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Karnataka Elections: The Importance of Bellary and Yeddyurappa's Red(dy) Problem

This Assembly election, once again, is going to see a keen contest between the BJP and the Congress in the nine constituencies that make up the Bellary district – one where ‘history’ is going to be quickly forgotten by many parties.

Deepa Balakrishnan | CNN-News18deepab18

Updated:April 2, 2018, 10:55 AM IST
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Karnataka Elections: The Importance of Bellary and Yeddyurappa's Red(dy) Problem
File photo of Gali Janardhana Reddy (left) with former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa. (GETTY IMAGES)
Bengaluru: “Your past can be forgiven for the present,” a senior BJP leader and Union Minister told this reporter when he was asked to answer if Bellary is a piece of history that’s best forgotten by the BJP.

“You see, there is nothing called a history chapter in politics. We are usually willing to forget people’s past,” he added.

Bellary, the north Karnataka district, known for its thousands-of-crores-worth illegal mining scam between 2007 and 2012, when the BJP was in power, is still a district that has its ‘touch of glamour’ in politics.

After all, the district saw that epic battle in 1999 for the Lok Sabha seat between Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj. This is the district that was in the news for rampant illegal mining; the district that was the fiefdom of the infamous Reddy brothers, who continue to face serious cases; the district that forced BJP state president BS Yeddyurappa to resign as Chief Minister when his name appeared in the Lokayukta’s report on Bellary mining scam. The famous padayatra by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and a host of top Congress leaders from Bengaluru to Bellary led the Congress to power.

Bellary, in fact, decided the fate of Karnataka in the 2013 election as illegal mining in the district was the only major issue in that poll.

This Assembly election, once again, is going to see a keen contest between the BJP and the Congress in the nine constituencies that make up the district – one where ‘history’ is going to be quickly forgotten by many parties.

Will the Reddy brothers still hold any sway over this district?

Strange things have happened since 2013. For one, Gali Janardhana Reddy, the former Minister who was once alleged to be the main conspirator in the illegal mining scam, has not been able to go to Bellary after a Supreme Court diktat prevented him from visiting his hometown.

For another, his close and loyal aide Sriramulu has suddenly risen through the ranks. Sriramulu is an important participant in most of the core committee and other strategy meetings, he is prominent in all the PM’s rallies, and most importantly, he is trusted by Yeddyurappa to win over the ST vote bank in the state.

A whopping five of the nine Assembly segments are reserved for ST candidates because of the huge population of the ST communities in these places. Two others are reserved for SC candidates. There are 10 other constituencies in other parts of the state that are reserved for STs.

“It is rather surprising that Sriramulu has grown to be a mass leader, purely because of his caste. He may face all kinds of criminal cases but he has turned a crowd-puller,” said a BJP MLA, when asked about the growing clout of this right-hand man of Janardhana Reddy.

The BJP is shy of being seen ‘close to the Reddy brothers’. And BJP president Amit Shah in Mysore on Saturday said that Janardhana Reddy has nothing to do with the party.

Sriramulu could well be a vote-swinger in all 15 ST constituencies, not just Bellary, it is felt. Reddy, while he has the power that money brings, is not someone who can be a mass leader.

The second factor is the baggage that Reddy brings – the ‘face’ of the illegal mining, as it were. But everyone in the BJP knows that Sriramulu-minus-Reddy is not practical as Sriramulu would never give up on his ‘guru’.

And then there is a third factor at play – the ‘Reddy brothers’ are no longer united. In fact, Janardhana and his elder brother Karunakara have fallen apart over the last four years. The quarrel runs so deep that Janardhana invited almost half of Bellary to his daughter’s grand royal wedding but strangely not his elder brother. Karunakara and Sriramulu have even filed police complaint against each other.

Not-so-brotherly

The story goes that one afternoon in early February, BJP State president BS Yeddyurappa made a hurried trip to Harapanahalli in Davangere, the district adjacent to Bellary. It was a hastily-planned rally, and one that Yeddyurappa could ill-afford the time for.

It was just two days to go before Prime Minister Modi was to address his first election rally in Bengaluru’s Palace Grounds. Amid his dizzy schedule to oversee the preparations for this, when he had already announced that his ‘Parivarthana Yatre’ of all Assembly constituencies had concluded in Mysore, it would have been strange to see the 76-year-old rush up and down to a town 300 kilometres away by a chopper.

