The fight for Bellary (ST)
Notably, the KRPP has not floated a candidate in the adjoining Bellary seat reserved for the ST community, triggering speculation about who Janardhan Reddy will rally behind in this election.
The key candidates are BJP’s sitting MP B Sreeramulu and Congress’s incumbent MLA B Nagendra – both are friends of Janardhan Reddy since their early days in politics.
“We will not comment on why Janardhan has taken this decision. You will get to know that on the result day. Since both are our friends, we are not commenting,” said Sunil.
On the party’s decision to float Janardhan’s wife against his brother, Sunil said it was because Somashekara and Sreemulu refused his offer to leave the BJP and join him. “Janardhan has made all these people MLAs and ministers. Nobody even knew their faces and now suddenly they feel that they don’t need his support. This has hurt him. They were not leaving BJP to support him. That’s why he has made his wife contest from Bellary City.”
A shared history
For nearly two decades, Ballari has been considered Janardhan Reddy’s turf in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region – a district home to 25 percent of the country’s iron resources. Around 1994, after the state government introduced new mining policies and opened the doors for private players, Janardhan Reddy along with his two elder brothers – G Karunakara Reddy and G Somashekara Reddy – entered the business with their small mining company. The business boomed as Ballari turned into a hub for iron ore extraction and the Reddys fed Chinese demand for the element to match infrastructural needs of the 2008 Olympics.
From the early 2000s, the Reddys threw themselves into electoral politics. In 2004, Janardhan Reddy won his first assembly election from the undivided Bellary constituency on a BJP ticket and in 2008, his elder brothers Karunakara and Somashekara made political debuts in the Harpanhhal and Bellary City segments, respectively, on BJP tickets.
But it wasn’t just the family. Janardhan Reddy is known to have established the political careers of his close associates.
One of them is BJP MP Sreeramulu, with whom Janardhan’s friendship began in 1999, when the former began working for BJP leader Sushma Swaraj’s campaign. Ties with Janardhan helped Sreeramulu, whose father worked as a milkman and who hails from the ST community, gain influence within the community. And, over the years, Sreeramulu climbed the political ladder in the BJP and became the party’s main ST face, giving a tough fight to former CM Siddaramiah in Badami segment in 2018. As per his poll affidavit, he has four criminal cases against him and is the owner of assets and liabilities around Rs 80 crore.
B Nagendra is also from a modest ST family, a close aide to Janardhan Reddy and a big supporter of Sreeramulu. “Sreeramulu has been my friend, not my competitor. Until I joined the Congress, I was handling his campaigning. Today, it is our destiny that we are competing against each other,” said Nagendra.
The CBI had arrested him in 2013, along with Janardhan and two other MLAs, alleging that his firm Eagle Logistics stole iron ore in Ballari and exported it through the Belekeri port. As per his poll affidavit, Nagendra has 42 criminal cases against him and has assets and liabilities worth Rs 20 crores.
But in the fight between “friends”, it remains unclear which party will benefit from the absence of a KRPP candidate in Bellary (ST) segment.
B Nagendra said, “Currently, since Janardhan is not on good terms with B Sreeramulu, his decision is going to help the Congress. If KRPP contested from here, it would have split the Muslim voters, which is our main vote bank.”
In the Bellary (ST) constituency, 20 percent voters are from the Muslim community, 25 percent from the Scheduled Castes, and 20 percent from ST groups.
Though the odds seem stacked against him over local concerns about price rise, Sreeramulu is set to throw a tough challenge – he has won thrice from this constituency, in 2008, 2011 and 2013.
Additionally, several voters from the ST community said they have been told by BJP workers that Janardhan Reddy and Sreemulu are on the same page. “They both are eyes and ears of Ballari. Janardhan Reddy has fulfilled his friendship by not fielding a candidate from this constituency,” said a voter.
In January, Sreeramulu’s social media handle tweeted an appeal to attend a public meeting held by KRPP. The tweet was retracted and the BJP leader had claimed that his account was hacked.
Sreeramulu refused to comment on KRPP’s decision to not field a candidate.
The role of money
Voters in Ballari are not new to the idea of the role of money and muscle in the area’s politics.
Most voters Newslaundry spoke to claimed that money is being offered to voters ahead of May 10, when the state’s 224 constituencies go to elections.
In Bellary (ST) constituency, voters alleged the amount was the same for all the candidates as of now but may increase as the election day approaches. In Bellary City, voters pointed to an amount “thrice” the sum being allegedly offered in Bellary (ST) due to “richer candidates”.
“Like 30 years ago, when the Reddy brothers had not entered politics, the Congress also used to distribute money. But only to the poorest voters. But when Reddy brothers started contesting elections, they made distribution of money a common practice. Money even made its way into the houses of even the middle class voters…now it has become a common practice amongst all contesting parties,” said a Ballari-based journalist with three decades of experience.
In 2014, authorities had several CCTV cameras across Ballari to monitor electoral malpractices during the campaign.
Activists involved in a petition – filed by environmentalist SR Hiremath in 2009 against illegal mining based on Lokayukta reports against the Reddy brothers – told Newslaundry that the common thread between all the candidates who are competing to win these two constituencies is that “they first got involved into the business of mining and natural resources and later into politics”. “Their common interest is not people, but to exert influence in the land of natural resources.”
With inputs from Khalid Karnataki.