The Nehru-Gandhi safe seats: When Sonia, Sushma crossed swords in Ballari

Sonia defeated Sushma Swaraj by 56,000 votes in Ballari in her electoral debut

The Nehru-Gandhi safe seats: When Sonia, Sushma crossed swords in Ballari Sonia Gandhi (Image: AFP) and Sushma Swaraj (Image: PTI)

It was a closely guarded secret. She flew into Ballari via Hyderabad in a special aircraft to file her nomination. Her opponent too air-dashed to Ballari from Delhi via Bengaluru.

In 1999, Ballari, the mineral-rich district in north Karnataka, witnessed a fiery battle between the 'videshi bahu' and the 'swadeshi beti', as Sonia Gandhi, the wife of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, took on BJP's firebrand politician and chief minister of Delhi Sushma Swaraj.

Sonia made her electoral debut from Amethi (Uttar Pradesh), her late husband's constituency, and Ballari. She defeated Sushma Swaraj by 56,000 votes in Ballari, a citadel of the Congress party since the first general election in 1952. Within a few months after she became the chief of the Congress party, Sonia was given two of the party’s safest seats. In Amethi, Sonia had wrested the seat from the Nehru-Gandhi family's friend-turned-foe Sanjay Singh of the BJP.

In 1978, it was Sonia's mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, who landed in Chikmagalur in Karnataka, seeking a “safe seat” and made a political comeback by winning it. Her daughter-in-law winning Ballari after trouncing Swaraj, an ace orator and campaigner, helped her cement her position as the undisputed leader of the Congress.

Two decades later, Sonia Gandhi's son and current Congress president Rahul Gandhi filed his nomination from Wayanad in Kerala (in addition to Amethi) in a bid to energise the cadres across the southern states. Rahul's foray into Wayanad is reminiscent of the old times when his grandmother and mother had chosen a second seat in south India.

If winning Amethi helped the Congress party safeguard its political territory in Uttar Pradesh, the Ballari battle had resulted in uniting the saffron party, which finally wrested the seat in 2004 and held it for 14 years.

The high-decibel campaign in Ballari drew the nation's attention as Swaraj (who had gained a working knowledge of Kannada within a month) drew huge crowds during her campaign. On the other hand, Sonia, accompanied by her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, seemed confident as the party had won Ballari in the 12 Lok Sabha elections before that. Though Sonia gave up the Ballari seat to retain Amethi, her contest with Swaraj will be remembered as one of the fiery electoral battles.

“I am contesting from Ballari. South India was always dear to my mother-in-law (Indira)," Sonia had said soon after filing her nomination papers.

The nomination process of both Sonia and Swaraj was dramatic and filled with suspense. While it was being speculated that Sonia would contest from Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh, she landed in Ballari along with Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and then KPCC chief S.M. Krishna to file her nomination. She was accompanied by former Union minister Basavarajeshwari and leaders like S.R. Rangappa, Kasim Sab and Umakanthappa.

Swaraj (whose name was mooted by Ramakrishna Hegde) filed her nomination, accompanied by then civil aviation minister H.N. Ananth Kumar and BJP general secretary in-charge of Karnataka M. Venkaiah Naidu.

The Congress retained the seat, but it was Swaraj who emerged triumphant in the long run as the district saw a tectonic shift, with the BJP breaching the Congress's strong fort in 2004, with G. Karunakara Reddy of the saffron party wresting the Ballari Lok Sabha seat.

Swaraj's campaign was managed by the three Reddy brothers, who had had a brief stint in the Congress and had managed to build the BJP in Ballari. They pushed B. Sriramulu (belonging to the Valmiki scheduled tribe community) to consolidate the SC/ST votes in the region. When the Reddy brothers joined the BJP, which was favoured by the dominant Lingayat community, they easily wrested the seat from the Congress.

The Reddy brothers (Karunakara, Somashekhara and Janardhana), who were growing popular with their charity activities, prospered with the mining boom in the region, as the demand for iron ore ahead of the Beijing Olympics in China fetched them huge profit margins. Their opulent lifestyles became the talk of the town. They became the uncrowned satraps in the region. They ensured the BJP swept seven out of eight seats in the district, and became ministers in the Yeddyurappa cabinet in 2008.

In July 2011, a 25,288-page report by the Lokayukta on illegal mining by justice Santosh Hegde triggered a political tsunami as it implicated the former and incumbent chief ministers, the Reddy brothers, Sriramulu, Anil Lad and 787 government officials for being party to “illegally lifting, transporting, and exporting iron ore” during the period of 2006-2010 in Karnataka.

The loss to the exchequer was pegged at Rs 16,085 crore. The report recommended criminal prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act, IPC and Forests Act and Mines Regulation Act. However, it was a recommendation of then Andhra Chief Minister K. Rosaiah to the CBI and IT department that culminated in investigations into illegal mining in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and the Reddys' arrest on September 5, 2011. G. Janardhana Reddy spent almost three years in jail.

The iron-ore rich district that was disgraced as the “Republic of Ballari”, under the stranglehold of Reddy brothers, once again embraced the winds of change. It also led to the collapse of the first BJP government in south India.

The Ballari Lok Sabha seat consists of eight assembly segments of Bellary City, Bellary Rural, Sandur, Vijayanagara, Hagari Bommanahalli, Kudligi, Kampli and Huvina Hadagali. The Congress reclaimed Ballari in the May 2018 Assembly polls by bagging six out of the eight seats.

In November 2018, the Ballari Lok Sabha bypoll saw BJP candidate and Molkalmuru MLA B. Sriramulu's sister, J. Shantha, get defeated by an "outsider" V.S. Ugrappa, the JD(S)-Congress coalition candidate. The Parliamentary constituency that was under the stranglehold of BJP's Reddy brothers and Sriramulu for the last 14 years was wrested by the Congress candidate Ugrappa, who won with a huge margin of 2,43,161 votes. The victory was not just the result of the sheer strength of the JD(S)-Congress in the assembly but the coalition drafting a team of six ministers under Water Resources Minister D.K. Shivakumar to ensure Ugrappa’s win.

Meanwhile, the Reddy brothers too lost their foothold in Ballari after the Supreme Court gave a restraining order banning the entry of Janardhana (now on bail). His close aide and then BJP MP Sriramulu too was moved out by the party to contest from two Assembly seats—Molkalmuru and Badami—in the 2018 assembly polls. Sriramulu won the Molkalmuru seat and lost Badami to incumbent chief minister Siddaramaiah by a wafer-thin margin of 2,000 votes.

The battle for Ballari has turned into a straight fight between Valmiki strongman Sriramulu and Water Resources Minister and Vokkaliga strongman D.K. Shivakumar, who is Ballari district in-charge minister.

But the growing ambition of Shivakumar, who is keen on expanding his clout in Belagavi, the Lingayat heartland (north Karnataka), saw his party colleagues Satish Jarkiholi and his elder brother Ramesh (belonging to ST community) revolting against the Congress. While the BJP-JD(S) coalition has once again fielded Ugrappa, the BJP has Y. Devendrappa, a relative of the Jarkiholi brothers. The BJP's defeat was attributed to the one-upmanship of Sriramulu's family in the district, which upset the local BJP leaders and cadres. Sensing the mood, the BJP is hoping to make amends by propping up Devendrappa to consolidate the ST and Lingayat votes.

It remains to be seen who wins in the proxy war between two Congress factions—D.K. Shivakumar and the Jarkiholi brothers.

—This article is part of a series on the 'safe seats' the Congress embraced in the south: Chikmagalur, Ballari, Medak and Wayanad.