Advani, Swaraj can’t wash their hands of BJP’s Karnataka defeat

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It was noon on Friday, 17 May, when a terse letter arrived at the Bengaluru residence of businessman-politician Lehar Singh Siroya. The letter was from Prahlad Joshi, president of the Karnataka unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, informing the recipient, a member of the state’s legislative council, that he had been suspended as treasurer of the party’s state unit, a post he had held for seven years.

What was Siroya’s fault? He had written an angry letter four days earlier to the BJP’s senior most leader in New Delhi, former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Kishan Advani, telling him that he and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj should not be laying all the blame for their party’s humiliating defeat in the state assembly elections on former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa.

He firmly stated that Advani and Swaraj should accept their own responsibility for the pathetic condition of the Hindu nationalist party in the only state in southern India that it has been able to come to power on its own. (See Siroya’s 13 May letter to Advani, copies of which were marked to BJP president Rajnath Singh and others.)

Siroya told Firstpost over the phone on Friday evening: “I held a mirror up to the party and they decided to smash the mirror.”

Was he reacting in pique because he is a loyalist of the former Karnataka Chief Minister — as has been claimed by the Times of India — who was thrown out because the state Lokayukta Justice N. Santosh Hegde had indicted him for blatant acts of corruption. “I am not a loyalist of Yeddyurappaji. My loyalties are not to any individual but to the party,” Siroya claimed.

His ouster from the post of treasurer is a knee-jerk reaction to the 13 May letter he wrote to  Advani, in response to the latter’s blog of 12 May in which he laid the blame for the BJP’s recent rout in the Karnataka assembly elections squarely on Yeddyurappa.

Advani wrote: “Let me first point out that BJP did not throw out Yeddi; it is he who broke away from the BJP and decided to form a factional party of his own, the KJP. In fact, when it became apparent that he was unabashedly indulging in corruption, if the party had immediately taken firm action, the course of events would have been quite different.”

Siroya’s response the following day was — to use his words— to hold up a mirror to his party’s top brass. “I, as a humble worker, want to pose some questions to you on your perception of the malaise that has afflicted the Karnataka unit of the party. Before I get into the details, let me tell you that you are being contradictory, partisan and shielding your own role in the decline of the party in the state. In my opinion, if you were, in the past, as candid and uncompromising as today, we would have perhaps never reached this situation.”

Siroya then goes on to list thirteen points wherein he seeks to hold Advani and Swaraj responsible for the decline of the BJP in the state. He wrote to Advani: “Have you ever questioned Sushmaji on her long association with the mining mafia and the nature of that association which is a subject of drawing room and newsroom gossip? The mining mafia referred to her always as their mother and she basked in that affection for years.”

And that is where the crux of the problem lies – the iron ore mining scam that was focussed around Bellary district in north Karnataka. The taint of corruption has spread deep and far into the party’s ranks and Siroya is correct when he argues that Advani and Swaraj cannot feign ignorance about what has happened.

As he points out in his letter to Advani: “The negotiations to end the impasse were held not in the party office, but at your residence. The entire nation watched the reborn ‘Ironman of India’ succumb before the mining mafia, who ran an illegal and immoral empire in the state. Can I ever describe to you (how) the people of Karnataka hung their head(s) in shame that day? Didn’t that look like ‘corruption’ or ‘compromise’ to you?”

To understand the “negotiations” that Siroya is referring to, one has to take a short trip back in time. In November 2009, after Yeddyurappa decided to ask for a “contribution” of Rs 1,000 from the owners of each truck carrying iron ore out of Bellary for those affected by floods in the state a month earlier, the mining barons of the state led by Gali Janardhana Reddy, former Minister for Tourism, Youth Affairs and Infrastructure Development in Yeddyurappa’s government, displayed their awesome clout by precipitating a political crisis that threatened the continuance of the state government.

The crisis was resolved only after the BJP leadership in New Delhi, in particular, Sushma Swaraj, intervened. Siroya pointed out that “at one stroke” as many as 64 senior officers belonging to the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service, were reinstated on that occasion at the instance of the Gali Reddy brothers and that this was touted as a “birthday gift” for Advani — the senior leader of the BJP was born on 8 November 1927. (Incidentally, Siroya pointed out that some of these officers are currently behind bars.)

Yeddyurappa was publicly reduced to tears on one occasion. And he had to ask his confidante Shobha Karandlaje to temporarily “sacrifice” her ministerial position to appease the Gali Reddy brothers, who control Obulapuram Mining Company (OMC) based in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

It is hardly a secret that the “Bellary brothers” and their associates provided considerable financial support for the BJP’s election victory in Karnataka in May 2008. Siroya’s letter states, though in not so many words, that the first BJP government in southern India was born in sin since it had to “buy” the support of a number of independent legislators to obtain a majority in the assembly, in an operation that was code-named Operation Kamal.

Not only that, as senior journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju points out, there was a “rape of democracy” when a number of MLAs belong to the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) were “persuaded” to resign and re-contest elections on BJP tickets a few months later. Surely the BJP’s big guns in Delhi were not unaware of what had taken place.

