Once a Congress stronghold, Ballari saw Sonia Gandhi beat Sushma Swaraj before the controversial Reddy brothers delivered the seat to BJP for 14 years.
Bengaluru: The festival of lights has given the Congress-JD(S) combine the ideal metaphor with which to savour its headline-grabbing bypoll win in the Ballari Lok Sabha constituency in Karnataka.
The ruling combine’s victory in the bypoll, the result of which was announced Tuesday, was the first time in 14 years that the BJP has lost the Lok Sabha seat, considered a fiefdom of the infamous mining barons, the Ballari brothers.
Congress leaders were quick to play up the Diwali reference — the festival is celebrated as the return of Lord Ram after his 14 years in exile.
“People of Ballari have removed the darkness and brought back the light in their lives,” tweeted former chief minister, the Congress’ Siddaramaiah.
The darkness in his tweet referred to the infamous Reddy brothers — G. Janardhana Reddy, G. Karunakara Reddy and G. Somashekhara Reddy — who are mining czars and whose writ runs such in the constituency that the former Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde once described the region as the ‘Republic of Bellary’.
The Congress’ S.V. Ugrappa had defeated J. Shantha, the sister of B. Sriramulu, a key aide of the Reddys and a former BJP minister.
The ruling alliance’s win here not only dents the supremacy of the powerful Reddy brothers who back the BJP, it also marks another milestone in politics emanating from Ballari, which has over the years played a vital role in Karnataka politics.
“For the Congress, Ballari is important as it can argue that it is regaining its lost bastions. The BJP needs to retain Ballari to show that popular mood is still with it,” says political commentator Sandeep Shastri.
Why winning Ballari is important
Now synonymous with the Reddy brothers and the BJP, Ballari was once a Congress stronghold.
It shot into national prominence in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, when the constituency witnessed a high-stakes political battle between former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the current Foreign Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj.
But that was before the Reddy brothers and their aide Sriramulu began to take centrestage, defined by a clutch of infamous illegal mining cases.
Their rise mirrored that of the BJP in the state. For one, the Reddy brothers and other mining barons began funding the saffron outfit.
When the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 79 seats in the 2004 elections, the party had been massively funded by the mining barons of Ballari.
In the 2008 elections, precipitated by the JD(S) withdrawal of support to the BJP, the Reddy brothers went a step further. The BJP secured 110 seats in the elections but fell three short of the majority in the 224-member assembly.
The Reddy brothers stepped in to secure the support of six Independents, amid allegations that a large amount of money had changed hands, ensuring that the BJP formed the government by itself for the first time in the state’s history.
But the BJP’s association with the Reddys has had its pitfalls. The illegal mining cases took their toll in 2011 when Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa resigned after the Lokayukta indicted him in the case.
The Reddy brothers were then sidelined from the party only to be brought back to prominence by BJP national president Amit Shah at the behest of Yeddyurappa.
The BJP’s association with the brothers has also allowed its rivals to attack it consistently on the corruption front.
In the run-up to the 2013 assembly elections, former chief minister Siddaramaiah took out a Bangalore to Ballari padayatra to highlight the wrongdoings of the BJP and the Reddy brothers.
“Ballari has played an important role since the early 1990s,” says Milind Dharmasen, general secretary for the Congress campaign committee. “In the 2006 elections, the role of the mining lobby was huge. Not only did the Reddy brothers make an impact on Karnataka politics, but they also were important in funding the electoral process in the state.”
The mining lobby, says political commentator Sandeep Shastri, makes the region vital. “Even the Congress, which has tried to take the lobby on, has made efforts to ensure that some in the lobby shifted sides,” he says.
Importance of Congress win
Away from the mining lobby, Ballari is important due to its sizeable Lingayat population that has over the years backed the BJP.
The Congress win, even a senior BJP leader said, makes one thing clear — the mining lobby may no longer hold sway in Karnataka politics.
“It was an election of prestige for Sriramulu and whether the mining lobby had a grip over voters or not,” says BJP spokesperson Vaman Acharya. “The results have shown us that that grip has waned and people have turned away from the mining lobby.”
The Congress believes that a backlash from the Lingayats against the BJP helped the party. The Congress troika of Siddaramaiah, KPCC president Dinesh Gundu Rao and senior leader D.K. Shivakumar dispatched over a 100 leaders across the district to reach out to voters.
“We held special meetings for the Lingayat and Veerashaiva communities and showed them how the BJP had used them to win an election and did not cater to their interests,” says Dharmasen.
The party also believes that its efforts in Ballari are a blueprint for the 2019 Parliamentary elections. “It was a litmus test for us and we have come out successful,” Gundu Rao told The Print. “The confidence is going to help us in the Lok Sabha polls but for that, we need to be a cohesive force just like we were in Ballari.”
The BJP, however, believes that the Lingayats have not abandoned it yet.
“The mine owners did not bring out money this time and constituencies such as Ballari, Raichur and Gulbarga have no organisation network. Elections are fought on money power and image,” says party spokesperson Acharya. “We did not see any backlash from the Lingayat community in Ballari.”
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