Election Watch: Why the Ballari Barons worry the BJP

Even as the Bommai government lurches from one crisis to another, the Reddy brothers’ intention to contest assembly polls is giving the BJP jitters in Karnataka

Sources claim Janardhana Reddy is in touch with candidates from all parties who had lost in the last election. He is said to be considering fielding some of them as KRPP candidates in this assembly election
Sources claim Janardhana Reddy is in touch with candidates from all parties who had lost in the last election. He is said to be considering fielding some of them as KRPP candidates in this assembly election

Naheed Ataulla

They were known as the ‘Ballari Brothers’ or the ‘Ballari Barons’. Children of a police constable, the eldest of them, G. Janardhana Reddy, was accused of masterminding a mining scam that deprived Karnataka of a staggering Rs 16,000 crore. While the Union home minister Amit Shah and the BJP have formally distanced themselves from Janardhana Reddy, two of the brothers continue to be BJP legislators in the state; and a close associate and ‘friend’, Sriramulu, is the state’s transport minister.

The announcement last month of a new political party by Janardhana Reddy, therefore, generated ripples of interest. Karnataka BJP’s official position is that it would have no impact on the assembly election in May this year. Others are keeping their fingers crossed.

The Reddy brothers’ honeymoon with the BJP began in the 1990s and lasted till 2009 or so. They helped late Sushma Swaraj contest the Lok Sabha election in 1999 against Sonia Gandhi and helped BJP to make inroads into Ballari, which traditionally was a Congress stronghold.

In 2008, when the BJP came to power in the state, Reddy was inducted into the cabinet along with his brother Karunakara Reddy and associate Sriramulu. In 2009, he revolted and took away 60 BJP MLAs to a resort, which forced the then chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa to drop one of his confidantes Shobha Karandlaje (now a Union minister) from the state cabinet.

The honeymoon soured further since Reddy was accused by the Karnataka Lokayukta of a huge mining scam that allegedly cost the state a loss of over Rs 16,000 crore. Reddy was arrested in 2011 and released on bail in 2015. The brothers maintained a relatively low profile till Janardhana’s daughter Brahmani’s wedding in 2018. For the big, fat wedding, the venue was recreated as an opulent palace of the Vijayanagara kingdom.

Earlier, the brothers would move between Ballari and Bengaluru in their fleet of three helicopters. Now, the helipad adjacent to his palatial house on Siriguppa Road in Ballari city, is sparingly used for family functions. In Ballari, it is Janardhana Reddy’s wife Aruna Lakshmi who is looking after the fledgeling party Kalyana Rajya Pragati Paksha (KRPP) on his behalf.

That is because Janardhana Reddy is still not allowed to visit Ballari as per the court orders. The Supreme Court’s ban on his movement in Ballari district, Ananthapur and Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh, while granting him conditional bail in 2015, has not been vacated. Reddy’s appeal in October 2022 seeking to modify conditions and allow him to “enter, stay and function” in Ballari district was rejected.

BJP insiders in Bengaluru believe his sole intention in floating the new outfit is to embarrass BJP national general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh, who the brothers believe was instrumental in the party disowning Janardhana Reddy and distancing the party from the brothers. “It’s blackmail. His new party may not make much electoral gain, but it can be a spoiler for the BJP candidates,” they suggest.

Other sources claim that a lot of groundwork has been done by Reddy before launching KRPP. He is said to have been in touch with candidates from all the parties who had lost in the last election. They are being considered as potential KRPP candidates this year. Reddy, who takes every decision after consulting astrologers, has also reportedly asked prospective aspirants to submit their horoscopes, these sources claim, indicating that Reddy is serious.

Although historically regional parties have fared poorly in elections in Karnataka, BJP insiders are wary and point to former BJP strongman and chief minister B.S. Yediurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha that had ensured the defeat of official BJP candidates in 29 constituencies.

The BJP government in the state had been sitting over CBI’s request for permission to attach Janardhana Reddy’s properties. It finally gave its nod to CBI on January 12 after the Karnataka High Court’s rap on the knuckles. The high court on 10 January 2023 had questioned the state government as to why no decision was being taken on the CBI’s request for the past five years. “According to the government, not taking action might also be an ‘action’. But this is not acceptable to the court,” the court had said.

The CBI had also sought permission to seize Reddy’s properties in August 2022, alleging that they had been amassed illegally. The central agency claimed to have detected 219 new properties in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, allegedly purchased with illicit money.

Union home minister Amit Shah on his visit to the state earlier this month has set a target of winning 150 seats in the 224-member assembly. At the moment it looks like an uphill task with the state government headed by Basavaraj Bommai lurching from one crisis to another. The chief minister is preoccupied in pacifying senior leaders in the party who are miffed with his working. He has been raising reservation quotas for specific castes and hoping for their support in the election. He has also not been able to fill up the six vacancies in the cabinet although the government’s term in office is drawing to a close.

Bommai, who replaced Lingayat strongman B.S. Yediyurappa in July 2021, has been busy taking decisions pleasing to the RSS and the Hindutva lobby in the state. His justification on moral policing, anti-conversion laws, proposal to free the temples from government control were designed to please a certain constituency.

But allegations of corruption with contractors alleging that they are being asked to pay as much as 40 per cent of the cost of projects as commission to ministers and BJP legislators have stuck in the public memory. Sarcastic honorifics of ‘40 per cent Sarkara’ have stuck. Embarrassing details of voter data theft in Bengaluru and unabated communal killings and violence in the coastal region have dented the government’s image and created doubts on its ability to govern.

In a bid to compensate anticipated losses in the next election, BJP is concentrating its efforts in the Old Mysuru region, where Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress are traditional rivals and have been winning over the years. The region accounts for 90 seats from Kolar to Chamarajanagar districts.

There are 40 seats in the core Mysuru region of Mysuru, Mandya, Chamarajanagar, Hassan and Bengaluru Rural. In the last election, the BJP had won one seat each in Mysuru, Chamarajanagar and Hassan while drawing a blank in Mandya and Bengaluru Rural. It got one seat in Mandya in a bypoll later.

The Bommai government’s decision to hike reservation for Scheduled Castes from 15 per cent to 17 per cent and that of the Scheduled Tribes from 3 per cent to 7 per cent in the state is also done with an eye on the election. SCs constitute 16 per cent and STs 6.9 per cent of the state’s population. The quota hikes have breached the Supreme Court’s cap of 50 per cent.

“The enhanced quotas will hopefully be cleared shortly by the Centre. And when the party forms the next government, more representation will be given to SCs and STs,” says BJP MLA B. Harshavardhan.

The Bommai government has also decided to create two new categories in the existing quota matrix for two politically and electorally strong communities, Vokkaligas and Lingayats, in education and employment. Vokkaligas have been the vote bank of the JD(S), while the Lingayat community is dominant in 100 constituencies in north Karnataka.

BJP leaders point out that in the 2018 Assembly polls, BJP candidates lost their deposit in 52 constituencies in the old Mysuru region. This was because weak candidates were fielded in the expectation of support by the JD(S) in forming the government. But the reservation quotas and stronger candidates this time, they believe, will see the BJP through.

“In every constituency, the BJP has to make up for roughly 20,000 votes of Muslims that are not cast in its favour,” says a BJP leader. But that has not stopped the party from winning. It’s all about perception, says state BJP spokesperson S. Prakash. Implied is the belief that if the BJP can convince voters that it is winning, the party will be through.

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