Can the BJP win back its stronghold in northern Karnataka from a crusader against corruption?
CLIMBING UP THE Congress’ campaign van in Kamalapur, a town bordering Hampi in Ballari district, VS Ugrappa settles into a corner spot with his arms crossed against his chest, and true to his name, purses his lips into a pugnacious frown. From a sulk to stony-faced boredom, his face betrays impatience as his partymen take turns introducing him to the small crowd assembled here under the glow of a couple of street lights. It is, perhaps, the petulance of a man who had to wait years to be ushered into Ballari, and having won the Lok Sabha seat fair and square in a by-election five months ago, must once again look to his party to help reassert his relevance as the country prepares for a General Election. The moment he is handed the microphone, however, Ugrappa comes into his own. His verbal sprezzatura stemming from a confidence in his own critical acumen and powers of logical persuasion, he does not even feel the need to attack his opponent, Y Devendrappa of the BJP, who is looking to prise away the Ballari parliamentary seat from him, or former BJP minister Gali Janardhana Reddy and his brothers whose greed left the district’s landscape and its politics denuded. Except for a puckish wink at the local BJP unit’s intellectual bankruptcy, Ugrappa’s speech, braided through with phrases in English, is directed at “Mr Modi” and his “desperate” efforts to forestall disenchantment in the aftermath of GST and rising fuel prices and unemployment. “Why should I attack someone who is already in trouble? I am very clear that I am fighting against the BJP, not against an individual. It is a battle between ideologies, one secular and the other with a communal agenda,” he says, in a conversation with Open that extends over the hour-and- a-half-long drive back to Ballari.
A lawyer and former JDS man, Ugrappa announced his arrival in national politics by securing a victory over the BJP’s J Shantha in the 2018 bypoll with the highest-ever margin in Ballari—2.4 lakh votes. The election was necessitated by B Sriramulu’s abdication of his MP seat after he successfully contested from the Molakalmuru Assembly segment. The Congress had desperately wanted to win back its former bastion of Ballari, which had consistently voted for the BJP for 14 years, electing G Karunakara Reddy in 2004, Shantha in 2009 and Sriramulu in 2014. It had wanted to debunk the myth that mining baron Gali Janardhana Reddy and his associates could continue to control the district even after the Supreme Court had limited the scope of mining activity here, allowing only class ‘A’ and ‘B’ mines to be used to extract up to 35 million tonnes of ore per year. And Ugrappa, who had been biding his time, was found suitable. “I told KC Venugopal and DK Shivakumar anna, we have to win this election only on image. Not on money. If you want to win this battle, you should choose a person who enjoys a clean image—either E Tukaram, the three-time MLA from Sandur, or B Nagendra, the Ballari Rural legislator who is young and popular and needs no introduction, or even better, Satish or Ramesh Jarkiholi, businessmen who are seen as wielding money and influence. But the party did not want to field sitting MLAs as each one mattered towards the total count in the Assembly. Besides, no one else wanted to take up the challenge,” says Ugrappa, 64. “It was, of course, a long-cherished dream of mine, to become a parliamentarian from Ballari. Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had suggested my name for the last General Election, proposing me as a candidate for Ballari or Tumkur, and even tried to field me in the 2018 Assembly elections from HD Kote in Mysore or Molakalmuru in Chitradurga. But things didn’t materialise. I was promised the Ballari seat for 2019 instead.”
“I toiled and tilled the land and sowed the seeds for many years and when I finally asked for the ticket, the Congress said an outsider will come and reap the harvest. How is this fair?,” says Y Devendrappa, BJP’s Ballari candidate and former Congress leader
For Ugrappa, the electoral contest of 2018 was actually a culmination of a decade-old dive into the criminal underbelly of Ballari politics. As chairman of a fact-finding committee appointed by the Congress in 2008, Ugrappa, then an MLC, authored one of the first reports on illegal mining in the district, categorically stating the names of those involved and the extent of illegal extraction, and alleging the connivance of the district and the state administration. The report became a reference point for an inquiry into the case, which was later transferred to the Lokayukta. In his preliminary report dated December 18th, 2008 and his final report submitted on July 27th, 2011, Justice Santosh Hegde, the then Karnataka Lokayukta, echoed Ugrappa’s findings, uncovering a ‘mafia-like’ network in Ballari controlled by the Reddy brothers and implicating senior politicians including BJP state president and the then Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, JDS leader HD Kumaraswamy, and others. The case, with a troika of ministers from Ballari at its epicenter—G Karunakara Reddy, G Somashekara Reddy and B Sriramulu—became the BJP’s undoing and forced Yeddyurappa to resign as chief minister in 2011, making way for the Congress to come to power in the state in 2013. Ballari became a turning point not just for the Congress but also for Karnataka’s next chief minister, Siddaramaiah, who had led a 320-km Bengaluru-to- Ballari padyatra in 2010 to gather momentum against the BJP’s misrule in the state. And now, it is Siddaramaiah’s friend and fellow warrior for social justice who is riding the anti-BJP wave in Ballari. The Congress holds power in six of the eight Assembly segments in Ballari, with only G Somashekara Reddy, the Ballari Urban MLA, and NY Gopalakrishna, the Kudligi legislator who recently defected from the Congress to the BJP, representing the BJP.
