A band of brothers and a young Lingayat woman hand-picked by Rahul Gandhi hold the key to Congress efforts to win back a constituency it has lost only four times in the last 15 Lok Sabha elections.
The return of the Lingayat strongman B S Yeddyurappa to the BJP, after a brief exit, and its resultant effect in electoral equations in some segments of a constituency that has elected Lingayats 14 out of 15 times are also in play. Add to this the 1.75 lakh Marathi population, who are traditional BJP voters, in Belgaum City, and one has a cracker of a contest on hand.
A top factor in the Belgaum Lok Sabha elections this time will be the Jharkhiholi brothers who are from a scheduled tribe community. One of them, Balachandra, is in the BJP and two others, Ramesh and Satish, are in the Congress. Satish is Belgaum district in-charge minister and a key aide of CM Siddaramaiah.
Sugar barons Jharkhiholi brothers have run personal fiefdoms for nearly two decades across their assembly constituencies — Arabhavi, Gokak and Yemkanmardi — and are considered as powerful as the Reddy brothers in Bellary, but without their pomp and arrogance.
There are reports that Balachandra Jharkhiholi, BJP MLA from Arabhavi who won in 2013 with a margin of 74,000 votes, is set to join forces with his brothers to defeat the BJP’s sitting MP Suresh Angadi. The Congress candidate Lakshmi Hebbalkar is waiting and watching this development.
“Balachandra and Ramesh Jharkhiholi are soon going to meet and finalise an understanding to help the Congress candidate. They have fought on different sides earlier but are now coming together,’’ says a close associate of Hebbalkar.
The ‘enemity’ with Angadi dates back to 2010 when Balachandra, who was brought into BJP by G Janardhan Reddy of Bellary, was at the helm of a rebellion against B S Yeddyurappa, then CM.
“At that time Yeddyurappa and Angadi went to Arabhavi, spoke harshly against Balachandra and accused him of running his constituency through the use of fear. He has been waiting to teach Angadi a lesson,’’ says Basavaraj Koujalgi, a Congress leader from Bailhongal segment of Belgaum.
At the Gokak residence of Ramesh Jharkhiholi, the eldest of the brothers, an aide rejects the possibility of any talk or alliance. “They are in the BJP and we are in the Congress. How can there be talks?’’ asks one Ramesh Jharkhiholi aide.
The Jharkhiholi brothers — a band of five born to two mothers — hail from Gokak region of Belgaum and have over the years built a reputation of using violence to have their way. There are stories of disappearance of rivals. There is talk among Congress workers of people opposing the brothers being taught a lesson after elections.
“They are not just strong they are very powerful. They have instilled fear in the hearts of those opposing them. They use violence. Ramesh is like a lion here,’’ says a Gokak rickshaw driver.
The original plan of the Jharkiholi brothers was to field one of their own — youngest brother Lakan — from Belgaum before the Congress decided on Hebbalkar who had already impressed a Congress high command searching for a young leader from the Lingayat community. A question often asked to Hebbalkar, an MA in political science, by her rival BJP candidate is how she can ensure protection of other women when she is dependent on men who walk around with bodyguards.
“This thing about bodyguards, and a history of violence is just BJP propaganda. I have based my politics on the teachings of Basavanna (the spiritual guru of the Lingayats),’’ she says.
Her candidature for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was one of the first to be cleared by the Congress.
Hebbalkar has also received the nod of a powerful seer from the Panchamshali Lingayat sub-sect.