An Ego Clash That Is Threatening the Karnataka Govt
Satish and Ramesh Jarkiholi have been up in arms against their former ally Laxmi Hebbalkar over elections to a cooperative bank in Belagavi.
Satish and Ramesh Jarkiholi have been up in arms against their former ally Laxmi Hebbalkar over elections to a cooperative bank in Belagavi.(Photo: Harsh Sahani/The Quint)

An Ego Clash That Is Threatening the Karnataka Govt

The fate of Karnataka’s coalition government currently rests on the ego of two brothers from Belagavi district.

The 2018 Assembly election was just around the corner when the Congress realised that former chief minister Siddaramaiah was losing popularity in his home turf, Chamundeshwari. The party decided that he would contest from another seat in North Karnataka – Badami.

A star campaigner for the Congress, Siddaramaiah campaigned in Badami just twice. But the party was certain of a win, because Satish Jarkiholi, a sugar baron and political powerhouse in North Karnataka, was tasked with ensuring Siddaramaiah’s victory.

And win he did, even without serious campaigning efforts.

Satish wasn’t given a Cabinet berth in the Congress-JDS coalition government. Although a rebellion was expected, he supported the party. But, a few months later, an ego clash over the board of a local bank in Belagavi district has Satish and his brother Ramesh up in arms, even threatening the stability of the coalition.

The two brothers, who had a big say deciding the president of the bank, were challenged by one of their old allies Laxmi Hebbalkar. Allegedly backed by Congress leader DK Shivakumar, candidates fielded by Hebbalkar won the election. As the control over the bank was crucial for the business interests, the disgruntled brothers have even threatened to quit the party, if Hebbalkar and Shivakumar are not kept at bay.

The Fear of Losing Control

Satish Jarkiholi during an election campaign.
Satish Jarkiholi during an election campaign.
(Photo: Arun Dev/The Quint)

The politics in Belagavi, which has the second highest number of seats in Karnataka after Bengaluru, has been controlled by the Jarkiholi brothers. The political power of the five Jarkiholi brothers – Ramesh, Satish, Balachandra, Bhishmi and Lankan – is linked to the fortune they have amassed from their sugar business.

While Ramesh, Satish and Lankan are part of the Congress, Balachandra and Bhimshi are part of the BJP. Even though the brothers have different political views, but when it comes to controlling the three sugar factories they own, they have set their differences aside.

The control over the Primary Land Development (PLD) bank is crucial for the brothers to keep the control over their sugar business, and in turn, the politics of the region. Unlike other cooperative banks, the PLD bank grants loans for large land-owning farmers, for farming and buying machinery. The collateral for the loans is often the produce from the farms and the prominent produce in the region is sugarcane.

Over the years, men supported by the Jarkiholi brothers have been elected to top posts of the bank without any competition. Thus, with control over the bank, the brothers were able to keep a check on the businesses in the region.

But in the last month of August, an election was called for post of president and vice president after another Congress leader Laxmi Hebbalkar , allegedly supported by Congress minister DK Shivakumar, fielded two candidates against the men nominated by the brothers.

The brothers were even more furious when they realised that one of the men Hebbalkar nominated was Bapu Gauda Patil, a trusted aide of the brothers, who was bought over by Hebbalkar.

The Laxmi Hebbalkar Factor

Laxmi Hebbalkar was a former ally of the Jarkiholi family. 
Laxmi Hebbalkar was a former ally of the Jarkiholi family. 
(Photo: Facebook/Laxmi Hebbalkar)

Laxmi Hebbalkar – who doesn’t hail from a political family – rose to prominence through the grassroot levels and into the state politics. Her association with the Jarkiholi family, especially Ramesh, was one of the reasons behind her political growth.

According to the Congress leaders in Belagavi, Hebbalkar played a crucial role in brokering peace between the Jarkiholi brothers when issues arose. She was also one of the reasons, allegedly, for Satish losing his ministerial post in the previous Congress government – and Ramesh replacing him.

However, in the recent years, differences emerged between Ramesh and Hebbalkar. Seeking allies, Hebbalkar approached Shivakumar, one of the most powerful names in the Karnataka Congress.

The Bank Election

The two Jarkiholi brothers were not happy about candidates being fielded against the old practice of the brothers themselves nominating the bank officials. But Hebbalkar refused to withdraw the candidates supported by her and the matter went to court.

In the meantime, along came the urban local body (ULB) elections on 31 August. To show their strength, the two Jarkiholi brothers fielded several independent candidates in their hometown of Gokak in Belagavi. Even Hebbalkar fielded her candidates, but out of 31 seats, 30 were won by candidates fielded by the two Jarkiholi brothers.

Despite the ULB victory, the battle of PLD bank continued, and a court directed that election should be conducted. The disgruntled Jarkiholi brothers were convinced by the Congress leadership, including KPCC vice president Eshwar Kandre, to withdraw their candidates and let Hebbalkar’s candidates win.

Hebbalkar’s victory was a loss of face for the brothers.

In an attempt to resolve the internal turmoil within the party, a meeting was called by KC Venugopal, Karnataka in-charge of AICC. During this meeting in Bengaluru, the Jarkiholi brothers raised their objections against Hebbalkar. Unsurprisingly, Shivakumar came out in support of Hebbalkar and the meeting ended in chaos.

The Undercurrents of Rebellion

The meeting tickled off the brothers. In a statement to the press, Jarkiholi attacked Hebbalkar and Shivakumar asking them to stay away from Belagavi’s politics, just as the brothers have always stayed away from Shivakumar’s territory.

This was followed by speculation of Satish being in talks with the BJP. The rumours became a headache for the Congress when BJP party president B.S Yeddyurappa abruptly cut his trip to Delhi short to return to Bengaluru. He soon announced that some prominent Congress leaders would be joining the BJP soon.

Ramesh and Satish hold sway over enough MLAs to remove the current coalition from majority. In a latest statement, Ramesh announced Satish as a candidate for the chief ministerial post, declaring their power in controlling the future of the coalition.

As per latest reports, the brothers have threatened to quit the party and even take MLAs supporting them to the BJP’s camp. Following this, senior leaders from the Congress have been holding meetings with the brothers, knowing the sway they hold and the damage to the coalition their departure could cause.

The damage, however, for the time being, has been stalled and the Congress has managed to pacify the brothers for now. But unless the battle of control over Belagavi isn’t over, the coalition will have a sword hanging over its head.

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