Bastion Belagavi: Why K’taka sugar barons are crucial to winning the district

Political party insiders say that the only way to ensure a victory is to poach these local strongmen by offering them ministerial berths or by going along with the plans set forth by the sugar lobby.
Bastion Belagavi: Why K’taka sugar barons are crucial to winning the district
Bastion Belagavi: Why K’taka sugar barons are crucial to winning the district
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Feudal politics and sugar barons rule the roost – this sums up the political situation in Karnataka’s Belagavi district. With 18 Vidhana Sabha constituencies, Belagavi falls second in the total number of seats in a district, right after Bengaluru (28) and is considered a game-changer for the upcoming Assembly Elections.

The political situation in Belagavi has not changed for decades and political analysts say that it is unlikely to in 2018.

The sugar barons of Belagavi – the Jarkiholis, Kattis, Kores and Patils - have divided the region among themselves, with an unspoken agreement among these rich and powerful politicians that they will not enter each other’s territories.

“No matter who is pitted against these leaders in their territory, they will end up winning. That is why they are friends with politicians from all parties. Another trend that has been observed for decades is that these leaders never stay loyal to one political party and keep shifting from one party to another just to ensure that they win,” says Harish Ramaswamy Professor of Political Science, Karnataka University.

Political party insiders say that the only way to ensure a victory is to poach these local strongmen by offering them ministerial berths or by going along with the plans set forth by the sugar lobby.

In the 2013 Assembly Elections, the Congress won 7 and the BJP had won 8 of the total 18 seats. The remaining seats went to independent candidates.  “The BJP managed to get one more seat than the Congress only because they had managed to bring one more sugar baron to its side during the elections. In the last election, some of the BJP’s seats were lost to BS Yeddyurappa-led Karnataka Janata Paksha. The key to winning Belagavi is to ensure that the said political party has the local strongmen on its side. No matter how many scams or scandals come out, their power will not wean,” Ramaswamy adds.

The caste and language factor

What makes the Jarkiholis, Kattis, Kores, Patils and other sugar barons of this region so strong?

According to political analysts, the Belagavi region has been divided along caste lines.

The Gokak, Yemkarnamadi, Arabhavi areas are Dalit strongholds and also the territory of the Jarkiholi family.

Hukkeri, Chikkodi and norther parts of Belagavi remain the stronghold of Hukkeri MLA Umesh Katti of the BJP and his family members. Umesh Katti and BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP from the region, Prabhakar Kore have been friends for decades. These two leaders have managed to retain the Lingayat vote bank in the region.

The Patils and local pro-Maharashtra leaders hold the remaining parts of Belagavi. “None of these leaders will ever try to go against the wishes of the Marathi speaking population in the region as they make up a large chunk of the population in Belagavi. This is why we can see leaders like Umesh Katti and Lakshmi Hebbalkar making pro-Maharashtra statements,” a source in the BJP says.

The politics surrounding sugar mills and its owners

The Jarkiholis own four sugar mills in Belagavi – Satish Sugars Ltd, Ghataprabha Co-operative Sugar Mill, Soubhagya Laxmi Sugars and Harsha Sugar Mill. The Kattis own one sugar factory – the Vishwaraj Sugars Ltd. Prabhakar Kore owns two sugar factories – Shivashakti Sugars Doodhganga Krishna Co-operative Society.

Similarly, all local politicians including Congress leaders SR Patil, Shamanur Shivashankarappa, Siddu Nyamagouda, Murgesh Nirani and Eshwar Khandre are all owners of sugar factories.

“These leaders do not own sugar factories only to make money. The strategy is straightforward. The crop widely grown in the region is sugarcane. The sugar factories are owned by the local politicians so that they can ensure they get votes of people living in their territory. They threaten farmers by not paying for the sugarcane they buy. Once they ensure that the farmers will cast their votes in their favour will they make the payments. This has been going on for decades now,” a Congress source says.

Since November last year, farmers in Gokak region of Belagavi – the stronghold of the Jarkiholis have been protesting against Soubhagya Laxmi Sugars. The farmers allege that Ramesh Jarkiholi has not paid them a sum of Rs 34 crore for the past three years for the sugarcane they have supplied.

Small Scales Industries Minister Ramesh Jarkiholi had in December announced that the payment will be made by March or April 2018.

“It is a classic move. He will pay them only if they vote for him. Every local leader with a sugar factory resorts to this move every now and then,” the Congress source adds.

The system of moneylending

Harish Ramaswamy says that although the Land Reforms Act of 1961 was put in place by the then Chief Minister of Karnataka Devaraj Urs, it was properly implemented only in the southern parts of the state.

“The rules were simple in the Land Reforms Act 1961. The land would go to the person tilling the field. But this did not take place on a large scale in northern districts, especially in Belagavi. The political leaders in this district come from land-owning families and for decades they controlled the farm lands on which the sugarcane is grown,” Ramaswamy adds.

He says that unlike the southern districts, the farmers do not opt for subsidized loans but choose to borrow money from local moneylenders.

What is the political scenario in Belagavi now?

Both BJP and Congress sources say that both parties are trying to woo each other’s candidates before the tickets are announced for the upcoming Assembly Elections.

Speaking to TNM, a senior BJP leader says that during party chief Amit Shah’s visit to Bengaluru earlier, a list of candidates to be poached from Congress and JD(S) was created and Satish Jarkiholi – the Congress MLA from Belagavi’s Yemkanamardi constituency is on top of the list. Satish resigned as Small Scale Industries Minister in 2015 stating that the party had sidelined him.

“The BJP has been trying to poach Satish Jarkiholi, ever since he resigned from his Ministerial post in 2015. Everyone knows that Satish and his brother Ramesh have been fighting for power in Gokak. Last year, the local BJP leaders held extensive talks with Satish Jarkiholi. In December, when Satish Jarkiholi went to meet Amit Shah in New Delhi, the talks remained inconclusive. Now, the party is again trying to get him into its fold for the upcoming elections,” the BJP leader added.

Congress sources say that the party is trying to get the support of several independent candidates. A final list of who can be poached will be decided during Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Karnataka on January 27.

Meanwhile, JD(S) sources say that they too have approached Satish Jarkiholi but that the sugar baron has remained elusive for the past few months.

“This is very common. Before the elections, all parties will approach all candidates with offers. It depends on which way they will swing. That’s how a win in Belagavi is determined,” the JD(S) leader adds.

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