Groupism may affect Congress prospects

BELGAUM, FEB. 26. In the run up to elections to the Lok Sabha, the Congress should have little reason to worry in Belgaum, which has favoured its candidates 11 times in 13 polls. The party, which was defeated by the Janata Dal in 1996 and 1998, wrested the seat in the elections in 1999.

But, its prospects of winning in the coming elections depend, to a great extent, on unity among the party leaders, mainly legislators. The party unit in Belgaum has at least two main groups led by the Minister in charge the district, V.S. Koujalgi, and his junior colleague in the Cabinet, D.B. Inamdar. Amarsinh Patil, who represented the constituency in the dissolved Lok Sabha, supported Mr. Koujalgi when allegations of corruption were made against the latter but is now an associate of Mr. Inamdar.

Direct and indirect appeals have been made to the party High Command against renominating Mr. Patil. But those behind the appeals are yet to present an alternative.

Considering the size of the constituency, two Lok Sabha seats were allotted to the district by the Delimitation of Parliamentary Constituencies Order, 1956. Chikkodi is the other constituency. The two Lok Sabha constituencies comprise eight assembly segments each. Belgaum city, Uchagaon, Bagewadi, Bailhongal, Ramdurg, Parasgad (Saundatti), Gokak (Scheduled Tribe), and Arabhanvi are under the Belgaum constituency. The maiden opportunity for the voters to exercise their franchise came in 1957 following the formation of linguistic States. The Congress won the Belgaum seat 10 consecutive times, including in the byelection in 1965, which was necessitated by the death of B.N. Datar, and in the mid-term poll in 1971 when then Indian National Congress (Jagjivan Ram Group) defeated the NCO (Nijalingappa Congress).

Balvanthrao Datar was elected in the elections in 1957. The freedom fighter, who along with Keshavarao Gokhale and Narayanrao Joshi, was responsible for the launch of the Kannada nationalist daily, Samyukta Karnataka, in 1933, was re-elected in the 1962 elections. The death of Datar necessitated a byelection in 1965, and H.V. Koujalgi was elected. A.K. Kotrashetty, an advocate, was elected as an NCJ candidate in the mid-term polls in 1971 and as a Congress candidate in 1977. S.B. Sidnal won from the constituency in four consecutive elections in 1980, 1984, 1989, and 1991.

For the first time, the voters favoured the Janata Dal in 1996 when the party was in power in the State. Shivanand Koujalgi won by a margin of over 70,000 votes defeating Babagouda Patil of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress candidate, Prabhakar Kore, came third. The efforts of the Congress to regain the seat in 1998 went in vain when Mr. Sidnal was defeated by the BJP's Babagouda Patil by a margin of over 96,000 votes. The Congress won by a big margin in the 1999 elections when it fielded the young Mr. Amarsinh Patil, son of the former Minister, V.L. Patil. The BJP, which had renominated Mr. Babagouda Patil, former Union Minister of State, finished second.

Only once has Belgaum been represented by a Muslim in the Lok Sabha (in 1967). The community is strong enough in the constituency to make a difference, and Muslim leaders in the Congress are demanding that a member of their community be nominated this time.