BANGALORE ~ A day before counting began for the 1999 Lok Sabha election in Bellary, Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s candidate fighting Sonia Gandhi on the ‘foreign origin’ issue in this dusty outback appeared a bundle of nerves. When queried, she shot back angrily at reporters: “Am I nervous? Why should I be? Do I look nervous? No, I am not nervous,” she went on, visibly upset. A smiling man behind her in a tight safari suit parroted her: “Madam is not nervous, why should she be? She is not nervous at all.” Early next morning, at the counting station, the question was repeated, and the charade had a re-run. The ever-smiling man, in his late 30s, sprang to Swaraj’s rescue again, introducing himself as Janardhan, a Bellary local, managing her campaign.
The world today knows that man as Gali Janardhan Reddy, whose meteoric rise in just six years as a mining magnate has long been the talk of Karnataka, whose parallel administration in Bellary once evoked shock and awe among locals, whose wiping off of the Andhra-Karnataka border for the easier extraction of iron ore was as brazen as brazen gets, and whose recent fall has been harder than his rise. His taste for the good life is there for all to see: personal choppers, luxury cars, palatial bungalows, expensive clothes, and huge unaccounted-for monies (as the Lokayukta alleged in his mining report). It was his political acumen that partly bankrolled the Karnataka BJP to power in May 2008. And he ran Bellary like his own fiefdom. As the cabinet minister in charge of the district, Janardhan Reddy had so much power that no file moved without his approval.
Though Sushma Swaraj lost her Lok Sabha election, she has never let her Bellary links be lost. She has been visiting the town every Vara Mahalakshmi day, openly advertising her closeness to the now infamous Reddy brothers—G Karunakar and G Somasekhar being the other two—and sticking up stoutly for their brand of politics.
As the dust is yet to settle on the mining scam unearthed by the Lokayukta, the powerful Reddy brothers, reeling under the impact, have not found place in the newly constituted Karnataka cabinet headed by DV Sadananda Gowda, the new CM. Their taint is such that it may be months before they are inducted, despite subtle pressure on the BJP’s top leadership, which cannot deny their clout in the state. Twice in the past have they already threatened to destabilise the BJP’s state government on some issue or the other of particular interest to them.
Still, in comparison with what’s happening now, those were halcyon days. Together with their crony B Sriramulu, the brothers almost always got their way. “Where they were not granted leases directly, they sought raising contracts—commissions, that is, for lifting the consignment, which is nothing short of extortion. They controlled all local officials, who in turn controlled the [iron ore] movements. There was nothing that did not slip through without their notice,” says Tapal Ganesh, a miner himself who blew the whistle after a run-in with them. “The heady concoction of power and business led them to rise very fast, and now their fall has been equally fast. They were fully responsible for Bellary being overmined,” he adds.
Environmentalists say that the entire district has been ravaged in a short span of just six odd years. In fact, the mines have been over-excavated to such an extent that they will run out of ore in less than 15 years, says the Lokayukta report. The operations were massive, with 300,000 migrant workers—from mine workers, drivers, machine operators and roadside food vendors to well-paid executives—arriving for a boom unlike any other. Today, many are jobless. Mining, except by state-owner miners, has been stopped by a Supreme Court order, and most private machines have ground to a halt.
Just where the Karnataka government stands on the issue is being watched closely. The Reddy brothers, after all, do not deal with top political leaders but with individual legislators. With lots of money to spare, it is easier that way. In a 2008 operation codenamed Lotus, they had even bribed opposition MLAs to resign their seats and contest on BJP tickets instead. More than a dozen MLAs were snared this way. Buying independents had been even easier, it seems. All this was done under the complete knowledge of their patrons in the central BJP leadership, say party sources. Just being able to fly the BJP flag over the state’s Vidhana Soudha was good enough for them, methods be damned.
