In January this year, a few days after he was inducted into the state Cabinet, after waiting nearly 18 months, BJP leader, Biligi (Bagalkot) MLA and Chairman of MRN (Nirani) Group Murugesh Nirani, 56, had a special guest at a function marking the expansion of his 10 sugar factories and ethanol plant in Bagalkot.
The special guest was Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Known for his lavish gifts, Nirani presented Shah a large silver mace. Shah noted in a social media update later that the Nirani Group projects “will benefit over 40,000 farmer families and create over 6,000 new jobs in the region”.
Amidst the power tussle within the BJP – Nirani was inducted as minister by B S Yediyurappa in January, during his time as CM – veteran party leader K S Eshwarappa recently named the sugar baron as a potential CM candidate. While Yediyurappa said the remarks were a joke, and Nirani said that current CM Basavaraj Bommai will complete his term, Nirani’s ambitions for the top post are an open secret in Karnataka.
His name was among those that did the rounds as replacement when Yediyurappa stepped down in July. While dismissed by political observers as a “lightweight”, Nirani’s value lies in being a Panchamasali Lingayat, a large sub-sect of the dominant Lingayat community to which Yediyurappa too belongs. Nirani also has roots in the RSS and in 2004, when he was in his late 30s, he was one of the first BJP leaders to get elected MLA from Bagalkot in north Karnataka, a key piece in the state’s caste calculus.
With his wealth – he declared assets of Rs 52 crore in the 2018 polls, a massive jump from Rs 19 crore in 2013, and just Rs 4 crore in 2008 – Nirani was one of the BJP’s key financiers in 2008, alongside the Reddy brothers of Ballari. In 2016, he gifted a Toyota Land Cruiser to B S Yediyurappa, which the latter returned after a controversy.
In the first government formed by the BJP in Karnataka, in 2008, headed by Yediyurappa, Nirani was made the Industries minister. This lends him certain administrative experience, even if the stint was marked by allegations of corruption.
Nirani continues to have the ear of Yediyurappa. Ahead of the BJP change of guard in July, Nirani, then the Minister for Mines and Geology, made multiple trips to New Delhi and was seen as lobbying with the central leadership for Yediyurappa. “As an ordinary worker, I will handle any responsibility by the party,” he said at the time. When Yediyurappa was replaced, Nirani got back the Industries portfolio, despite an adverse high court order in January, allowing restoration of a corruption complaint against Yediyurappa and Nirani from 2011.
The Supreme Court has since granted Nirani a stay on the high court order.
The Lingayat connection has been good for Nirani. When he was kept out of the Cabinet by Yediyurappa when he was elected as CM the second time in July 2019, a Lingayat seer had lobbied for Nirani. His support has been crucial for the movement for OBC reservation by the Panchamasali Lingayats. Though rivals accuse Nirani of cooling to the idea since becoming a minister, he countered them in September by promising increased quota for the Lingayats.
The community is currently classified in the III B category, with a 5% quota, and is hoping for a hike to II A, and 15 % quota.
Nirani’s name has also come up in other controversies. Recently, the Nirani Group, which runs one of the largest ethanol manufacturing plants in India, took over the state-run Mysore Sugar Factory in south Karnataka, which was strongly opposed by local groups. Following the protests, Nirani said his firm will not take part in the tender process.
A Nirani group sugar factory in Pandavapura in south Karnataka has been accused of not paying farmers their dues. Denying the charges, Nirani’s son Vijay Nirani said recently: “Last year, we faced Rs 8 crore losses but paid the dues to farmers and followed all the rules.”
On Eshwarappa’s remarks that he could be the next CM, Nirani said this week: “I respect Eshwarappa’s trust and love for me. But as of now, Bommai will be our leader.”
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