When the dust settles in Ballari will it be Siddaramaiah or Sri smiling?

Tucked away in the centre of Karnataka adjoining Andhra Pradesh, dry and dusty Ballari was at the centrestage of Karnataka politics in 2013 when a spree of mining scams and the complicity of the mighty Reddy brothers, swept the BJP out of power.  With just nine Assembly seats, Ballari may be nowhere near Bengaluru  (28 seats) in political clout, but it was the district which gave Siddaramaiah the leverage to lead the Congress to a comfortable majority in the State Assembly, after an explosive report on illegal mining by Justice Santosh Hegde wrecked any prospects the BJP had of returning to power. Adding to the BJP’s woes was a three-way split with veteran B.S. Yeddyurapa walking out to form his own outfit and Ballari MP B. Sriramulu ploughing a lonely furrow. Five years have gone by and today, the political scene in Ballari wears a different look. Not that the BJP is anywhere near regaining its original clout with the recent Parivarthana Yatra led by party chief B.S. Yeddyurappa, evoking a lacklustre response here. As Congressmen gear up for the visit of their national president Rahul Gandhi to this ore rich district on January 27 to address a Scheduled Tribe rally at Hosapete, Shivakumar G. Malagi examines the emerging trends in Ballari where the political equations are changing fast.

For the Congress, winning Ballari again is a matter of enormous prestige and they have enough plus factors in their favour this time.  In the ST community dominated district, five assembly seats are reserved for STs and two each for the SCs and general category. The only stumbling block they may face again is the clout of Ballari MP and BJP strongman B. Sriramulu, who made Yeddyurappa boast aloud that the Valmiki community leader would win by one lakh voters if Rahul Gandhi fought him in the Ballari seat.

Not that Rahul can fight from Ballari – a ST reserved seat but it was enough to remind Congressmen that Ballari will not be a walkover like in 1999 when his mother Sonia Gandhi trounced Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha election.

So what makes Ballari hot and exciting for political pundits?  Ironically, the same politicos are in play again this time- former BJP minister Gali Janardhan Reddy and BJP MLAs, B.S. Anand Singh, T.H. Suresh Babu and B Nagendra. All of them went behind bars after a CBI investigation indicted them in the mining scam. The Congress rode back to power after Siddaramaiah led a 320-km long padayatra from Bengaluru to Ballari to garner peoples' support against the scam tainted BJP leaders. And these leaders with the exception of Janardhan Reddy, are cosying up to the Congress this time- maybe wary of their prospects at the hustings with the popular mood a bit too hazy to gauge.

With the polls just four months away, all eyes are on the wealthy Janardhan Reddy, who despite the scams and scams he has been accused of, is angling for an Assembly ticket. The world knows that it was Janardhan Reddy who orchestrated the 'Hyderabad coup' in 2009 to dethrone Mr Yeddyurappa from the CM post, despite being a minister in his cabinet. Fifty one-year old Mr Reddy is now out on bail and is prohibited from staying in Ballari by the apex court. He has made no secret of his ambition to contest the polls, but the BJP leadership, wary of the impact of allowing a tainted politician a ticket, has preferred to maintain a stoic silence on this. Reports say Reddy is using the good offices of his confidante Sriramulu to secure a ticket.

There is no doubting the sway Reddy wields in Ballari along with Sriramulu and his brothers, Somashekhar Reddy and Karunakar Reddy. It’s almost decided that Somashekhar Reddy will contest from Ballari City, presently held by minelord Anil Lad of the Congress while former minister Gali Karunakar Reddy is gearing up to contest on a BJP ticket from Harapanahalli in neighbouring Davanagere.

But what has left the BJP’s poll managers jittery is the likely exit of Kudligi MLA B. Nagendra who is set to join the Congress and contest from Ballari(ST) constituency, the home turf of Sriramulu. Nagendra, a popular ST community leader,  has reportedly been assured his choice of candidates in Kudligi and Kampli, both reserved for the ST community. He is expected to join the Congress in the presence of Rahul Gandhi in Hosapete on January 27.

Coming to Hosapete, the local MLA and minelord B.S. Anand Singh too is on the brink of quitting the BJP and skipped the Yeddyurappa led Karnataka Parivartana rally, held recently in his hometown to express his anger against a section of leaders. Sources said Mr Singh, born to a Muslim mother and Rajput father, is facing opposition from Sangh Parivar leaders for his alleged appeasement of the Muslim community in his constituency. Despite the party's diktat against participating in Tipu  Jayanthi, he did take part and is also averse to making Hosapete, where the world heritage site, Hampi is located, into a hotbed of ‘Hindutva politics’.

It is speculated that if the BJP ignores him during candidate selection, he may contest as an Independent. In fact, Anand Singh has already displayed his clout by making sure there were empty seats at Yeddyurappa’s much touted Parivarthana Yatra in his constituency which evoked critical remarks from the BJP top brass.

All is not rosy for the Congress party either. “I don’t know how the Congress, particularly  Siddaramaiah, will justify the entry of mining tainted Nagendra into the party. It was he, along with another Reddy associate, Kampli MLA Suresh Babu who challenged Siddaramaiah in July 2010-when he was leader of the opposition – to come to Ballari during an assembly ruckus,” said a senior Congress leader from Ballari.

 Adding to the Congress’ discomfort are the differences between Ballari City Congress MLA Anil Lad and his cousin and district in-charge minister Santosh Lad. Labour welfare minister Mr Santosh, who won from Kalghatagi constituency in Dharwad district, was made minister in charge of Ballari much to the disappointment of his cousin Anil. The Lad brothers, who had lost all their iron ore mining fields in the district for alleged irregularities after the Supreme Court intervened, are now vying with each other to take control of the party. With Santosh considered close to Siddaramaiah, it is being speculated that Anil Lad may be denied ticket to contest from Ballari City which may go to Santosh or granite baron and former MLA Surya Narayana Reddy. Anil has sharply reacted to the rumours remarking that he is not a ‘bewarsi’ (someone sans parents) and three political parties have offered the ticket to him.

Yet another Congress heavyweight, K.C. Kondaiah, may also prove to be a game changer in the election if the   high command denies him his due in party affairs. Kondaiah is reportedly upset with minister Santosh Lad as he was not taken into confidence on many issues. “It is Kondaiah who worked out a strategy for the Congress to take on BJP leaders on the illegal mining scam. He has been ignored after the party came to power ", said a party source adding that Kondaiah is connected with grassroot party workers and could influence the course of the elections. He too is a strong contender for the Ballari City assembly seat.

For the JD(S), the only hope is mining baron  Mohammed Iqbal Hothur who is likely to join the party and contest from Ballari City. Mr Iqbal, hailing from a family of Congress loyalists, is upset with party leaders and has already expressed his decision to quit the Congress. Recently, JD(S) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda had visited his residence and asked him to take control of party affairs. The JD(S) had won one of the nine seats in the district in 2013.

The Assembly polls are still a good four months away and the scenario may drastically change in the days to come depending on the strategy the ruling Congress and BJP adopt. It’s not going to be a cakewalk for the Congress or the BJP either in any of the seats with the scams now a distant memory and no overbearing political factor likely to weigh on the minds of voters this time. But the empty seats at Yeddyurappa’s rally and the fact that Rahul Gandhi has chosen Ballari to send out a message ahead of the polls, is enough to prove that the Congress is riding high on hope even as the BJP strains every sinew to regain its former fortress.  

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