Trailing in mining land..

My decision to visit Bellary during this Lok Sabha election season had twin objectives. My previous visit was in 2006. One current objective was to trail BJP candidate B Sriramulu while he canvassed in the constituency. I wondered whether he still gets connected to the masses despite the disgraceful fall of the Reddy’s empire a couple of years ago.

Another reason was to meet Bellary Deputy Commissioner Amlan Aditya Biswas, to get an update on mining activities. I interviewed Biswas for Deccan Herald print edition on April 17. So here I am writing only on the candidate’s trailing.

Sriramulu, who was perceived to be an aide and conduit to jailed Janardana Reddy, has not been framed in the mining irregularities, by any investigating agency. This is baffling indeed. He used to claim proudly that his mentor was Reddy. He had no hesitation to say that Reddy’s ‘intelligence’ was running the business and he was just executing the commands.

The 43-year-old Sriramulu, who had no identity of his own as he was doing some odd jobs including newspaper distribution on his bicycle, contested elections for the first time in 1999, as the BJP nominee from Bellary City. He lost the battle but the election earned himproximity to Sushma Swaraj as she had contested the Bellary Lok Sabha seat against Sonia Gandhi. Sriramulu’s younger sister J Shantha, Bellary MP, is a good orator in Kannada.

She was the one who had taught spoken Kannada to Sushma, it is said.  Sriramulu cannot match the oratory skills of his sister. At that time, Sushma had attended Lakshmi pooje in the house of a doctor turned BJP leader in Bellary.

Since the debacle in 1999, Sriramulu has not lost any Assembly election that followed. At that time, he had submitted his nomination papers to Biswas, who was the assistant returning officer. Since then he is avoiding submitting papers to Biswas whenever he was the returning officer in Bellary. This time too, he avoided meeting Biswas at the time of filing the papers.

Being a Valmiki, he had chosen to contest only from Bellary Rural, which is reserved for the scheduled tribes. He was the front man for the Reddys as well as their rabble-rouser. He was also a crowd puller for the elections.

Sriramulu was a partner in the Ennoble finance firm run by the Reddys. But the firm was closed around 1999-2000. Later, Janardana Reddy began running his mining business cum cartel. All those who were in Reddy’s inner circle benefited financially. Neither the Lokayukta nor the CBI could trail any financial transaction between Reddy and Sriramulu. May be no traces have been left for the quid-pro-quo between the two. That does not mean that Sriramulu’s wealth has not grown over a period, though it is not apparently growing after Reddy’s arrest. In hafta vasool business, where will one find any sort of evidence for circulation of currency notes!

Sriramulu still retains his immovable property in Bellary. His declared wealth before the Election Commission was about Rs 14 crore this election. It is hard to believe that he is worth only that much. People who know him say that he sold his landed property and an apartment

in Bangalore in the recent times. There are criminal cases pending against him.
Sriramulu’s victory margin as BJP candidate in 2013 was 33,294. When he rebelled against the BJP and contested as an independent in the same year, it increased to 46,760. He ensured that the BJP candidate lost his deposit. His winning streak and popularity among the members of his caste drove the BJP to field him for the Lok Sabha seat. Even the Congress wanted to grab him into its fold. It is said that AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh met Sriramulu in a hotel in Bangalore and promised him to make him a minister. Singh’s efforts went in vain as Bellary’s Congress leaders opposed his entry, based not on any principles but out of apprehension over their own survival in the district, it is said.

I could catch up with Sriramulu after a couple of hours of travelling in hamlets around Thorangal near Vijayanagar (Hospet). He was surrounded by the youth. Crackers were burst and drums were beaten wherever he went. Women were seen ogling at him admiringly. He has a physique of an athlete. His six foot height and broad shoulders make him stand out in the crowd.

He was addressing the crowd along with Shantha. As directed by the BJP, he was not mentioning the names of the Reddys but praising Modi. The crorepathi Sriramulu was heard eloquently speaking on poverty, price rise and how poor people can’t even buy anything if they walk into a grocery shop with Rs 100 in the pocket.

In Sultanpura, he spotted me and walked up to me to say politely that he would get into my taxi so that he can interact with me.  I wasn’t keen because I had spoken to him over the phone to get his quotes for my report. But he insisted that I should wait for him. He paid a visit to a temple and later walked into my taxi along with his media co-ordinator Kulkarni.

I had met him when he was the health minister. So, we needed no introduction to each other. Except two gunmen he had no other bodyguards. Earlier, he used to be surrounded by private security guards. He was wearing a gold chain of huge rudrakasha beads which made me ask him about its significance. He said he is a believer in God and somebody advised him to wear it.

The soaring temperature was making him sweat. The car driver Sharavan offered him tissues which he accepted. But when he I offered my water bottle, he refused it. Knowing well that he would not hesitate to take any question, I asked him why Sushma Swaraj had vehemently opposed his re-entry to the party. He said she had a valid reason. She had faced very embarrassing moments in Parliament whenever the Opposition raised questions regarding illegal mining. It is but natural for her to distance herself from the Reddys, he said. 

Asked whether she too was a beneficiary of the mining wealth, he insisted that she was not. Except taking air transport provided by the Reddys, at no time had she had accepted any favour, he claimed. His answer was on the expected lines.

Sriramulu’s associate told me that Sushma had told Sriramulu to disown Reddy in public by saying he had nothing to do with Reddy anymore. While he was in Delhi, he apparently agreed to carry out her instruction but did not do so once he returned to Karnataka. This annoyed her and made her tweet against his return to the party. But eventually, he yielded to pressure and resigned as an MLA before rejoining the BJP. But what purpose has it served?
What about Janardana Reddy? Any chances of him coming out jail on bail in the near future as the NDA was all set to form the government, I asked. Sriramulu, after a pause, said it may be difficult to get out of the present situation. Asked whether he was proxy to Reddy in the poll battle, he, in turn, asked me whether it was possible for any party to circumvent rules all the time or hoodwink investigating agencies. He made no efforts to defend his mentor.

To a question whether he was regularly visiting Reddy, the vague reply was, “I used to…”How come he is not behind the bars? Straight came the reply, which he must have said umpteen number of times: he was not involved in mining activities and has been public life for the last 25 years. He said the present government had refused to provide him extra security cover which he had sought.

How much was he spending on electioneering? He ducked the question. He took water bottle from me and gulped the aqua and said, ‘’Elections are expensive. Voters have become corrupt. And, it is we who have to be blamed for it. An MP’s fund will not cross Rs 5 crore a year. What development can be done with such meagre amount?”

He also admitted that he had to sell some of his property to raise money for the electioneering. If it is financially not beneficial, then why be in politics, I asked him bluntly. He said, “Asha, politics is addiction. And, I can’t move out of it.”

Then he began analysing the poll prospects of his party candidate from Bidar to Bangalore. As a star campaigner, he had done good homework. He was not stating the obvious. He asked me whether I could make it to the Lok Sabha just because I was a journalist. I knew to whom he was referring to and it was my turn to go on a silent mode.

By that time, the car reached Torangal town and the crowd began milling around the car. He had to step out. He was lost in the crowd which went hysteric seeing him. He is still living up to his image of ‘giver’ and an accessible politician. He was not unduely worked up or tensed. Before getting out, he made it a point to ask me whether I had proper accommodation in Hospet. When he left, I was just thinking who was a better operator – Reddy or Sriramulu. I don’t have an answer for it. But indeed Sriramulu is lucky. Greedy voters turn blind, isn’t it? Can they not see the difference between a Robin Hood and Robber Hood? The LS results will reflect it.

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