Battle for Karnataka

An Embarrassment of Saffron Riches

Harsha Vadlamani
Page 1 of 1

The famous Reddy brothers and other worthies of oversized reputations make the mining district of Ballari a site of titanic clashes

OVER AN HOUR-LONG drive in a black Fortuner from his residence in Ballari to the Jindal Vijaynagar Airport in Toranagallu, the BJP’s star campaigner, B Sriramulu, repeatedly refers to himself in the third person, at times objectively as a tool in the hands of the party to wrest a chunk of the Dalit vote from Siddaramaiah, the architect of the Congress’ Ahinda strategy, and sometimes with an undertow of megalomania. “Sriramulu can win from any constituency. He can consolidate the votes of the weaker sections of society,” says the 46-year-old, who has toured 190 constituencies in Karnataka over the past six months. In an hour from now, a chopper will fly him to Lingsugur and Maski in Raichur district, and thereafter to Badami in Bagalkot, where he is pitted against the Congress’ most popular leader in Karnataka, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Sriramulu exudes confidence, dismissing his other contest from Molakalmuru in Chitradurga district as a no- brainer. “I have not bothered to campaign much in Molakalmuru, where the people are familiar with me. In Badami, I will campaign harder, but I am not worried. The CM is afraid of losing in Chamundeshwari and has come running to Badami. What does that show?” he says, gesturing with his hands, his long nails stained yellow with turmeric from a puja earlier in the morning.

Sriramulu is a man struggling to wrest free of his past affiliations as he crosses the golden bridge of respectability in Karnataka politics. “The party has made me into one of its tallest leaders in the state. I feel the responsibility on my shoulders,” he says. His bearded face occupies the foreground of the BJP’s campaign in Ballari and the neighbouring districts of Chitradurga, Davanagere, Gadag, Raichur and Haveri, and he is rumoured to be in line for the deputy chief ministerial berth should the party come to power, but his proximity to Gali Janardhana Reddy, the jailed mining baron from Ballari who is out on bail but restrained from entering his home district, cramps his political credibility. “We have been friends since we were young boys, and he is campaigning for the party in the neighbouring districts. But I have no business dealings with him. My name was casually dragged into the Lokayukta report on mining without any documentary evidence,” says Sriramulu. He won’t, however, brook being equated with the other two Reddy brothers—Karunakara Reddy and Somashekara Reddy—whom he says he never had a personal relationship with. “Their mother was very fond of me and treated me like a fourth son, but after her passing, that link has been severed,” he says. “I do not know how to express my discomfort when people talk of us as one family.” The two brothers that he wants to wash his hands of are contesting the elections from Harpanahalli in Davanagere— now included in the Ballari district so that the backward region can receive benefits accorded to Hyderabad-Karnataka—and Ballari Urban, respectively, on BJP tickets.

Sriramulu’s rise since he abandoned his rebel party, the Badavara Shramika Raithara Congress Party (BSRCP), to join the BJP ahead of the 2014 General Election, successfully contesting from Ballari Lok Sabha constituency, is a wave that is cresting just in time. He is expected to consolidate the ST vote across not only the 15 constituencies reserved for Tribals, but in dozens of others with sizeable populations of Backward Classes and Telugu speakers. “Growing up a son of a railway porter, I decided early on in life that I would make a difference to my community through social work or politics. When we met ahead of Parliament’s second Budget session in March, I requested Modiji to seriously consider including the Parivara and the Talawara communities in the list of STs—a demand they have had for 30 years. He said, ‘We will get it done within a week.’ Now, this decision is going to benefit over 20 lakh people. This is how the Karnataka BJP works—Dalit leaders are on equal footing with the Lingayats, whereas in the Congress, a senior leader like Mallikarjun Kharge, whom many consider a modern-day Ambedkar, is sidelined by his own partymen. He cannot campaign outside Gulbarga, but look at me, I am a popular face of the BJP, and not just among Dalits,” Sriramulu says. “To me, nationalist pride and Hindutva, the foundations on which the BJP is built, are more important than my own identity as an icon of the Nayaka community. I am a nationalist first and a crusader later.”

His uncle Sanna Fakirappa is the BJP candidate from Ballari Rural, a constituency with 50,000 Muslim votes. “They will never vote for us, however much we may soften our stand. But we are confident of throwing out the Congress across Ballari district,” Sriramulu says, folding his hands in prayer as a small procession passes, carrying a dead cow on a stretcher to an honourable funeral.

