.

That said, for every JDS supporter we encounter, there’s a vocal Congress voter just a few steps away. “Here, there’s no BJP,” says Shoaib, a young man sitting outside a butcher shop in Mandya. “It’s a fight between the JDS and the Congress.”

(Shoaib speaks to us in Mandya)

“JDS numbers will go up,” says an older gentlemen a few meters down the road. “People are happy with the Siddaramaiah government but not that happy,” he continues. The crowd at a nearby paan shop has a similar assessment. “Congress had more seats in Mandya last time,” a moustached middle aged man says. “This time, however, Congress numbers will go down and the JDS will do better.”

As we enter Mysore, these trends continue -- people largely saying that this year it’s a tough fight, and that in the area, it’s between the JDS and Congress. We drive through Mysore city in search of the local Congress Party Office, which is almost impossible to locate as no one in the area seems to know of it. Google Maps has its own bit of fun and reroutes us to a residential area where politics seems to be of zero interest or consequence to the residents we try and talk to. Finally, after tracking news reports and calling up reporters who had been to the area before, we locate the Mysore City Congress Office, where a number of local leaders are gathered.

(A shopkeeper in Mysore City)

“Look, there’s no BJP in this area,” R. Murthy, the City Congress President, says. “The Congress has provided a stable and secure government. That is what will ensure our victory in all of Karnataka. The Mysore district is a Congress stronghold, and although the JDS won 30 seats here in 2013, they will struggle to make it to even 20,” he says. “There’s no anti incumbency and all communities are with us, so there’s no question of not winning.” When asked whether the JDS will emerge as the kingmaker, R. Murthy dismissed the idea. “Siddaramaiah is a strong, powerful leader,” he declares. “He’s a strong backward caste leader. There’s no parallel to him in any party. He will come to power, there’s no doubt about it.”

“Yes JDS got 30 seats last time,” the Congress leader continues, “but this time is different. Varuna which is Siddaramaiah’s former constituency is a safe seat for his son. Siddaramaiah is contesting this time from Chamundeshwari, where the JDS has a sitting MLA. This time they obviously won’t win that seat.”

Chamundeshwari and Varuna are adjoining rural constituencies, and at one time, Varuna was part of Chamundeshwari. After delimitation in 2004, Varuna was carved out as a separate constituency, and Siddaramaiah won the 2008 and 2013 elections from here. This time, he’s given up the seat in favour of his son, Yathindra.

The road connecting Mysore to Varuna is comparable to highways in the more developed parts of the world. Varuna itself is a charming village located just off the road, with palm trees and a large lake. With freshly painted houses and visible infrastructure, It’s clear that the Chief Minister hasn’t neglected his constituency. This reflects amongst the people, as the support for Siddaramaiah is palpable. As you walk through Varuna and ask people which way the election is going, many of them simply show you the palm of their hand to gesture that as far as they are concerned, it’s the Congress that will win.

(Posing for photographs in Varuna)

Deeper into the constituency, we find a group of women selling bangles and bindis. We try and talk to them, but they summon a male member of the family, who tells us that people in the area are happy with the Chief Minister. “There’s water, electricity, education,” he says. “Degree colleges have been opened. Veterinary hospitals have been opened. There are six vets in the area now.”

(Varuna is a Congress safe seat, the man pictured far right here tells us)

We stop at a nearby dhaba and ask the same question -- which way is the election going? “Here there’s no BJP,” Srinivas, a local lorry driver, says. “Congress is in the lead in this area, but overall it’s very tight this year.” “It’s 50-50,” another man chimes in. “Congress was in the lead, but there have been problems in the party. Problems such as Harris’ son beating up people in Bangalore will cost them the vote there, for instance” he says, referring to an incident involving the son of Congress leader NA Harris.

At that moment, two men on motorcycles with large visible red tilaks pull up. “BJP will win,” they say. “Yeddyurappa is mass leader; Siddaramaiah is worst leader.” Baswaraj, the more vocal amongst the two men, says that the BJP has a pro-farmer budget, provided cycles and gone out if its way to support marriages and help people in other ways. So why didn’t the BJP give Yeddyurappa’s son a ticket to contest from this very seat, we ask? The former CM’s son was to contest this seat, but his name was dropped leading to angry protests from BJP workers at the time. “Who cares,” is the response to our question. “This seat is not the BJP’s battle; it’s Karnataka -- and overall they will win.”

(A small store in Varuna)

This interaction, however, is an aberration and not the norm in Varuna, where support for the Congress is visible. That said, many people we speak to say that while the Congress will do well here, nationally the BJP stands an equal chance of forming government.

We head from Varuna back toward Mysore City, the rural outskirts of which form Chamundeshwari. The sitting MLA is JDS leader GT Deve Gowda, and while Siddaramaiah has won this seat several times in the past, his main support base has always been the Varuna part of the constituency, which was carved out in 2004 as a separate constituency. In giving his son the safe seat that he created for himself, Siddaramaiah has taken a big gamble in a very crucial election.

This gamble is apparent the minute we enter Chamundeshwari. Unlike Varuna with its beautiful roads and bright houses, Nagenahalli village in Chamundeshwari is more typical of villages in this part of the world. Small shops, badly paved roads and lots of garbage greet us as we enter the village. “JDS will win here,” a shopkeeper says. A number of people gather and nod in agreement. “Siddaramaiah hasn’t come back here ever since he carved out Varuna. He’s forgotten about this constituency and now thinks the people here will vote for him.” “Look around you,” another man says. “Is this development? We are not going to vote for such an opportunistic Chief Minister.”

(In Nagenahalli village)

The men are all Gowdas, and support for the sitting MLA is visible. “Siddaramaiah is a casteist,” the shopkeeper says. “He may have done things for other communities, but he’s done nothing for us. We will not vote for him.”

Deeper into the village, the mood is the same. “JDS will win here,” a group of old men sitting at the village square tell us. “We want Kumaraswamy as the CM,” the crowd, which has grown larger and more diverse in terms of age groups, says. “Siddaramaiah hasn’t even come here. GT Gowda on the other hand has done a lot of work here.”

Surprised as the anger toward the Chief Minister, we walk even further in. At a tea stall in the village, a group of young men are very vocal in their support for JDS. “It’s full JDS here,” a young man says. “Congress has done no work here; they’ve played their politics and dumped this place after getting what they want. They’re not going to get our vote,” an angry young man declares.

(In Nagenahalli village, Siddaramaiah is an unpopular figure)

Gowdas are part of the Vokkaliga community, which accounts for 65,000 votes of the total 2,89,111 votes in Chamundeshwari. Clearly, this segment is upset with the Congress and the CM, and is not afraid to say it.

So has Siddaramaiah taken a gamble that won’t pay off? Not necessarily as Scheduled Castes make up 45,000 votes and Scheduled Tribes another 30,000. Kurbas are 35,000, Veerashaiva Lingayats comprise 35,000, Brahmins 15,000 and Vishwakarma’s 15,000. There’s enough of a non-Vokkaliga vote here, but giving up a ‘safe seat’ that was created solely because the larger constituency was unpredictable is definitely a risk. The risk is compounded by the fact that some of Siddaramaiah's previous wins from Chamundeswari have been with very narrow margins, and now that the stronghold of Varuna is a separate constituency altogether, those narrow margins become of even more concern.