Seldom has a regional clan mattered so much to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the Reddy brothers of Bellary, a district in North Karnataka that became nationally infamous for the several thousand crore illegal mining scam that was unearthed between 2007 and 2013 when the BJP ruled the state. After distancing itself from the Reddys for a brief while, the BJP has brought them back in business in the current Karnataka polls, even if their rehabilitation has meant compromising with its so-called commitment to upholding probity.
The three Reddy brothers —- Galli Karunakara, Janardhana and Somashekhara -— were so integral to the BJP’s politics not only in Karnataka but at the Centre too that party seniors L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj weighed-in with them rather than the chief minister of the day, B S Yeddyurappa when it was time to apportion blame for the mining scam and the corroborative damage it brought to the government and the BJP’s image. Yeddyurappa’s name featured in the Lokayukta’s report on the scam after which the BJP dumped him mid-way through his tenure.
Since the BJP lost Karnataka in 2013, it studiously maintained a distance from the Reddys who themselves came apart thereafter. Karunakara fell out with Janardhana and Somashekhara to such a degree that when Janardhana had invited half of Bellary to his daughter’s wedding, his older brother was not. Janardhana was earlier in the Hyderabad and Bengaluru jails after he was convicted in the Rs 50,000 crore mining scam and was proscribed by the Supreme Court from entering Bellary, his homestead. The court’s order holds good even today.
As recent as on March 31, BJP president Amit Shah proclaimed at a press conference in Mysuru that his party will have nothing to do with the Reddys. Apparently, Janardhana and Somashekhara did not take kindly to Shah’s assertion and let it be known that they were hobnobbing with the Congress, a prospect that made the BJP jittery because the Reddys’ clout extends beyond Bellary to neighbouring Davangere and Chitradurga. The Reddys were in hot waters because the Karnataka chief minister Siddharamaiah decided to open the iron ore export scam after the CBI had closed it. “It was a question of survival for them because once the family was out of power, their enemies had reclaimed the Bellary turf over the last five or six years. The Reddys badly wanted political patronage whether from us or the BJP,” a Congress source said.
As if in reflex, the BJP gave Somashekara an assembly election ticket from Bellary City while his close associate Sanna Fakkirappa secured one from Bellary Rural after he openly consorted with the Congress. BJP sources said the response was not as “knee-jerk” as it appeared because the first sign of a rapprochement was visible in November 2016 when top party leaders attended the marriage of Janardhana’s daughter. When Somashekhara was “gifted” a ticket, Janardhana—though officially “unwanted” by the BJP—told his aides that the Reddys were back in business for a “good” second innings.
Karnataka BJP spokesperson and legal cell member Vivek Subba Reddy sought to justify the Reddys’ resurrection, contending, “Fakkirappa and Somashekara are not linked to the mining scam. The Congress has given tickets to bad apples like (KJ) George, (NA) Haris and Anil Lad (who the CBI had arrested in 2015 for the illegal ore mining scam).” Reddy “clarified” that the BJP had not given Janardhana an official mandate. “By himself if he wishes to support someone we can’t help it,” he added. Obviously Janardhana is not waiting for a cue from the BJP because he has set up base at a farmhouse near Chitradurga to oversee Somashekhara and Fakkirappa’s electioneering.
BJP’s Davangere MP Gowdar Mallikarjunappa Siddeshwar, “What is wrong with Somashekhara and Fakkirappa? They are BJP leaders.”
However, there’s a critical missing link in the chain that binds the Reddys and the BJP together. He is B Sreeramulu, BJP MP from Bellary that in 1999 saw an epic battle between Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj in which Sonia was the victor.
Sreeramulu is a surrogate member of the Reddy “parivar”, although he chooses to play up his tribal and rural origins as his political strengths. Sreeramulu told BS, “I belong to a tribal community, I have no business contact because I am a farmer and not a miner. Janardhana Reddy is my friend and that’s not a drawback.”
If Yeddyurappa’s rebellion cost the BJP its Lingayat votes and a possible comeback in the 2013 Karnataka polls, Sreeramulu was no less a spoiler. Peeved by the manner in which the BJP jettisoned his Reddy friends, he floated an independent party, the Badavara Shramikara Raitara Congress Party and by conservative estimates, took away 28 percent of the votes in the Bellary district. Come 2014, Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha and Sreeramulu’s BSRCP merged with the BJP and helped swing 17 of 28 Lok Sabha seats.
Sreeramulu belongs to the Nayaka tribal community but political observers believe he commands the captive votes of other tribal groupings as well in the 15 ST reserved seats in the Bellary, Raichur, Mysuru, Chitradurga, Davangere, Tumkur and Belgaum districts that account for 52 percent of the tribal population.
Sreeramulu and Yeddyurappa’s close political associate Shobha Karandlaje are the two MPs who will contest the assembly polls. Sreeramulu is fighting from Molakalmuru (ST) seat in the Chitradurga district.
A combination of the money, muscle and political clout wielded by the Reddys and Sreeramulu’s tribal antecedents are what the BJP hopes will bring to it a bounty from north Karnataka.