A fraternal fight between two brothers for a cabinet berth was the starting point of the ball of intrigue that unspooled unchecked and led to the fall of the Kumaraswamy led JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka.
All sorts of root causes are being pointed at: Congress strongman DK Shivakumar’s “interference” in the taluk level elections of a primary rural bank in the northern district of Belagavi; the internecine warfare and essential incompatibility between the JD(S) and the Congress in south Karnataka; the unending animosity that Congress legislature party leader Siddaramaiah has for his JD(S) counterpart HD Kumaraswamy; the infallible ground-level planning by BJP national president Amit Shah that seems to invariably get results.
Many or all of the above may be factors that pushed the ball of intrigue along its inevitable path. The first ember was, however, lit within the family of the powerful Jarkiholis of Belagavi. An ember that has been fuelling itself from at least 15 years, led by driving ambition, ruthless power games, and a family riven by politics and mutual antipathy that almost rivals the Mahabharata in its intensity.
Picture this scene in 2008: the eldest son of the family, Ramesh Jarkiholi, was contesting as the Congress candidate from Gokak. He was already a two-term MLA seeking re-election in that constituency. The next brother in line after him, Satish, an MLC and the first minister from the family in the Congress-JD(S) government of 2004, had identified himself as an acolyte and funder of Siddaramaiah of the JD(S). He had just moved along with his mentor to the Congress party.
Siddaramaiah ensured his follower was accommodated with the Congress ticket to the Yamakanmardi constituency, neighbouring Gokak. The third Jarkiholi brother, Balachandra, was contesting his second term on the JD(S) ticket in yet another neighbouring constituency, Arabhavi.
Enter brother number four Bhimshi, a doctor who perhaps felt the family was not sufficiently represented in the political arena or that he was not getting sufficient visibility. He got the BJP ticket for Gokak and stood against his eldest brother Ramesh. The youngest son, Lakhan, threw in his fortunes with Ramesh, who also had the loyalty of their sister Lagumavva, then Belagavi town municipal council president.
All Gokak spoke in whispers, wondering how to vote against one or the other brother and not get into deep trouble. Nobody knew where Satish stood on the matter (though he had moved to the Congress) while Balachandra washed his hands off the matter and concentrated on his own constituency.
The family matriarch Bhimavva cried copiously, as her husband, excise contractor Laxmanrao Jarkiholi, the man responsible for the huge fortune that his sons have now multiplied, lay bedridden, unable to arbitrate. “Politics has destroyed my family. My sons don’t even talk to each other, only one (Balachandra) even comes to see us,” she told this reporter.
Ramesh, Satish and Balachandra won that election, Bhimshi lost and disappeared from direct politics.
Since then, a lot of water has flown down the Ghataprabha river, but the power struggle within the family hasn’t.
Siddaramaiah as chief minister gave Satish a cabinet rank ministry, which made Ramesh (who was senior to his brother in the number of terms as legislator as well as an old Congressman) furious. The eldest in the family demanded that he get the post.
Siddaramaiah walked the tightrope for a while, requested Satish to yield, dropped him from his ministry in 2016 – leading to a great deal of bitterness from his former close follower and funder – and gave the post to Ramesh. Siddaramaiah managed to firefight to an extent by ensuring that Satish was made an AICC secretary, but the bitterness did not totally go away.
In 2018, Lakhan, still loyal to Ramesh, made noises that he would take on Satish in Yamakanamardi on a BJP ticket. Ramesh, however, reined him in, as at that point the political perception was that the Congress could come back to power.
Satish put aside his bitterness to ensure Siddaramaiah’s close-shave victory in Badami in the 2018 elections. Siddaramaiah was facing B Sreeramulu of the BJP, who belongs to the same Valmini-Nayaka ST community as the Jarkiholis. It is said that Siddaramaiah would have certainly lost in that constituency as well if Satish had not stepped in.
In the JD(S)-Congress coalition government that followed, Ramesh made sure he got the ministry and not Satish, leading to nothing short of a tremor in the region. Six months into the new government, Siddaramaiah paid his dues to Satish by ensuring he replaces Ramesh in Kumaraswamy's cabinet
The time was ripe for brother number three, Balachandra, to step in. In 2008, Balachandra was part of the first Operation Kamala (where the BJP got opposition legislators to resign and get re-elected on their party ticket in bye-elections), engineered by mining baron Janardhan Reddy and the same Sreeramulu mentioned above. Balachandra was a minister in the BJP government of 2008, while both his elder brothers sat in the opposition.
Balachandra moved swiftly as Ramesh sulked and kept threatening to resign from the Congress party. Siddaramaiah did nothing to sort the matter. The BJP leadership swung into action and began fanning the fire that finally became a blaze, as Ramesh coordinated to help their plans.
The story now cycles back to the very beginning of the problem. The BJP will form the government and has reportedly promised plum ministries to all those who abandoned the Congress and the JD(S) to switch sides. The party, however, has two brothers of the Jarkiholi family now on their side: Balachandra and Ramesh.
The Damocles sword now hangs over their heads: which of the two do they placate with a ministry? And how to ensure the other brother does not repeat history?
The solution might be that two of Bhimavva’s sons will be given minister berths in the same cabinet. But that does not solve the quagmire of Belagavi intra-family power politics and one-upmanship that has already brought down one fragile government.
In picture from the left: Satish Jarkiholi, Ramesh Jarkiholi, Balachadra Jarkiholi and Lakhan Jarkiholi
Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.