Besides their theatrical oratory, there are several parallels between Siddaramaiah and Ugrappa. If Siddaramaiah emerged as a contrarian leader of the state Congress, Ugrappa, with his veracity and his confident positioning, proved money was no longer the universal solvent in Ballari politics. “Voters gave us a thrilling victory. It was a message not only to Karnataka but to the entire country,” says Ugrappa, who is confident of an encore. “People knew Ugrappa as a fighter. Now they have seen his dashing qualities,” he says, referring to the Rs 32.5 crore in developmental funds that he has put to use in the last five months. “They also seem to appreciate my speeches in Parliament— one of them has 1.4 million views on YouTube,” he adds. Friends since the Emergency, Ugrappa and Siddaramaiah come from the Janata Party school of thought and wound up, by the bootstraps of their hard work and clean image, at the forefront of state politics. As a young leader, Ugrappa, who had led a rally that saw HD Deve Gowda ride from Bengaluru to Chitradurga on a motorbike, unsuccessfully contested the Chitradurga seat twice in a row—1989 and 1991. “When Ramakrishna Hegde fielded me, he advised that politics should ideally be a hobby pursued in the service of people. Earn a decent living from your legal practice, he told me,” says Ugrappa, who has done just that, over the years acquiring expertise that has put him at the helm of important state committees, such as the Karnataka Legislature Subcommittee on the Prevention of Violence and Sexual Abuse of Women and Children, which submitted its recommendations last year, making observations on women-friendly policing, sex education in schools and ways to ensure time-bound clearance of cases.
“Modi is the only face of the party now. This is the message we are sending. Devendrappa was chosen by party leaders, keeping this message in mind,” says B Sriramulu, BJP vice president for Karnataka
A section of the BJP may even secretly wish for Ugrappa’s victory, sources say. “He is no doubt a good representative for the ST community. There are 300,000 STs in Ballari district and 6.5 million in Karnataka,” says B Sriramulu, the state BJP vice president and a popular tribal leader who has claimed responsibility for the humbling defeat in the Ballari bypoll. “Neither me nor Shantha has had a good education but Ugrappa is an intellectual and a lawyer. It is not easy to find such candidates in the Valmiki community. But one must look at the larger picture—the Congress is not a viable option for this country anymore,” he says, with the air of someone who has settled into gentle wisdom. After a customary puja to Lord Shiva, the inhouse deity installed in a temple on the upper-level of his palatial house in Ballari, Sriramulu swaps out his saffron dhoti and shawl for a white kurta-pyjama and waistcoat. Having been handed responsibility of Koppal, a neighbouring district, he is no longer the Ballari in-charge for the party, and yet, he campaigns vigorously for Devendrappa nearly every day. “Since Modiji is opposed to family politics, I did not attempt to field one of my relatives this time. Devendrappa has a clean image,” says the former star campaigner and deputy chief ministerial aspirant who flew around the state in a chopper ahead of the 2018 Assembly elections. He now looks visibly diminished on the drive to Gangavathi in Koppal, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to address a rally today. The BJP, which has already sidelined Sriramulu’s friend and mentor Gali Janardhana Reddy, wants to play it quiet in Ballari, where no senior party leader, other than Sriramulu and the new district in- charge Jagadish Shettar, has addressed public meetings. “I am the only popular BJP leader in the district, and yet, no one is looking at my face anymore when I campaign. Modi is the only face of the party now,” says Sriramulu. “This is the message we are sending. Devendrappa was chosen unanimously by party leaders, keeping this message in mind.”
