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Monday, Jun 27, 2022
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Karnataka

Bellary Bribe And After

The credibility of the government in Karnataka is on crutches, but is that a good enough reason for it to fall? It's not just the much-touted coalition dharma having gone wrong, but also huge sums of money.

Bellary Bribe And After
| AP File
Bellary Bribe And After
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

When will the Karnataka government fall? That is the question on everybody's lips. There was some hope in government circles that Sushma Swaraj, who was here during the weekend, would resolve the crisis. But that does not seem to have happened. Swaraj, who was in Bellary for her annual Varamahalakshmi vrath, did say that BJP legislator and protégé Janardhan Reddy was repentant and had assured that he would withdraw the criminal defamation case he has filed against the chief minister (for calling him "insane" in public after he had made the 150 crore bribe charge). But within hours after she made the statement, Reddy clarified that he had no such plans. With this, the big question remains: What will happen if the Bellary court issues summons to the CM? Will he resign and make way for a new CM, like the way Uma Bharati did in 2004 after a Hubli court served a warrant in the Idgah Maidan case? Or will there be mid-term polls? 

In fact speculation has been so intense that senior leaders across parties seem to believe that the government may fall as early as September-October and there could be elections in January-February 2007. "At least that is the target we have set for ourselves," says an Opposition leader. The Congress has stepped up pressure with a vengeance deploying a charge-a-day technique against the Gowda family. The latest expose being how the Gowda family, daughters-in-law and daughters included, had purchased property worth crores in the IT hub of Whitefield, just a couple of months after Kumaraswamy had become CM. The implication that the Congress wants the people to read is that the portion of the mine bribe has been invested in this property. 

In an earlier expose, the minerals export business of the CM's family members had been placed before the public. This had come immediately after Kumaraswamy had stated on the floor of the house that none of his family members were into the mining business. The pressure is clearly showing on Kumaraswamy. He called a press meet on Friday and handed over literally hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to the Whitefield property to make a rather minor claim that it was all "legal." 

If politics is a game of perceptions, then in the public eye Kumaraswamy and the JD(S) seem to have lost the battle. The government and the Gowda family’s credibility are on crutches and the BJP seems to be slowly waking up to this fact. But there is one small hitch - the opposition Congress like the Indian cricket team is not very skilled when it comes to rounding off the game and at this stage finishing skills seem to be more crucial than the charges they are hurling. 

This whole game began a few weeks ago when BJP legislator and mine owner, Janardhan Reddy, dropped a bombshell that Karnataka CM H D Kumaraswamy had collected a Rs 150-crore bribe from Bellary mine owners. Even when the charge was made it was apparent that this was not one of those transient political games of allegation and denial. It had the potential to last a long time and bring down the government. So even when Reddy withdrew initially and it looked like he had let it pass, the Congress, sources say, resurrected him and pushed him to repeat the charge on the floor of the house much to the surprise of even BJP members sitting next to him. "They worked on some Reddy family connections in Andhra Pradesh to instill confidence in him and take the fight to a logical end," sources said.

The government is likely to fall not because an investigation into the bribe charge will indict the CM, but because the mistrust generated between the coalition partners - BJP and JD(S) - is huge and spiraling. "The two have begun to look for exit points. When the BJP state president asks for the bribery charges to be included in the judicial enquiry's terms of reference, is there any sanctity left for the coalition?" asks former CM Dharam Singh. 

Apparently, even Deve Gowda has been advising his son to put in his papers. He is learnt to have said that the BJP is like the proverbial "burning coal in a drape". Gowda has also made a public statement supporting his son and passing snide remarks at the BJP: "My son's government wanted to function like a watchdog, but some people want to first label him as a mad dog and then shoot him down," he said. When the coalition government completed six months in power last week, the CM and Dy. CM chose to address the people through two separate press meets. In the CM's press meet, BJP's deputy CM was present but kept a long face and remained silent all through the two hours.

Other than the simmering mistrust between the two partners, the discontent within the BJP is a big issue. The warring factions led by former Union minister Anantha Kumar and deputy chief minister Yediyurappa have been at each others' throat since day one and the Reddy bribe charge, some insiders say, should be seen as an extension of this battle. Plus, it doubles as an overall BJP strategy to keep the growing "arrogance, vindictiveness, unilateralism and political assertion" of Kumaraswamy under check. 

However, at the core of this political crisis is simply huge sums of money. Money that is being made out of legal and illegal mining in Bellary where superior grade iron ore is available in abundance, export demand for which has grown manifold since 2002. China is one of the biggest consumers of the Bellary ore. Since the demand boomed, many big mine-owners in Bellary, including Reddy, have scripted a rags-to-riches story, from literally nothing to private jets and private armies. The price per tonne of ore, which was between Rs 200 and Rs. 300 in 2002 jumped to Rs. 1500 and Rs. 1800 depending on the grade. It has now rationalised between Rs. 1000 and Rs. 1300. It is largely believed that it was this Bellary mining money that was used to install the current JD(S)-BJP coalition government, although Anil Lad, an influential BJP MLA and mining giant, denied it. "Nothing of the sort," he told Outlook working out at a gym in a five-star hotel in Bangalore. 

Money marrying politics in Bellary is supported by what a mine-owner said: "If you are an MLA in Bellary, you have to have a mine and you can't be an MLA if don't have a mine". This heady script of money and politics is complicated by the fact that Bellary borders Andhra Pradesh and there is a naxal "extortion" racket thrown into it. "The police were chasing naxals and they stumbled upon political networks," says a source. JD(S) MLA Suryanarayana Reddy, has been directly charged with aiding one Ranga Reddy, a "naxal leader" from across the border, for whom the police have launched a manhunt. Home minister and JD(S) leader MP Prakash's son M P Ravi is said to be Suryanarayana Reddy's close associate.

Leaders of all political parties have mining interests in Bellary and the JD(S) charge is that Congress leaders in S M Krishna and Dharam Singh regime reaped the mining boom bigtime by dereserving forest land and giving permits to private players. Also, BJP's Janardhan Reddy is said to be "close" to Andhra Congress CM Rajashekar Reddy through his son Jagan Reddy. JD(S) leader and Forests Minister, Chennigappa even made a statement implicating the Andhra CM. 

The two things that the Kumaraswamy government did on assuming power was pick holes in the BMIC project as it dealt with precious real estate around Bangalore and then set its sights on "illegal" mining, a source of thousands of crores, by saying that the exchequer had lost Rs. 25,000 crore in the last five years. A weird unsubstantiated number. Almost instantly they shut down mines in Kanakapura area, where Deve Gowda had lost the Lok Sabha seat, and then commissioned an enquiry on the plundering of forest wealth in Bellary. A specially commissioned government report says "180 hectares of forest land had been destroyed due to illegal mining and mining waste was dumped on another 156 hectares of forest land" in four years  The government has not acted on this report till now, but in the intervening period, the bribe charge has come up. The Congress says that the Gowda family was into "blackmail" politics by dangling this report. "By repeatedly speaking about illegal mining they are trying to create a panic among mine-owners," said Reddy. 

But what gives Reddy the confidence to press with his bribe charges against the CM? He told Outlook: "This is a financial crime, there are 100s of people and 100s of transactions. I have sufficient proof." Sources say that Reddy possesses a sting video in which members of the Gowda family are players, besides an elaborate record of the bribe money trail. But even before the hard evidence has been presented, the political damage has been done.

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