Ballari: Red is unmistakably the colour of Ballari, the mineral rich district in Karnataka abundant in natural resources like iron ore, manganese ore, red oxide, gold, copper and lead dug out of hills surrounding the region.
From paan-stained walls to the tyres of every vehicle in the district, the swirls of red dust never settle down in Ballari, much like the region’s turbulent political environment that oscillates between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The run-up to the 3 November parliamentary by-poll is no different as the two parties have put all their might to conquer the district, including setting up a clash between D.K. Shivakumar of the Congress and B. Sriramulu of the BJP.
Though caste is one of the biggest factors in the constituency reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs), like most other places, money talks in this district, where much of the population have lost their jobs after the Supreme Court clamped down on rampant illegal mining that caused irreparable environmental damage.
“Party, politics… sir ikkada dabbulu yentha isthavu. Adhi okkate (Party, politics do not matter. Here the only question is how much money will you give)," says a senior citizen witnessing one of the several campaign pitches in Srirampura locality of Ballari city.
While political parties are pouring money, allegedly several hundred crore of rupees for just a few months in office, the unenthusiastic voter is happy that they get to make some money in the process.
Sriramulu says the Congress, led by Shivakumar, is trying to buy votes by distributing cash. But the district and its complex voter behaviour is slightly more tricky.
The Congress won six out of the nine assembly seats in May, but the electorate has more often favoured the BJP in national elections. Sriramulu, who had left the BJP before 2013, rejoined the party and had successfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election and 2018 assembly polls. In May, he chose to retain his assembly seat.
Senior leaders of the BJP, including Somashekar Reddy, one of the three Reddy brothers, say almost all of the Valmiki community, accounting for about 80% of the ST community, will vote for the BJP. They are also hoping that the over 4 lakh Lingayats, about 40% of the around 3.5 lakh Scheduled Caste (SC) votes, a significant chunk of the 2 lakh Kurubas and the other people from relatively smaller communities like Marwari, Jains and Brahmins among others will vote for the saffron party, whose campaign is based on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-and-a-half year rule at the Centre.
“We are not going to get any Muslim vote, neither have we asked for any," says Somashekar Reddy, conceding about 2 lakh votes from the community.
But the Congress, despite fielding an outsider like V.S. Ugrappa, is not leaving it only to statistics. Shivakumar, whose personal reputation of delivering victories and command over party affairs is at stake, is leaving no stone unturned to help win the seat. Sriramulu, close aide of the illegal mining kingpin G. Janardhana Reddy is backing his sister J. Shantha, who is the BJP candidate.
The two leaders are fighting a proxy battle to establish their claims to high offices within their respective parties. Ugrappa is hoping that the people will reward him for initiating the closure of the illegal mining led by the Reddy brothers and their rule which former a Karnataka Lokayukta had described as the “republic of Bellary". But for many people, especially truck drivers, jailing Reddy and shutting down his mines have rendered them jobless with no alternate means of income. For many voters, this election at least brings in some much-needed money.