“DEVENDRAPPA IS NOT the candidate. Modi sahib is. I am just a nepa (a pretext),” explains Devendrappa, 63, taking a break after a sweaty campaign meeting in Mariyammahalli, a town small enough that a vendor with a digital body weight scale on the footpath attracts a big flock. There is a ratha festival at the Hanuman temple here and the BJP has taken advantage of it to appeal for another term for “the strong and devout leader changing the image of India in the world”. Between Devendrappa’s ingratiating tone and his status as a recent entrant in the BJP—a former Congress worker, he unsuccessfully contested the by-election from Jagalur in Davanagere in 2011—the local narrative, however, doesn’t stick. Delhige Narendra, Ballarige Devendra is a slogan that lacks punch. Devendrappa is aware of his opponent’s qualifications against his own—a class seven pass, according to his election affidavit. “I am a farmer and I represent the farmers of Karnataka. Farming is one of the many educational disciplines and must be respected as such,” he says, proudly adding that his family back in neighbouring Harpanahalli, which falls under Davanagere district, has 50 cows, 3,000 goats and 108 acres of farmland, all managed by his youngest son. Under the provisions of the Karnataka Land Reforms Act, a family can only own up to 56 acres of even the lowest category of land. But a smiling Devendrappa seems unfazed. “I toiled and tilled the land and sowed the seeds for many years and when I finally asked for the ticket, they said an outsider will come and reap the harvest. How is this fair?” says the former Congress leader who is related to the Jarkiholis. Considering that Ramesh Jarkiholi nearly joined the BJP along with other disgruntled Congress MLAs including Nagendra from Ballari Rural and Anand Singh from Hospet, it is possible that the association could work in Devendrappa’s favour.
“I am very clear that I am fighting against the BJP, not against an individual. It is a battle between ideologies, one secular and the other with a communal agenda,” says VS Ugrappa, Congress candidate from Ballari
The Congress has now buried its differences to work in unison, says Nagendra, who has been lobbying for a ministerial berth. Earlier this month, when DK Shivakumar, the Congress’ troubleshooter, sat him down and asked him not to leave, Nagendra was still in two minds. The BJP was short of popular leaders in the district and had even promised his brother Venkatesh Prasad the Ballari seat. Prasad recently joined the BJP unconditionally but Nagendra has held back, hoping to be accommodated in the next cabinet expansion. The Congress-JDS government recently inducted two ministers from the district, Tukaram and PT Parameshwar Naik, leaving other legislators fuming.
“Ballari has changed,” says Tapal Ganesh, a whistleblower in the Obalapuram mining case whose family-owned mine was illegally acquired by Janardhana Reddy. “Gone are the days when Anand Singh distributed Rs 4,000 for every vote. Now, the coffers of former miners are running dry. The only one with any serious wealth is Reddy, whose shell company accounts are yet to be seized.”
There is a bullying automatism to the BJP campaign. Strapped firmly into the Hindutva seat, the party is unable to campaign as vigorously in Sandur and other Muslim-populated regions of Ballari despite the influence of local leaders such as Kartikeya Ghorpade, the scion of the royal house of Sandur, who joined the BJP after his daughter married into the Scindia Maratha family. “In the by-election, many of us were not consulted about the choice of the candidate but now we have all come together. You will be surprised at the result,” says Ghorpade, campaigning in Bandri. Muslims watching from the tea stalls and the butcher shops dotting the town square seem unimpressed.
Both candidates have promised they will fill up the tanks in Ballari, provide clean drinking water and revive industry and agriculture. “If mining resumes, it can generate one million jobs. There are 500 small factories in the area and if they are given even 10 per cent of the ore that is now headed to Jindal, they will thrive,” says Sriramulu. Ugrappa wants to set up new industries on the 10,000 acres of land originally acquired for steel production. He will also work to revive the ailing sugar factories of Hospet, Kampli and Siruguppa, he adds. “I don’t want to be seen as a community leader. I have to take up causes that a statesman would.” Will the BJP fade out of view and the Congress, which once ensured Sonia Gandhi’s victory from the district against Sushma Swaraj, once again become the keeper of Ballari’s flame? Either way, Ballari would have emerged from under the living shadow of its past.
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