Contesting the Puttur Assembly seat, SDPI state general secretary Shafi Bellare is currently in jail in connection with the murder.
Things are hotting up in the communally sensitive coastal belt of Karnataka in the run-up for the 2023 Assembly with the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) announcing that it would field murder suspect Shafi Bellare.
Bellare, who is an accused in the murder case of BJP youth worker Praveen Nettaru and is currently in prison, will be contesting from the Puttur Assembly segment in the Dakshina Kannada district. He is the SDPI’s general secretary.
The SDPI’s decision to field Bellare has not gone down well with the BJP in the coastal region, which has said that the former was nothing but an extended arm of the proscribed outfit Popular Front of India (PFI).
Nettaru was hacked to death in the Nettaru village near Bellare in the Dakshina Kannada district on 26 July, 2022.
The Basavaraj Bommai-led Karnataka government handed over the case to the NIA. The investigative agency arrested 15 people, including Bellare, in connection with the murder case.
The NIA also submitted a charge sheet regarding the case recently.
The SDPI released the second list of candidates for nine Assembly seats on Wednesday, 1 March.
The party announced candidates for the Madikeri, Raichur, Terdal, Mudigere, Bijapur City, Mangaluru, Gulbarga Uttar, Puttur, and Hubballi-Dharwad East Assembly segments.
The party released its first list for 10 Assembly segments in January. The SPDI is expected to contest 54 out of the 224 Assembly seats in the forthcoming polls.
While many are criticising the SPDI for giving a ticket to Bellare, the party’s leaders defended its decision and claimed they are confident of making an impact in the polls.
Justifying the party’s decision, SDPI state general secretary and election in-charge Afsar Kodlipete told South First: “Bellare is the party’s general secretary. He is active at the grassroots. He was intentionally targeted and victimised in the Nettaru murder case.”
“Neither the National Investigation Agency nor Karnataka State Police have found a single strong piece of evidence to prove the connection of Bellare to this murder case. He is innocent,” said Afsar.
“BJP leaders, including the state party president Nalin Kumar Kateel and Minister for Power V Sunil Kumar, faced protests by Hindu activists when they went to Nettaru’s house. The activists also staged protests against the ruling BJP government,” he recalled.
Afsar alleged: “The BJP is misusing central investigative agencies such as the NIA to suppress voices raised against their divisive and communal politics and governance. Even the Congress does politics on communal lines. Both the national political parties are least bothered about development, and, instead, stress on propagating their communal agenda.”
On the SDPI contesting in the Assembly polls, Afsar said: “The SDPI is confident of making its debut in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly by winning as many seats as possible in the coming polls. The party has a strong base here, as we have representatives at gram panchayats, city municipal councils, and other local bodies.”
He added: “The party is not confined to any particular religion or caste. We are giving tickets to all the communities. For example, in Mudigere, Terdal, and Hubballi-East, the party has announced tickets for other castes. The SDPI will be the voice of the common man and does not indulge in communal or hate politics.”
There is talk in political circles over the impact the SDPI could have in the upcoming Assembly elections in the coastal belt of Karnataka, especially in Puttur. However, the two national parties have brushed aside any such perceived threat.
Dakshina Kannada BJP district president Sudarshan Mudabidare told South First: “The NIA investigation has exposed the anti-national activities of the PFI. The PFI is another face of the SDPI.”
He added: “The SDPI giving a ticket to Bellare shows its mentality. He is one of the prime accused in the Nettaru murder case. The SDPI will hardly make any impact in coastal Karnataka. We are least bothered about the SDPI challenging us in the Assembly polls.”
On whether BJP would make any efforts to corner the Muslim votes in the coastal belt, he said: “Muslims are gradually leaning towards the BJP. However, we are not dependent on them. The BJP’s identity is Hindutva. The party will sweep the coastal belt in the upcoming Assembly elections.”
Meanwhile, Karnataka Legislative Assembly deputy Opposition leader and Mangaluru MLA UT Khader told South First: “In a democratic country, anyone can contest elections. However, the SDPI won’t do much harm to the Congress in the upcoming Assembly polls.”
He added: “The SDPI is similar to the Bajrang Dal. It divides society along communal lines. People will hardly vote for the SDPI in the coastal belt. It might divide the votes of Congress to some extent, but won’t affect the party’s prospects. We are confident that our party has an edge over other parties, including the corrupt BJP, in coastal Karnataka.”
However, political commentators believe that there is a possibility the SDPI may have impact in the coming Assembly polls.
Political analyst Narayana A told South First: “The SDPI has been trying to make inroads into mainstream politics. It is also true that the Congress has not done enough for Muslims. The party has representation in local bodies, but has not made a big mark in politics.”
He added: “The BJP brewing Hindutva is a big concern for the SDPI. It is firm on defeating the BJP as Muslims feel insecure. Therefore, the SDPI is gearing up to fight on its own in the coming polls.”
“There are possibilities that the SDPI might make inroads into mainstream politics in the state. However, we cannot be sure that Muslims will rally behind them.”