Can the BJP get away with denying Sriramulu a Deputy CM post in Karnataka?

Discontent grows among Sriramulu’s supporters after the Molkalmuru MLA was denied a Deputy CM post, despite being informally promised the position in the run-up to 2018.
Can the BJP get away with denying Sriramulu a Deputy CM post in Karnataka?
Can the BJP get away with denying Sriramulu a Deputy CM post in Karnataka?
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The high-flying B Sriramulu, whose soft voice used to send shivers of terror down the spine of rival gang-leaders, in Ballari’s Cowl Bazaar, has not said a word against the national leadership of the BJP over being denied a Deputy Chief Minister berth in the Karnataka cabinet. 

The former Ballari-don-turned-BJP mass leader has had no need to. His followers – and this former Union Minister Sushma Swaraj protege has plenty – have not been, in any sense of the word, quiet. Social media in Karnataka, in particular WhatsApp, has seen Sriramulu’s fans taking to conspiracy theories, venting fury against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party President Amit Shah and Organizational Secretary BL Santhosh, and demanding that their leader be given his due.

A promise not kept?

The BJP cannot be said to have ignored him. Sriramulu is one among the 17, out of the party’s 105 MLAs, who did make it to Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa’s cabinet. But he has not been given the post of the Deputy CM, a position that was informally promised to him during the 2018 Assembly Elections. The unofficial campaign that he would be Deputy CM to Yediyurappa considerably boosted the BJP’s support base among the Scheduled Tribes community, of whom Sriramulu is currently the tallest leader. 

The BJP has created three Deputy CM posts for the first time in Karnataka's history. Incidentally, the previous highest of two Deputy CMs was also under BJP rule in 2011. But Ramulu, as he is referred to by most people, has ‘just’ been given his old portfolio of Health and Family Welfare, which is, strangely enough, not considered ‘important’ or money-spinning. 

Ramulu’s community, the Valmikis, who are known by multiple names in different parts of Karnataka, are said to be the largest population group in the state, if all the sub-sects and factions are taken as the same and put together. Ramulu has been working extensively, both in public light and behind the scenes, on getting cohesion and awareness among these sub-sects to make them into a single formidable force and political weapon.

Aware of the potential of this rather colourful leader, who has behind him the wealth and committed support of illegal mining baron G Janardhana Reddy, Amit Shah is said to have suggested to the state BJP leaders to put the word out that Ramulu would be given a ‘suitable’ -- read Deputy CM – post if he worked hard enough for the party victory in 2018. Ramulu’s efforts were certainly tireless, he travelled across Karnataka, campaigning and working out background deals. He hardly spent any time in the constituency he stood from and won, Molkalmuru. 

If that was not enough, Ramulu was also tasked with defeating then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in Badami, a feat that he almost pulled off. Siddaramaiah, for all his oratory and popularity, won Badami with an extremely slender margin of 1,696 votes over Ramulu. What shocked everyone is that Badami is a general constituency, not a reserved one. It is almost unheard of for an ST leader to almost win a general seat and is a clear indicator of Ramulu’s popularity even outside his community. 

Ramulu has worked hard to emerge from his old “henchman” image to almost appear as a messiah for tribal communities as well as for the poor. His flamboyant style and soft speech, besides his open-handed generosity in helping people without seeking publicity has helped him craft an image of a Robin Hood-type do-gooder, simply by word-of-mouth. 

The BJP now denying this man the post that was ‘promised’ to him, appears on the surface to be a miscalculation. Ramulu has outgrown the old tag of being Janardhana Reddy’s hatchetman. It is being said that Rumulu was as much responsible for BJP’s sweep of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region and of all the SC/ST seats in Karnataka in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections as Modi and Shah.

The question being asked, even within the BJP is: Why was a fourth Deputy CM seat not created for Ramulu? Why was that informal promise given the go-by?

The Jarkiholi factor

A visible problem for the BJP is Ramesh Jarkiholi, the former Congress leader who engineered the fall of the JD(S)-Congress government that has led to the formation of the Yediyurappa government now. Jarkiholi belongs to the same community as Ramulu and is even distantly related to him. Jarkiholi’s influence in the Bombay-Karnataka region is considerable and he is an ambitious man, who would not like to be overshadowed by Ramulu. 

Jarkiholi’s candidature for a ministerial berth or higher is dependent on the result of the Supreme Court case against his disqualification from contesting any bye-election, along with 16 other ‘rebels’ from the Congress and JD(S). The BJP has kept 16 seats vacant in the Yediyurappa cabinet awaiting the apex court’s decision, as all these ‘rebels’ who brought down the previous government were promised ministries for going against their parent parties. 

If Ramulu has been denied a Deputy CM’s post in an effort to placate and accommodate Jarkiholi -- as is being said in political circles -- the irony is extreme. For, it is Ramulu, along with his mentor and close friend Janardhana Reddy, who did the groundwork for Operation Kamala: the process of luring opposition MLAs to rebel, resign and contest byelections to shore up the BJP’s numbers. 

Jarkiholi and gang form the latest edition of this Operation and if Ramulu is sidelined as a result of it, he has no one but himself to blame. That is what even BJP leaders, obedient to Amit Shah’s diktats, shrug and say, in private. And currently, given the iron hand that Amit Shah has wielded in Karnataka and the cases against Reddy pending with central investigating agencies, Ramulu’s followers, fans and the man himself have no option but to acquiesce. 

Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years. Views are author’s own.

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