In their bid to consolidate their power over the BJP, the Reddy brothers made other moves too. For example, Somasekhar took charge as chairman of the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF)—seen as a tool to gain the political support of farmers—over which the Deve Gowda clan had held sway for 15 years. “It was seen as a way for the Reddys to settle scores with the Gowda clan, who were tormenting them,” says a minister who doesn’t want to be named, “KMF is the only profit-making cooperative in the state, with an annual turnover of close to Rs 3,000 crore. After they came to head the KMF, they did the impossible—raise milk prices by Rs 2, which saw an equal increase in the procurement price paid to farmers.”
However, in achieving control of the KMF, the Reddy brothers had to stave off a challenge from Sadananda Gowda, who quit in mid-2010 as a KMF director in disgust at the brothers’ antics. Source say that the then CM Yeddyurappa had pleaded with the brothers to let Gowda run the federation, but Sushma weighed in on Somasekhar’s side, and that was that. Now that Gowda is CM, whether he still holds that grudge is a matter of speculation in the state.
Yeddyurappa, say party insiders, was always uncomfortable with the brothers’ influence. “Taking their money was alright, but when it came to sharing power, he wanted to keep it all to himself,” scoffs a Reddy aide, justifying the two rebellions that nearly unseated Yeddyurappa. The rebels had Sushma Swaraj’s tacit support, and she did little to hide it. In her attempts to broker peace between the Reddy and Yeddurappa camps, for example, she seemed closer to the former.
“The Reddys were also not happy with Yeddyurappa banning ore exports,” says an aide of the former CM, “This was around the time that they were caught by the Lokayukta for illegally exporting ore. But they recovered quickly by signing [an MoU] to set up a Rs 30,000 crore steel plant at a global investors meet.”
Business diversification was next on their agenda. The brothers’ ambitions, clearly, were on the ascent even as graft charges were closing in on them. Yet, as politicians often do, they make an effort to appear part of the aam janata. Once, at a Bangalore Press Club function where senior journalists were being felicitated, Janardhan said that journalists should consider him one of their own, as he also ran a publication in Bellary (he later started a Kannada TV news channel). At this, a senior hack quipped: “At least we know how to maintain our distance from politics, but you seem to have no qualms trespassing into journalism from politics.”
The brothers, well versed in Kannada and English, speak with a distinct Telugu accent. Their crony, former Health Minister B Sriramulu was once their employee—when they ran a non-banking finance company that was forced to close down in early 2002. “At that point,” recounts Ganesh, “people thought that as one of the brothers had become a corporator, they would manage to revive their company, which was headed by Sriramulu. But it was not to be. Slowly, they got into mining. And once they became ministers, they started interfering in the mining sector by posting friendly officials to key posts. They used their influence to strangle other miners and force them to sign ‘raising contracts’.”
The brothers were not bothered by charges of conflict-of-interest. The Congress levelled ‘office of profit’ charges against them, since they were on the boards of several companies while also holding ministerial portfolios. Their response is still awaited.
All this while, Swaraj watched and encouraged her protégés in the state. It was only once Yeddyurappa lodged a strong protest with the BJP’s leadership at the very top that Swaraj slowly began distancing herself from the brothers. “This was around the time she became Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha,” says a BJP leader, “and probably did not want any mining dirt to stick to her, now that Bellary had hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Even the AP government was after the Obalapuram Mining Corp, owned by the Reddys.”
The first hint of trouble for the Reddys came soon after the death of former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy in September 2009. His demise meant the loss of a regime that was glad to look the other way while their mining operations bulldozed their way into the state from Karnataka. YSR’s successor K Rosaiah took a dim view of the brothers’ operations, even dragging them to the Supreme Court.
And, now with the apex court clamping down hard on their business and Income Tax Department examining their books, they seem at a sudden loss. The Reddy brothers once compared themselves with the Vijayanagar kings of the 15th century, but all that is now firmly in the past.
If a dramatic loss of influence is not bad enough, their thaayi (mother, as they reverentially addressed Swaraj) has not made any move in their support for quite some time now. They must have felt severely let down last week when, citing parliamentary commitments, Sushma Swaraj skipped the annual Vara Mahalakshmi puja in Bellary.
It’s time now, perhaps, for that old question again: are you feeling nervous, madam?