M. A. Siraj
Bengaluru: Tremors, feeble though, of dissidence emerging from the lobby of sugar barons have rattled Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa.
Last fortnight, Umesh Katti, MLA from Hukkeri (Belgaum district) hosted a dinner at his residence for 12 prominent dissidents, mainly from Belgaum district. Though for the namesake, it was a formal occasion for like-minded party men to gather, the political overtones have been unmistakable.
Belgaum happens to be the sugar bowl of Karnataka with 21 of the State’s 65 sugar factories located within the district. They together produce 35% of the 3.5 crore tons of sugar produced in the State. Most of these mills are owned by politicians who owe their election to the farmer-members of the cooperatives and can win elections regardless of the parties. In the past, most of these barons have crossed over party without any qualms.
Most of the MLAs who gathered for the dinner were the ones who have been aspirants of cabinet berths but were denied as the party was compelled to accommodate those who rebelled against the Congress, resigned from their seats and won the by-election on BJP ticket held in December last year. As promised by Mr. Yeddyurappa, they were given the ministerial portfolios in preference to the old loyalists.
Rajya Sabha polls
The timing was however significant. The biennial election for the four Rajya Sabha seats from the State is due on June 9. The BJP can easily win two of them on its own while the Congress and the Janata Dal Secular (JDS) can have one each with a little exchange of additional votes between themselves. Katti, six-time MLA, is using the opportunity to increase pressure on the party either to get himself inducted in the cabinet or to secure nomination for his brother Ramesh Katti as the candidate for the Rajya Sabha. The BJP has already announced re-nomination of Prabhakar Kore for one seat. He is a powerful Lingayath leader and is the Chairman of the Karnataka Lingayath Education (KLE) Society which runs over 250 educational institutions. Though there are indications that the BJP would buy peace by nominating Ramesh Katti as its candidate for the second seat, nothing can be said with certainty as the final choice rests with Party supremo Amit Shah.
Among the guests at the dinner were sugar barons like Murugesh Nirani and Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, among others. Though it will be too early to see the dinner as an emerging alternative pole within the BJP, it does indicate the anger within the ruling party which has ignored the claims of the old loyalists in favour of expedient politics. Belgaum with its concentration of sugar lobby politicians has often been the epicenter of early stirrings of emergence of dissidence for both the Congress and the BJP. Curiously, three Jharkiholi brothers, (Ramesh, Satish and Balachandra) all owners of sugar mills, are sitting MLAs from the district. While Ramesh Jharkiholi is Water Resources Minister, Balachandra Jharkiholi is Chairman of the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF). The third brother Satish Jharkiholi has been elected on the Congress ticket and has been appointed Working President of the Congress Party in the State. Among themselves, the three brothers own over half a dozen sugar mills. No party can deny and defy the clout of these politicians who can get elected to the Assembly without the need of a party banner. In fact, parties need them more than they need the parties.
Amid these ongoings within the ruling party, the new KPCC Chief Mr. D. K. Shivakumar (DKS) has been trying to revitalize the party. The Congress has already nominated veteran Congress man Mallikarjuna Kharge as its nominee for the Rajya Sabha. Kharge has been nine-time MLA and was the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party during the 2014-19 Lok Sabha tenure. It is the first time he lost an election in his over 45-year old political career. With 62 MLAs, Kharge needs merely 44 first preference votes to get elected. The party still has 18 additional votes which, it is surmised will transfer to the JDS which wants former prime minister H D Devegowda to be elected to the Rajya Sabha. The JDS has 34 members in the Assembly and requires 10 more votes to see one nominee elected to the Upper House. Though there are speculations that this will be an initial step towards yet another alliance between the two parties, political observers do not read much into it beyond a quid pro quo and mutual adjustment between two opposition parties to pool their joint might in the two houses of the State. It is useful to be reminded that Legislative Council elections are round the corner where 10 vacancies are to be filled. The two parties are expected to make the most of the opportunity through the mutual give-and-take.
However, DKS is making bold overtures to woo back the old Congressmen. Last week, he called for ‘ghar wapasi’ of those Congressmen who joined other parties in the recent past. Known as a strongman, DKS is out to strengthen his position and marginalize former CM Siddramaiah within the party. It is quite likely that he would reach out to A. H. Vishwanath, a leader of the Kuruba community who quit Congress to first join the JDS and later the BJP. He was the sole JDS MLA who resigned his membership but failed to get reelected to the Assembly on the BJP ticket. Denied any position by the BJP, he is sulking on the margins. V. Srinivas Prasad, six-time Dalit MP, and a sitting MP of the Lok Sabha of BJP, may be another of his target. The KPCC recently appointed Satish Jharkiholi as Party’s Working President as a counterweight in the Belgaum district to remain prepared to take advantage of the rising ferment within the BJP in the key district.
It remains to be seen as to how the BJP quells the dissidence emanating from a district (Belgaum) which sends the second largest contingent of 18 MLAs to the 224-member Karnataka Assembly after Bengaluru (28 MLAs).
M.A. Siraj is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru