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Why did mining baron Janardhan Reddy return to the BJP?

Ballari, a dusty city 320 km from Bengaluru, would have continued to remain a boondocks district of Kalyan Karnataka (north Karnataka), but for two things that catapulted it to fame. First was in 1999, when Congress leader Sonia Gandhi contested from this Lok Sabha seat and won defeating Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate, the late Sushma Swaraj. Second, when the Lokayukta report, investigating illegal mining in the district, named Gali Janardhan Reddy — now a BJP MLA — as the kingpin in a 16,085 crore scam that took place between 2006 and 2010.

Bengaluru, Mar 25 (ANI): Karnataka Rajya Pragathi Paksha (KRPP) MLA, Gali Janardhana Reddy greets the BJP leader and former Karnataka CM BS Yediyurappa, as he joins the BJP, at the BJP office Jagannath Bhavan in Bengaluru on Monday. (ANI Photo)(Arun Kumar Rao)

Known as the Ballari Brothers — G Somashekar Reddy, G Karunakara Reddy and G Janardhan Reddy — together with an associate, former minister and now BJP Lok Sabha candidate for Ballari, B Sriramulu, made the district their fiefdom. The Lokayukta report, which came out in 2011, contained a chapter on the collapse of the administration and governance in Ballari. Former Lokayukta Justice N Santosh Hegde, who investigated the scam, wrote about how the district had been turned into the “Republic of Ballari” by the mining czars, the Reddy brothers. After the damning report, most of Janardhan Reddy’s bank accounts were frozen.

The Lokayukta report indicted Janardhan Reddy, Yediyurappa, several other politicians and as many as 787 government officers. The report led to a Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) probe and in 2011, Janardhan Reddy was arrested by the central agency on the charge that his company, Obulapuram Mining Corporation conducted illegal mining in a reserve forest in Andhra Pradesh bordering Ballari.

Janardhan remained in prison till 2015, when the Supreme Court granted him bail on the condition that he could not visit Ballari, Anantapur and Kadapa (the latter two are districts in Andhra Pradesh). His appeal in October 2022 seeking to modify the conditions and allow him to “enter, stay and function” in Ballari district was rejected by the apex court. Though the ban stays, as a special case, Janardhan Reddy was allowed to visit Ballari between October 10 and November 6, 2022, when his granddaughter was born.

After his arrest, the BJP, including Swaraj, distanced itself from the Reddy brothers and Janardhana Reddy remained low even after he came out of prison. However, he was back in the spotlight a year later (2016), when he threw a lavish wedding ceremony for his daughter Brahmani, in Bengaluru. The wedding venue was recreated to resemble the palace of the Vijayanagar kingdom since Janardhan Reddy believes he is the reincarnation of the 16th century King Krishnadevaraya who ruled over Vijayanagar.

In 2009, as minister for tourism, Janardhan Reddy had said on the floor of the Legislative Council that “Ballari belongs to us” referring to the Reddy brothers. IFS officer UV Singh, who headed the Lokayukta’s investigation into the illegal mining scam said that when he visited Ballari in September 2009, he was asked by Somashekar Reddy whether he had taken the permission of the district in-charge minister (Janardhan Reddy) to enter. The officer mentions in the Lokayukta report that he said as an “Indian citizen, he does not require permission to go anywhere.”

Unbridled, unchecked power

Children of a police constable, the Reddy brothers’ association with the BJP started in the 1990s but they came into the limelight during the contest between Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj in 1999, when they managed the latter’s poll campaign. She became their Sushma Tai (godmother) and the photograph of her placing her hand on the heads of Janardhana Reddy and Sriramulu kneeling on either side left a lasting impression. In 2004, Janardhan Reddy’s brother Karunakara Reddy won the Ballari Lok Sabha seat — the first time a non-Congress candidate had won it since 1952.

Janardhan Reddy’s claim to fame was in 2008, when he engineered Operation Lotus after the assembly polls, poaching MLAs, and making them resign to join the BJP — a concept that is now being emulated in other states. The BJP had won 110 seats in the 2008 Assembly polls and was short of three for a simple majority to form the government. Yediyurappa became the chief minister with the support of six independent MLAs, but to ensure further stability to the government, Janardhan Reddy lured seven MLAs — three from the Congress and four from the Janata Dal (Secular) and five of whom got reelected in bypolls — taking the strength of the BJP to 115.

That same year, Janardhan, his brother Karunakara and Sriramulu became ministers in the Yediyurappa government. In 2009, Janardhan revolted against Yediyurappa alleging interference by the latter’s confidante and then minister Shobha Karandlaje. He took 60 BJP MLAs to a resort in Goa compelling Yediyurappa to drop Karandlaje from the cabinet.

Alongside his political growth, Janardhan’s mining business soared, when a sudden demand for iron ore from China during the Beijing Games in the early 2000s pushed up prices, from 200 to 3,000 a tonne, which is mentioned in the Lokayukta report.

In July 2010, a ruckus broke out between the Congress and the ruling BJP MLAs on the floor of the House, when Congress MLA Dinesh Gundu Rao accused the Reddy brothers of encouraging illegal mining. BJP MLA TH Suresh Babu took on Rao and threatened him with dire consequences. He was joined by all the three Reddy brothers and when Babu challenged the Congress to visit Ballari, Siddaramaiah, who was the then Opposition leader accepted it. The challenge resulted in the Siddaramaiah-led padayatra from Bengaluru to Ballari in August 2010 against illegal mining, sweeping the Congress party to power in 2013.

Break-away from BJP

BJP leaders believe Janardhan Reddy’s sole intention in floating the KRPP was to embarrass BJP national general secretary (organisation) BL Santhosh, whom the Reddy brothers believe was instrumental in the party disowning Janardhana Reddy after his arrest. His readmission into the party in the presence of former chief minister BS Yediyurappa and state BJP president BY Vijayendra on March 25 has evoked mixed responses in the party. The BJP central leadership had distanced itself from Janardhan Reddy after he was jailed — he was also reportedly asked to keep away from campaigning for the BJP in the Karnataka assembly polls in 2018.

Upon rejoining the party, Janardhan Reddy said, “The BJP was always there in my blood, but due to some reasons I had gone out, but today I feel I have come back to my mother’s lap. Looking at my brothers here, I don’t feel like I’m coming back to the BJP office after 13 years.” In last year’s assembly polls, both his brothers were defeated — Somashekar from Ballari city and Karunakara from Harapanahalli.

“Janardhan’s KRPP ensured the defeat of his two brothers and Sriramulu in the 2023 assembly polls. Now they need each other and Janardhan Reddy is capable of garnering 50,000 votes in some of the constituencies in Kalyan Karnataka, which the BJP desperately requires,” said political analyst and senior journalist NK Mohan Ram.

However, senior BJP functionary Vaman Acharya said it had become a necessity for Janaradhan to align with a government for his political survival. He was dismissive of Reddy’s readmission being helpful for the BJP. “It is not going to make a big impact. But during elections for a party, every small peak will give a new height. His entry is only an image-building exercise,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Congress on March 27, filed a petition before assembly speaker UT Khader questioning the legality of Janardhan Reddy merging KRPP with the BJP. They sought his disqualification for violating Schedule 10 of the Constitution, which pertains to anti-defection laws.

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