Karnataka polls: Aiming for Bengaluru via Ballari? Why Rahul Gandhi will launch Congress' campaign from the district

TS Sudhir
Though Rahul's Ballari visit was on cards for some time, it assumes significance after Modi's branding of the Siddaramaiah regime as a 10 percent govt.

When Rahul Gandhi lands in Ballari (earlier spelt as Bellary) district around noon on Saturday to launch the Congress election campaign in Karnataka, he will have a sense of deja vu. For 19 years ago, Sonia Gandhi had similarly landed in the dusty district to contest her maiden election from Ballari constituency. It was a high-pitched, high-profile and vitriolic campaign, in which she defeated BJP's Sushma Swaraj by 56,000 votes. But since she contested and won from Amethi as well, and she subsequently vacated the Ballari seat.

Back then, in 1999, Ballari had not achieved the notoriety that it did a decade later when former Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde described it as the 'Republic of Ballari'. The tag was a reference to the political clout of the Reddy brothers, who were the lords of the mining business in and around Ballari. It was their money, much of it ill-gotten according to the CBI, that allegedly funded 'Operation Lotus' in 2008, to lure MLAs from other parties to ensure the then BS Yeddyurappa government became a majority regime.

That meant that over a period of time, the Reddy brothers €" especially then Tourism minister Gali Janardhana Reddy €" virtually controlled the government. The allegation was that chief minister Yeddyurappa ran Karnataka but not Ballari and that not even a constable could be transferred in Ballari without the nod of the Reddy brothers.

Even today, if you step into Ballari, people talk in awe about Janardhana Reddy's money and muscle power. Though the BJP keeps a distance from Reddy, he had expressed a desire last June to work to bring the party back to power.

With Reddy out on bail after a long stint in Hyderabad and Bengaluru prisons and barred from entering Ballari, unless with court permission, the influence of the Reddy brothers is no longer what it used to be. That perhaps explains why B Nagendra and Anand Singh, two MLAs with a BJP pedigree and known for their proximity to Reddy, have decided to join the Congress. The event on 10 February is to mark their formal entry into the party.

Though Rahul's visit to Ballari was on the cards for some time, it assumes significance after Narendra Modi's branding of the Siddaramaiah government as a 10 percent government. By making his first pitstop in Ballari, Rahul will send across a reminder message to the BJP that it should not forget the days when Ballari ran Karnataka. That Modi calling the Congress in Karnataka corrupt is like the pot calling the kettle black.

The problem, however, is that the two imports are not squeaky clean either, proof that during election time all that matters is the winnability factor. Anand was arrested in 2013 in connection with the illegal transport of illegal iron ore from Belikeri port. His firm also was mentioned in the Lokayukta report on illegal mining in Ballari. Likewise Nagendra, who is in the transport business, too was arrested on charges pertaining to the illegal transport of iron ore.

But the Congress will feel good kickstarting their campaign from Ballari. Eight years ago, taking a leaf out of former Andhra chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy's padayatra of 2003, Siddaramaiah had led a padayatra from Bengaluru to Ballari. That was the time when the Reddy brothers were all powerful and the 310-kilometre-long walk was the first step towards turning the public mood against the BJP. It eventually resulted in its defeat in the 2013 elections, with Siddaramaiah now walking into Vidhana Soudha as chief minister.

Strategists in the Congress believe they are on a stronger wicket in Karnataka than in Gujarat. In the western state, being out of power for over two decades had led the Congress unit there into a state of decay. In Karnataka, they have in Siddaramaiah a leader who is from the more combative Deve Gowda school of politics, who gives it back to opponents in good measure. The plan is to add to the mix elements of the Gujarat campaign, that the party thinks worked for it in December 2017.

So, over the next four days, Rahul will also indulge in a temple run, a la Gujarat. Touring the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, which will include politically crucial districts like Bidar, Gulbarga and Raichur, Rahul will visit a Hindu temple, two Lingayat mutts and a Muslim dargah.

The Lingayats, who are 17 percent of Karnataka's population, have traditionally backed the BJP and Yeddyurappa is seen as the tallest political leader from the community. But the Congress move to back the demand from a section of the Lingayats to be recognised as a separate religion instead of being a part of Hinduism, has set the cat among the pigeons. If the Congress manages to woo up to 10 percent of the Lingayat vote that would otherwise accrue to the BJP, it can damage the saffron party in select constituencies.

The BJP as part of the Parivartana Yatra had questioned the Hindu credentials of the chief minister, with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath challenging Siddaramaiah to ban beef if he was a true Hindu. Siddaramaiah retorted pointing to the 'Siddha' and 'Rama' in his name. Rahul's itinerary shows corruption, caste and cow will dominate Karnataka's political discourse once again over the next few days. View More