“To me, nationalist pride and Hindutva, the foundations on which the BJP is built, are more important than my own identity as an icon of the Nayaka community” - B Sriramulu, BJP candidate from Molakalmuru and Badami

AT 9 AM ON AN ochre-bright day in Ballari, Gali Somashekara Reddy, the 52-year-old former mayor and MLA, kicks off his door-to-door campaign from a road named after Dr Tekur Subramanyam, a freedom fighter, veteran Congressman and three-time MP. “For young people across the state, Narendra Modi is an icon,” he says, flashing an iridescent smile at a class of about 40 youth, many of them first-time voters, at a coaching centre in the vicinity. “He is India’s Modi, I am Ballari’s Modi,” says the BJP’s candidate from Ballari Urban who is up against Congress MLA Anil Lad in the upcoming Assembly elections. They are on equal footing. Reddy was arrested in 2012 as the second accused in the alleged bribing of CBI judge T Pattabhirama Rao for granting bail to his brother Gali Janardhana Reddy in an illegal mining case. Lad was arrested in 2015 for the alleged illegal export of 15,000 tonnes of ore from Belekeri port in Karwar and kept out of the Siddaramaiah cabinet. The contest between the two, who have each represented the Ballari Urban Assembly constituency, is symbolic of the canker of wealth and power that is embedded in Bellari’s politics today.

Tucking into breakfast at a final meet-and-greet in the city before he leaves for Kudligi to accompany NY Gopalakrishna, a recent defector from the Congress who is filing his nominations, Somashekara Reddy says the 28,000 new voters in Ballari Urban are a big vote bank for the BJP. “The Congress government’s Ahinda strategy won’t work on them,” he says. A zipper holds together the loose ends of his gamcha into an improvised vest emblazoned with the kamal. A doctor in a sports jersey, said to be a close confidante of Sushma Swaraj, and an aspirant for the BJP ticket from the constituency, is part of the small retinue of party workers canvassing for votes. “In Ballari district, if five constituencies are reserved for STs and two for SCs, one is reserved for Somashekara Reddy,” says K Shashikala, the district president of the BJP’s women’s wing. “No one else in the party wields such influence over urban Ballari.” This is the man who famously asked Chief Conservator of Forests UV Singh, when he arrived in Ballari in 2009 for the Lokayukta’s investigation into illegal mining in reserve forests, if he was here with the permission of the minister in-charge of Ballari, Janardhana Reddy. The former minister, arrested twice, in 2011 and in 2015, is sitting it out this election while managing the campaign in Molakalmuru, 10 km from the Ballari-Chitradurga district border, for Sriramulu as the candidate flits in and out of the constituency on his chopper.

“We have worked to get drinking water at our own cost for the people of Ballari. The people know we have given back to the land” - G Karunakara Reddy, BJP candidate from Harpanahalli

The texture of politics in Ballari, which once nurtured leaders with integrity, Subramanyam, VKRV Rao and RY Ghorpade among them, has become a lot coarser over the past decade and a half. In the 2008 Assembly elections, a family of big league miners, Gali Janardhana Reddy, Gali Karunakara Reddy and Gali Somashekara Reddy, and Sriramulu, led the BJP to victory in four districts—Bellary, Davanagere, Haveri and Gadag. They also brought a Rs 16,085-crore scam to the BJP’s doorstep, and tainted its first-ever government in south India under BS Yeddyurappa’s leadership. A report on the rampant illegal extraction of iron ore by Lokayukta Santosh Hegde indicted the leaders from Ballari and led to a blanket ban on mining in Karnataka in 2011, which was subsequently lifted by the Supreme Court to allow class ‘A’ and ‘B’ mines to extract up to 35 million tonnes of ore per year. The red dust may have settled in Ballari, but as the state goes to the polls on May 12th, mining moghuls have once again turned power brokers and star campaigners for both the Congress and the BJP in Karnataka 2018, where the Congress hopes to make history with a second consecutive term, and the BJP grapples for a foothold in the south.

