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In Bellary, Bisleri bath is bottled and Modi is risky

Local lore isn’t to be trusted as fact. But at times, it can offer a clearer peek into perceptions than cold facts may.

So it is in Bellary, the iron-ore mining district in northeast Karnataka that a trio of “Reddy brothers” ruled with money and muscle for the last decade, transforming it into a political and financial bank for the BJP.

B. Sriramulu, the brothers’ public face and the BJP candidate from the seat this general election, was so rich under the Reddys that he would bathe only in Bisleri bottled water, goes the legend that children and adults alike repeat here.

But last Friday, as Sriramulu walked from shop to shop, meeting customers and owners in Bellary’s burning heat, restaurant manager Arvind Gowda smirked as he counted cash a customer had just handed.

“He won’t be bathing in Bisleri water today,” Gowda said. “He needs to use every paisa he has to fight this election.”

Gowda still plans to vote for Sriramulu. But the changing perceptions of the wealth and influence wielded by the Reddy brothers and Sriramulu point to deep cracks in the former bastion that bankrolled the BJP’s debut ride to power in the south but also made a mockery of its anti-corruption tirade against the Congress.

When Karnataka votes on Thursday, Sriramulu will be fighting a close battle for survival against the Congress candidate, retired Odisha High Court judge N.Y. Hanumanthappa, BJP leaders are increasingly admitting.

The BJP won the Bellary seat in 2004 and 2009 after Sonia Gandhi famously defeated Sushma Swaraj in 1999. The current MP is Sriramulu’s sister J. Shantha.

“All the corruption charges are politically motivated and the people understand that,” Sriramulu told The Telegraph, his voice polite but his face betraying concern.

He was referring to the illegal-mining charges against Janardhana, Karunakara and Somashekhara Reddy that forced B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s most powerful leader in Karnataka, to resign as chief minister in 2011.

The mining excesses that Justice Santosh Hegde cited in his Lokayukta report in 2011 had led to unprecedented economic development in Bellary district, Hospet hotel owner Iqbal Karim said.

A decade ago, he recalled, Bellary and Hospet had no showrooms and hardly any foreign visitors. Potholed roads led to the town centres. Today, four-lane highways lead into and out of these towns and BMW and Chevrolet showrooms and hotels occupy prime market space. “All these are spin-offs from mining,” Karim said.

The main challenge for Sriramulu comes from “iron bars” and not iron ore, claimed senior Congress leader Abdul Wahab who had contested and lost last year’s Assembly elections.

Three of Bellary’s eight MLAs who won last year are currently behind bars, arrested by the CBI for their alleged role in the mining scam. All three are either from the BJP or close to Sriramulu personally. Of the Reddy brothers, Janardhana is in jail.“These are the men who would have run the campaign for Sriramulu and got the voters to the booths for him in their pocket boroughs,” Wahab said at his office in Hospet. “Without them, he’s alone.”

A second challenge that Sriramulu faces is from men he once counted as loyalists. Sriramulu had broken away from the BJP in 2012 after the party refused to stand by the Reddys and formed his own party. His BSR Congress won four seats in last year’s Assembly elections. Like Yeddyurappa’s breakaway Karnataka Janata Paksha, it ate into crucial BJP votes.

In March, the BJP brought Sriramulu back into the party and gave him the Bellary ticket. But, under pressure from the Reddys’ former mentor Sushma Swaraj, it refused to accept several other BSR Congress leaders or to merge with the breakaway group.

This has upset several of Sriramulu’s former colleagues, such as Yogesh Basavraj. “We won’t campaign against him (Sriramulu) but we certainly will not campaign for him, either, after the way he left us,” Basavraj said.

Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidature too may cost the BJP votes in Bellary, where Sriramulu, who organises annual marriages for hundreds of poor Hindus and Muslims, enjoys traditional support from Muslims.

The hugs from men Sriramulu called out to as friends were cold and formal outside a mosque near Hospet’s Gandhi Chowk.

“Sriramulu has done good work for people who are poor or are from the lower castes, Hindu or Muslim,” Iqbal Shami said.

“But Modi’s face flashes before my eyes every time I contemplate voting for Sriramulu. I simply can’t.”

Bellary and the rest of Karnataka vote on April 17