Theree of his MLAs, including a nephew, are in prison awaiting trial for their alleged role in the illegal mining mafia that looted the mineral rich district of Bellary of over Rs 20,000 crore worth of iron ore between 2009 and 2011. His former strategist is in prison for masterminding the loot. The mining industry, the lifeblood of Bellary, hit its nadir after his sister became the Bellary MP.
Despite all the trouble caused by the Reddy brothers of Bellary in the last decade and the subsequent unravelling of their empire in the district, the political lynchpin of the group, B Sreeramulu, 43, whose re-entry into the BJP was opposed by his former benefactor, senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, remains a force to be reckoned with as he takes on former Orissa High Court chief justice N Y Hanumanthappa of the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls.
A combination of the Modi factor, mainly his pro-industry face, Sreeramulu’s stature as the predominant leader of the Valmiki Nayak tribe who make up a quarter of the nearly 16 lakh electorate in Bellary, the coming together of various factions of the BJP, and a yawning distance between the Congress candidate and the electorate are all contributing to Sreeramulu’s pre-eminence, despite lurking fears in various quarters of a return to the lawlessness of the past.
Once a Congress stronghold and famous for the 1999 battle between Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj, before descending into chaos over the last decade under Sreeramulu and G Janardhan Reddy, Bellary is in a unique and piquant situation in the run-up to the April 17 polls.
While there is a Modi factor in play, it is also befuddling voters, especially those allied with the mining industry and dependent on it for their livelihoods, since it means voting for Sreeramulu who was a part of the Reddy group that indulged in rampant illegal mining, though he himself was never directly charged in the looting.
Sreeramulu, who in 2009-10 along with the Reddy brothers had proposed investment of their mining funds in 350 Lok Sabha constituencies to help their “mother’’ Sushma Swaraj become the prime minister in 2014, is now telling voters that he is fighting the elections to help Modi become the prime minister.
One of the Reddy brothers, Somashekhar, who is an active member of the Sreeramulu campaign, is telling voters that if Modi becomes the prime minister, his jailed brother and former BJP minister, G Janardhan Reddy, will be free by June and Sreeramulu will be in the BJP ministry.
“The only man who can bring progress is Modi. He should become the prime minister and voting for me will help achieve this,’’ Sreeramulu said at a meeting in Bellary last week. Though he never mentioned Janardhan Reddy, he claimed that it was the BJP who helped improve Bellary in recent years and not the Congress.
With over one lakh crore invested in mining-allied activities in the region and nearly 30 of the existing 80 sponge iron factories in Bellary shut down in recent times on account of the crackdown on illegal mining activities perpetrated by the Reddy group, players in the mining industry are keen that the MP who is elected from Bellary should speak for their industry in Delhi
“They think that Modi will help revive the mining industry, but are wary of a return to a lawless situation like in 2009-11 by voting for Sreeramulu. They are also afraid to support any other party for fear of reprisals if Sreeramulu becomes the MP,’’ said former Congress MP K C Kondaiah.
The battle is poised delicately with Sreeramulu, a Scheduled Tribe member, enjoying an edge on account of his sway over 75 per cent of the nearly four lakh Valmiki Nayak (ST) community members in the region and with the nearly 10 per cent Muslim voters gravitating towards the Congress because of the Modi factor.
In the state polls held last May, the BSR Congress party floated by Sreeramulu after he quit the BJP following the illegal mining investigations, won three of the eight assembly segments in the Bellary LS constituency — the BJP won one, JDS one and the Congress three.
With the recent merger of the BSR Congress and former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Party with the BJP, the resurgent BJP now controls four of the eight assembly segments and its vote share, as per the 2013 results, has surged ahead to 4.4 lakh votes compared to the Congress’s 3.2 lakh votes. However, apart from Sreeramulu, the party’s three other MLAs, including his nephew, are in prison for illegal mining.
“Those in prison have sent word to their supporters to vote for Sreeramulu. However, Sreeramulu is also campaigning door-to-door in Kudligi and Kampli, which are the key constituencies for him along with his own Bellary Rural and the Hospet seat won by the BJP,’’ said an aide to Sreeramulu.
In 2009, the BJP — which won Bellary for the first time in 2004 with a Reddy brother, Karunakar, as its candidate — had fielded Sreeramulu’s sister J Shanta, who managed to win by a narrow margin of 2,000 votes against Hanumanthappa, also from the Valmiki Nayak community.
The Congress’s decision to field Hanumanthappa again has been criticised, as he has not been seen in the constituency since the 2009 polls. “He is an elderly man, a former judge. I would not like to speak against him, but it is true that he has not been involved with Bellary at all. He never spoke a word at the height of the illegal mining racket in the region,’’ said Shivakumar Malagi, 31, a former journalist and the Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Bellary.
Hanumanthappa, 73, has refuted charges by his opponents that he is an old man who cannot do much. “I don’t need to dance in parliament or do anything else, I need to raise issues pertaining to Bellary,’’ he told a gathering of voters in the largely Muslim area of Mullarpet in Bellary last week. “I don’t think I lost in 2009. I believe I won. The margin was manipulated,’’ he claimed.
According to Malagi, voters in the region have in recent years been seduced by the money thrown at them by candidates, to such an extent that they now expect all candidates to pay for votes. He said the more the deputy commissioner of the district restricts the flow of money in the election, the better were his chances.
“There are many educated, well-meaning people who are willing to move out of Sreeramulu’s shadow and support a new candidate, but they are scared to come out in the open,’’ said Malagi.
“It is an even battle now, but the Congress needs to somehow surge forward in the next few days by consolidating the minority and backward caste support. There are many, especially among the forward castes, business people and industrialists, who are on the fence because Modi is linked to Sreeramulu. They will cast their votes silently and can be crucial in the end,’’ said Kondaiah.
“The Congress is ruling in Karnataka, it runs the Bellary city corporation and the zilla panchayat, it enjoys an advantage,’’ said former Congress minister from Bellary Allum Veerbhadrappa.
On the street, however, the voices are different. “Sreeramulu is very popular among the youth. Earlier, Bellary was a place you sent people to as punishment. Now government officers pay for postings in Bellary. It is because of Sreeramulu,’’ said Vishwanath, 30, a two-wheeler mechanic.