In the 2013 polls, Sriramulu’s BSRCP, founded in 2011, won just four seats—three in Ballari district and one in Belgaum—but the party, along with BS Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), managed to split the BJP’s votes in several other constituencies in the northern districts. The Congress polled 36.6 per cent of votes in all and swept 122 seats, and the BJP with 19.9 per cent was left with just 40 seats, but the two breakaway parties together with the BJP could have accounted for a 32.4 per cent vote share, just four percentage points behind the Congress. This time round, the BJP has embraced Yeddyurappa and Sriramulu as lodestars of its campaign among Lingayats and Nayakas to resurrect the party’s prospects in Karnataka.

Once the Reddys’ fiefdom, Ballari, with nine Assembly segments besides Harpanahalli, is being hotly contested this election, with the Congress, too, roping in influential and moneyed miners to anchor its campaign. As truth becomes provisional in electioneering and thuggery is declared a non-recessive trait, the taint on the shoulders of some influential candidates and their protégés is deftly painted over with smiling images of Modi and Siddaramaiah. If the BJP is fielding B Raghavendra, a political novice backed by Kartikeya Ghorpade, mining baron and descendant of the former royal family of Sandur, the Congress, like a child mimicking a specular image, has put up 28-year-old B Murali Krishna, the nephew of another shark who swam in Ballari’s mineral wealth, in Siruguppa. Both are constituencies reserved for STs. In yet another seat, Kampli, Sriramulu’s nephew, TH Suresh Babu, the sitting MLA, is contesting to retain his seat.

“For young people across the state, Narendra Modi is an icon. The Congress government’s Ahinda strategy won’t work on the 28,000 new voters here” - G Somashekara Reddy, BJP candidate from Ballari Urban

On April 24th, the last day to file nominations, wave upon shimmering wave of adrenalised, flag-waving political workers— first the BJP’s, then a rebel independent’s, the JD(S)’ and finally the Congress’—march down the streets of Siruguppa, right up to the barricades of the taluk office guarded by paramilitary forces. The Valmikis are the largest community in the constituency, the Lingayats a close second. Shunted forth in this sweaty dance of democracy, we come face to face with B Nagendra, the 47-year-old Kudligi MLA, an independent who joined the Congress in February along with Murali Krishna, his nephew. Nagendra, Sriramulu says, is “a mere boy” in Ballari politics. But if scams and enormous wealth are markers of power in Ballari, Nagendra, who was arrested for illegal export of ore via Belekeri, cannot be taken lightly. “I joined the Congress because I am secular at heart. The Chief Minister gave me a lot of importance in the decisions on ST constituencies. In the Siruguppa seat, for instance, there were reports that our sitting MLA BM Nagaraj wasn’t able to connect with the people. It became clear that we had to field someone from our family. This may be a Congress bastion, but we too enjoy goodwill here,” says Nagendra, who is contesting on a Congress ticket from Ballari Rural. “Educated and articulate leaders from ST communities are hard to come by, and parties often find it is best to field a young, qualified newbie backed by an influential local,” says Krishna, perspiration sheeting his face and flowing down the folds of his fine cotton kurta. “I had not set foot in the constituency until a month ago. I am nervous, but less and less so as we cover 14 villages day after day,” he says, with the sophisticated air of a Bangalore businessman. “I got a tan on my face in the past five days.” Krishna, who runs a real estate business, is filing his nomination in the company of Nasir Hussain, Rajya Sabha member and AICC spokesperson, and KC Kondaiah, an MLC and a Congress veteran who managed Sonia Gandhi’s top-drawer contest against Sushma Swaraj in Ballari in the 1999 General Election, ensuring her entry to Parliament. Watching the Assembly election unfold through the slats of the past, perhaps they are imagining another victory for the Congress in Ballari.

“At our worst time, we still secured 40.8 per cent voteshare against the BJP’s 43 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP, which won 17 of the 28 Lok Sabha constituencies, was leading in 132 Assembly segments and we were leading in 77. But the BJP was riding the Modi wave then and it is in decline now. The Congress is on strong footing thanks to a pro-people government. We are certain to improve our voteshare, especially in Hyderabad- Karnataka, which continues to benefit from the amendment of Article 371 by the Congress Government at the Centre in 2012,” says Santosh S Lad, minister for Labour and the minister-in-charge of Ballari. A cousin of Anil Lad’s, Santosh Lad had resigned from the Siddaramaiah cabinet in 2013 amidst allegations of his firm’s involvement in illegal mining, but he was reinstated in 2016. Sources in the Congress say it was Santosh Lad who negotiated Nagendra’s induction into the party and convinced BS Anand Singh, the BJP MLA from Vijayanagar and a former Janardhana Reddy loyalist, to defect. With the party fielding Singh, another accused in the mining scam, from his constituency—against former Congress MLA HR Gaviyappa who has crossed over to the BJP—the Congress strategy in Ballari suggests a new dispensation is in place. For a party that led a sanctimonious ‘Bellary Chalo’ padayatra against the Reddys’ ‘looting ways’ back in 2010, the Congress now has to rely on dodgy wheels in its own campaign car.

