Bengaluru: Trouble is brewing for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the border town of Belagavi in Karnataka, which has divided the party leaders into camps. At the crux of this trouble is the growing assertion of the influential Jarkiholi family in the party, the outcome of the recently concluded legislative council elections, and the fight for a coveted spot in the state cabinet.
More than a month after the legislative council poll results were declared, BJP leaders in Karnataka still speak in hushed tones about the party’s loss from Belagavi. Despite having 13 MLAs and two MPs from the state, the BJP’s candidate lost his incumbent seat.
In the elections, the BJP secured 11 of the 25 legislative council seats, stopping one short of a clear majority in the house. Of the dual-member seat that went to polls from Belagavi, the Congress won one, while the other was bagged by an independent candidate. This candidate was Lakhan Jarkiholi, the youngest of the Jarkiholi brothers, who contested as an Independent after being denied a ticket by the BJP.
If the BJP’s claims of being a party that rejects family/dynasty politics and stands for ideological commitment is anything to go by, the Jarkiholi family is a contradiction. It continues to cautiously depend on the Jarkiholis in Belagavi, much to the dislike of many in the party.
Who are the Jarkiholi brothers
The Jarkiholi family of legislators is rich and wields immense political power in Belagavi district — similar to how the Reddy brothers (Gali Janardhana Reddy, G. Karunakara Reddy, G. Somashekhara Reddy and B. Sriramulu) wielded money and political power to become synonymous with Bellary for the BJP during the party’s first stint in governing Karnataka.
While the Bellary brothers gained their fortunes from mining and alleged irregularities, the Jarkiholis are landlords and sugar barons.
The Jarkiholis are five brothers — Ramesh and Balachandra are BJP MLAs, Satish is a Congress MLA and working president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), Lakhan is a recently elected independent member of the legislative council (MLC), and Bhimashi had dabbled in politics previously. All are key players in Belagavi politics — a district that makes up 18 of the 224 assembly constituencies in Karnataka.
The Jarkiholis also command the loyalty of two BJP MLAs — Mahesh Kumathalli and Srimanth Patil — who had defected from the Congress in 2019 along with Ramesh Jarkiholi.
The brothers have taken on each other in polls in the past, a ploy that, insiders claim, is an attempt to ensure no alternate leadership emerges.
Incidentally, the BJP, which is one seat short of a simple majority in the legislative council, may need Lakhan Jarkiholi’s support to ensure the passage of key bills.
While Balachandra Jarkiholi had shifted to BJP from the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2008 — the first of the ‘Operation Lotus’ defections — and became a minister, Ramesh Jarkiholi had led the spate of defections from the Congress-JDS coalition government in 2019. He became a minister, only to be forced to resign in March 2021 over allegations of sexual exploitation.
Balachandra continues to hold the powerful position of chairman of the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF). One of the Reddy brothers, Somashekhar, is also a former chairman of KMF.
Katti’s dinner meeting
The growing influence of the Jarkiholis in Belagavi has irked many leaders in the BJP. A dinner meeting hosted last week at the residence of Umesh Katti, Karnataka’s minister for food and civil supplies, is indicative of the same.
Sources in the BJP told ThePrint that the meeting, that the Jarkiholi brothers and their aides weren’t invited to, was centred on curbing their assertion in the party and fight for cabinet berths. Karnataka’s cabinet currently has four vacant berths and a rejig of ministers is expected.
“There are naturally aspirants for ministerial berths, but the senior leadership of the party will take a call on when and how to go about it. I have apprised the central leadership of the matter. I will share my inputs when they call me for discussions,” Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai told ThePrint, when asked about the cabinet reshuffle.
On Sunday, minister Katti had told reporters that last week’s dinner meeting was a “casual” affair: “We neither invited anyone nor kept anyone at bay for the meeting. We are party colleagues and only met casually. Anyone interested could have joined.”
Bommai had followed suit Monday. “I don’t know about this secret meeting. Leaders keep meeting over various issues. Intent being attributed to this meeting isn’t right,” he had told reporters.
The meeting, according to party insiders, left the Jarkiholis fuming.
Growing influence of Jarkiholi
A month after the Belagavi MLC seat electoral loss was flagged as a “concern” by former chief minister and senior BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappa, and raked up in the two-day BJP executive meeting held in Hubballi on 28 and 29 December, no inquiry or action has been initiated.
The reason may very well be the influence the Jarkiholis brothers wield in the region. “The party is definitely dependent on them in most assembly seats in Belagavi because there is no alternative leadership. It is a give and take,” a senior office bearer of the BJP told ThePrint.
“We lost the Belagavi seat because Panchamasali Lingayat votes shifted to the Congress,” the leader added, steering clear of speaking about how Lakhan — hailing from the Valmiki community — polled more votes than the BJP’s official candidate.
“The Jarkiholis actively campaigned for Lakhan despite BJP choosing not to field him. The brothers even gave the BJP state executive meeting in Hubballi a miss, knowing fully well that the MLC results would be discussed,” pointed out another office bearer of the BJP state unit.
Earlier last week, Ramesh Jarkiholi had set BJP circles abuzz after meeting a senior RSS functionary in Belagavi.
“I am not lobbying for a cabinet berth or seeking any favour. I am only meeting people for personal reasons. I am also not the go-between for the party and my brother. Whether he decides to support the BJP as an MLC or not is his choice,” Ramesh told ThePrint.
Sources close to Ramesh however suggest that he is batting for his confidante and Athani MLA Mahesh Kumathalli — who followed him to the BJP from Congress — to be inducted into the cabinet.
While many in the party do not concede that the Jarkiholi brothers are key players for the BJP in Belagavi, senior party leaders making a beeline to Lakhan Jarkiholi’s residence seeking his support during the Belagavi Lok Sabha bypolls held last year, narrated a different story.
Despite the BJP fielding Mangala Angadi in the bypoll — necessitated by the death of husband and former minister of state for railways Suresh Angadi due to Covid-19 — hoping she would ride the sympathy wave, the party struggled to win the seat, scraping through with a margin of around 5,000 votes. Congress had then fielded Satish Jarkiholi against Mangala Angadi and it had taken the BJP the combined might of three Jarkiholi brothers against one to wrest the seat.
BJP’s margin in 2019 in the same seat was over 3.9 lakh.
“The BJP is caught between two stools in terms of trying to project an identity that they aren’t a family-oriented party and on the other hand allowing this family its role and say. And by not allowing this family its role and say, it has had to face consequences of losing seats it could have otherwise won or winning seats with very thin margins. This is a dilemma the BJP has faced — of whether it would like to bow down to family politics, or stick to its projected principles and face the political cost that comes with it,” Professor Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and national coordinator of Lokniti Network — a nation-wide network of scholars based in universities and other research institutions — told ThePrint.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)