Yet, it was something he had to do.

Because Yeddyurappa realised that Harapanahalli stood out like a sore thumb – barring that rally, he could not possibly claim (or have the PM claim at the rally two days later) that he had covered ‘all the 224 Assembly constituencies’ in Karnataka. This was the one constituency he hadn’t covered, primarily because of the rebellion over who gets to contest in Harahapanahalli.

The elder Reddy brother had made no secret of the fact that he wanted the party ticket to contest from here.

At the Harapahanahalli rally, Janardhana tried his best to avoid talking to Karunakara Reddy – Sriramulu and co had all along made it their mission to ensure the BJP keeps out Karunakara Reddy – and the elder Reddy tried hard to make a case for himself as the best ticket-aspirant from this constituency.

Glaringly, Yeddyurappa barely spoke to him, allowed audience for another aspirant on the same stage, and finally declared that the party is doing surveys on every candidate’s winnability and the final decision will be taken by its high command.

Harapanahalli continues to be a thorn in the flesh. And if the party ultimately goes by Sriramulu’s wish to nix chances of the elder Reddy getting a ticket it will only prove that this Bellary leader’s influence in decision-making spreads beyond his district.

Reddy’s younger brother Somashekar Reddy, on the other hand, is likely to contest this time – just to ensure at least one person in the family is represented.

Party loyalties

As of now, four of the nine segments are held by Congress MLAs, one by an independent, one by the BJP, one by the JDS and two by the now-extinct BSR party of the Reddy brothers’ confidant B Sriramulu.

The loyalties of these MLAs have changed today. Sriramulu (now an MP from the BJP) and his nephew, who won the other BSR party seat from Kampli, are now with the BJP.

The then BJP MLA Anand Singh joined the Congress in a surprise move in February. As did the ‘independent’ Nagendra. Both face cases of illegal mining too, but the Congress was willing to forget that part of history – winnability, the caste-make-up, even perhaps the lack of a good candidate led to the Congress’ selective amnesia.

“The CM probably relied on party intelligence reports to allow them to join. Of course, the Congress comes forth as one with no brains and no morals, but BJP also has no shame. It has poached the Congress’ past candidate Gaviappa, who had lost against their candidate Anand Singh,” says a veteran Congressman from the district.

Till 2004, Bellary was known as the one absolutely-reliable Congress bastion. What has, thus, angered some of the seniors from the district, is that there was no consultation with these leaders before inducting Singh and Nagendra into the party.

“Winning is our objective too, we want Congress to get maximum seats. But at least a few of the seniors from Bellary must have been consulted, but Siddaramaiah sits in Bengaluru and gets them to join. He only informs us later," said the veteran Congressman.

As the clock ticks down for selection on candidates, there are less than three weeks to go for filing nominations, the ruffled feathers are coming to the fore all the more. There are certain districts where district level office-bearers are at logger-heads with each other. Bellary is just one such. Other districts, like Hassan, have seen worse.

“If there are 10 to 15 leaders in the district, each of them has a team of followers to talk against each other. Either CM or Congress president should have called the different factions and sorted out differences, but that hasn’t happened,” the Bellary veteran says.

Congress’ calculations

Interestingly, it was the Congress’ Lad brothers – mainly Minister Santosh Lad, who was instrumental in bringing in the ‘defection’ of Anand Singh and others to his party.

Sources close to the Lads also like to take the ‘forget the past’ line on this. One of the oldest mine-lease holders of Bellary, the Lads too face court cases on the same issue as Singh or the Reddys.

“Yes some senior leaders are feeling left-out, that way we may have rubbed the seniors the wrong way. But winnability is the only factor this time, and the Congress is all out to increase its tally in Bellary,” says a close aide of Santosh Lad.

This election, the Lad camp feels, will also be a test of what the Reddys’ clout is without the huge sums of money.

“Of course, it will be another five or ten years before we can see their money-power being entirely wiped out. But BJP came into power in 2008 because of heavy money. Money is still there, but not that much. Reddy per se has no community backing in the region, and now Reddy-minus-the-money is a different person. The candidates from other parties are also financially sound enough to counter him,” the aide said.

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| Edited by: Ashutosh Tripathi
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