IT IS NOT easy to campaign without a handy grab bag of anti-incumbent sentiments. In Ballari, water and roads have become a delicious subplot in a story rutted in political decadence. The paddy farmers of Kampli in Ballari district have suffered 25- 30 per cent losses this year and TH Suresh Babu, the two-time BJP MLA seeking a third term in a row, knows just who to blame. The Congress government does not care to release enough water from the Tungabhadra dam in a timely fashion, he says. “If the BJP comes to power, I will ensure that our farmers get water for two crops in a year. Either that or I will resign as MLA,” he says, addressing an enrapt audience in Devasamudra, a village in Hospet taluk that is in the midst of wrapping up the season’s harvest. “I am certain I will have an important role to play if the BJP forms the government.” Atop his Isuzu campaign vehicle, in the mirth of the stagey spotlights, Babu dares the Congress candidate, JN Ganesh, to enter the village and answer to the people. Emotion flatlines his lips and the pulse of the crowd seems to quicken. They lap up his strawman arguments and surround him like a flock of buzzing bees as he takes a walk through a street sinking into darkness. A close associate of Sriramulu and Janardhana Reddy, their faces figure prominently in Babu’s campaign alongside Narendra Modi’s and AB Vajpayee’s. “Janardhana Reddy cannot be sidelined. He is the source of strength for the party in Ballari,” he says. “With him actively campaigning outside Ballari district, we know we can expect good results.”

“Congress failed to groom good leaders, so I decided to back young outsiders like Santosh Lad. In the past 10 years, however, they have pursued selfish motives and laid waste to the district” - Katikeya Ghorpade, Ballari mining baron

The eldest of the Reddy brothers, G Karunakara Reddy, 56, arriving in a procession at his office after filing nomination papers from Harpanahalli, agrees that “Ballari and the surrounding districts are in safe hands this time”. “We have worked to get drinking water at our own cost for the people of Ballari. The people know we have given back to the land. As for the so-called differences between me and Sriramulu [a property dispute and a cold war since Sriramulu’s candidate from Harpanahalli split the vote in the 2013 elections and ensured Reddy’s defeat at the hands of the Congress candidate], they were small matters that we have resolved. United, we can make the Congress beat a retreat,” says the former revenue minister, as supporters fawn over pictures of him with Yeddyurappa displayed under the glass tabletop in his office.

“The current crop of politicians in Ballari are children of the mining boom,” says Kartikeya Ghorpade, 59, at his genteel bungalow set in the hills of Sandur. “They are not service-oriented, they have no pride in the place.” One of the largest mine owners in the country, the Ghorpades were a Congress family until his daughter married BJP leader Yashodhara Raje Scindia’s son last year. “I suspect the BJP has been working on me ever since. I finally joined the party because as a member of a prominent family here, I felt impelled to act,” says Kartikeya Ghorpade, whose father, MY Ghorpade, was a veteran Congressman, a seven-time MLA, MP from Raichur, and former finance minister of Karnataka. “After his passing, the party failed to groom good leaders within its own ranks, so I decided to back young outsiders like Santosh Lad. In the past 10 years, however, they have pursued selfish motives and laid waste to the district,” says Ghorpade, as B Raghavendra, the candidate he is backing from Sandur, stands submissively without uttering a word. Fielding a new candidate in Sandur, a Congress bastion, is a risky bet, but Ghorpade says his family’s goodwill will see them through. “I have been working harder than the candidate, touring every village in the constituency. Amit Shah gave me a free hand in the western parts of the district, and we have put up clean candidates here,” he says. Ghorpade is uncomfortable with Ballari’s brand of politics. He has also warned Shah not to rake up communal issues when campaigning in Ballari. “That won’t work here. How would I canvass for votes in a village like Daulatpur which is predominantly Muslim?” he says. As Shah hits the road for his next round of campaigning with Sriramulu and other leaders in northern Karnataka, the BJP may just prefer the taint of corruption to the taint of saffron.