The Gali Reddy brothers were subsequently indicted by the Lokayukta, as well as by the Supreme Court of India-appointed Central Empowered Committee, for trespassing state boundaries and violating forest laws during mining operations.

In June 2009, the Gali Reddy brothers spent over Rs 40 crore gifting a diamond-studded crown to the Tirupathi temple. It had earlier been alleged that persons close to Janardhana Reddy were responsible for the destruction of the 200-year-old Sugalamma Devi temple located in the mining lease area of OMC in destroying another temple because it came in the way of their illegal mining activities. In September 2006, a case against the Reddy brothers was dropped despite objections from the police and the law department in the state.

Now all this should have bad news for a party that professes to believe in the virtues of Hindutva. But no, the Gali Reddy brothers were at that stage “untouchable”.

On 9 July 2010, the Karnataka High Court issued an interim order directing the customs authorities to stop all exports of iron ore by 10 private companies from the ports of Mangalore, Karwar and Belekeri in the state, till an investigation was completed into the disappearance of 500,000 tonnes of iron ore – out of the 700,000 tonnes of ore that were seized in March 2010 at the instance of Lokayukta Justice Hegde. The ore was transported to the Belekeri port in an allegedly unauthorised manner. Ministers in the Karnataka state government offered unconvincing reasons for the disappearance of the iron ore.

A fortnight earlier, fed up with the inaction of the state government and angered that those who had seized illegally mined iron ore at his behest were being victimised, Justice Hegde decided to resign on 23 June 2010. However, on 3 July 2010, following the advice of senior BJP leader Advani, who he described as a “father figure”, the then Lokayukta withdrew his resignation letter.

As Firstpost reported: “On 16 July 2010, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa, acknowledged in the state assembly that over 30 million tonnes of iron ore had been illegally exported from Karnataka over a seven-year period between April 2003 and March 2010. The total worth of this huge quantity of iron ore would be at least $1.5 billion, or Rs 7,500 crore (assuming very conservatively that each tonne of iron ore was worth $50 in the international market). The then Chief Minister contended that out of the 30 million tonnes illegally exported, only around 10.5 million tonnes of iron ore had been illegally exported out of the state during the first two years of his term.”

By early-2011, it had become quite apparent that Yeddyurappa’s days as chief minister were numbered. On 27 July 2011, a few days before he retired, Lokayukta Justice Hegde presented his final report on illegal mining in Bellary which raised a political storm, not just in the state but in the entire country. The detailed document indicted Janardhana Reddy and refuted his contention that he was not involved in illegal mining in the state. It also alleged that he had laundered money through international tax havens.

More importantly, Justice Hegde’s voluminous report was scathing in its criticism of Yeddyurappa’s personal role, meticulously documenting how his family members received kickbacks from mining companies and how rules were tailored to enable them to acquire large tracts of land and properties.

Even before this report had been submitted, a section of the BJP top brass had begun distancing themselves from the Bellary mafia. Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, who had been close to the Gali Reddy brothers from the time she contested Parliamentary elections from Bellary against Sonia Gandhi in 1999, in an interview to Outlook weekly (6 June 2011), sought to distance herself from the Gali Reddy brothers and claimed that their rise was on account of their proximity to Yeddyurappa and the support given to them by Arun Jaitley, Swaraj’s counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, perceived by some to be her rival in the party.

Even earlier that year, Siroya pointed out, a delegation of ten senior leaders of the BJP from Karnataka had met Advani at his residence in New Delhi and complained about Yeddyurappa turning a blind eye to the activities of the mining mafia in the state. Among these leaders were two who went on to become chief ministers of the state ((Jagdish Shettar and Sadananda Gowda) and one who became state party president (Prahlad Joshi), Siroya added, though he does not name the concerned individuals.

After a lot of kicking and screaming, on 31 July 2011, Yeddyurappa had to put in his papers. Just over a month later, on 5 September, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Gali Janardhana Reddy and  his brother-in-law BV Sreenivas Reddy, managing director of Obulapuram Mining Company. The arrests came almost 21 months after a first information report against the company had been lodged by the CBI in December 2009.

To return to Lehar Singh Siroya’s 13 May letter to Advani, what has rankled the BJP leadership is that the suspended treasurer of the party’s Karnataka unit has not stopped at pointing out that both Advani and Swaraj had turned a blind eye to all that Yeddyurappa and Janardhana Reddy were doing.

He stated that the BJP in Karnataka had not been cleansed of corrupt elements after Yeddyurappa’s departure and that many “tainted” MLAs who had been given tickets went on to lose elections. He told Advani that he had sat next to some of these “tainted” legislators when he campaigned.

Suspended treasurer Siroya’s criticism of Advani and the top leadership of the BJP went beyond Karnataka. He said that Advani had endorsed the BJP’s support to Rajya Sabha MP and failed industrialist Vijay Mallya as well as to former Jharkhand Chief Minister Shibu Soren and non-resident Indian businessman Anshuman Mishra who unsuccessfully tried to get elected to the Rajya Sabha from Jharkhand.

In short, Siroya has accused the top brass of India’s biggest opposition political party of hypocrisy and worse.

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