ON 24 MARCH this year, with both Houses of Parliament locked in a hostile debate over the cash-for-votes scandal, Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj suddenly fired a memorable salvo at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Tu idhar udhar ki na baat kar, yeh bata ki qaafila kyun luta; hamein rahzanon se gila nahin, teri rehbari ka sawaal hai,” she said. (“Don’t deflect the conversation; just tell us why the caravan was looted. We have no complaint against the looters, it is your leadership we question.”) Such was the impact of her speech, even the reticent Singh was forced to retort with unusual levity and flair, “Maana ki teri deed ke qaabil nahin hoon main; tu mera shouq toh dekh, mera intezaar toh dekh.” (“I accept I am not worthy of your gaze; but at least acknowledge my keen-ness and my patience.”)
The 59-year-old Swaraj’s performance wasn’t a flash in the pan. At a time when the BJP is trying to slough off its Hindutva skin and reinvent itself as an anti-corruption crusader, Swaraj is a political leader to watch. She has oratorical skills, adequate mass appeal, a useful Bharatiya nari image and a 35-year track record in politics. With General Elections due in 2014 and a power vacuum left by senior leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, there is intense jostling within the BJP to identify a clear prime ministerial candidate. Swaraj already has an enviable position others are trying hard to usurp. Will she now be able to grow sufficiently in stature over the next three years to make a bid for the top spot?
It is the substratum power struggle underlying this question that came spilling into the open last week, when, in a surprise move, in an interview to Outlook magazine, Swaraj vehemently disowned the corrupt mining barons from Bellary, the Reddy brothers G Karunakara and G Janardhana and put the blame for their political rise squarely at the door of her rival and counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley.
While it’s true that Jaitley was the Karnataka-in charge when the Reddy brothers became MLAs, Swaraj — whose relationship with Bellary and its barons began when she was sent down to contest (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) against Sonia Gandhi in 1999 — cannot easily shake off her inconvenient association with them either. A point Karunakara Reddy drove home hard when he said, “We are not perturbed by Sushmaji’s statement; there is no change in our respect and association with the ‘mother’.” Karnataka Health Minister B Sriramulu, a close confidant of the Reddys, went a step further saying, “She is our goddess.” (It is commonly perceived that the Reddys are Swaraj’s biggest election coffer — a contention she would find hard to dispute.)
Still Swaraj’s statement had its uses. It sent the BJP top-line scattering for cover and warned her detractors not to try isolating the blame on her. It also outed the fissures and intense rivalries within the BJP more clearly. While party president Nitin Gadkari cut her to size and rushed to Jaitley’s defence saying no leader should be singled out, former party president Rajnath Singh stood by Swaraj. “I was the one who sent her to Karnataka in 2009 and asked her to resolve matters. She did it for the party, so you can’t put the blame on her.” (In 2009, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa had wanted to crack down on the Reddy brothers, who in turn had threatened to rebel. Swaraj had been sent to paper over the situation and had come away looking like she had batted for the barons.) But even Rajnath’s support is not pure altruism. With UP Assembly elections due next year, Rajnath has own axe to grind with Jaitley: he would like to have a free run in giving tickets to his favourites but Jaitley will have a large say in the choice of candidates. Their own bitter fight is, of course, well known. In 2009, when Rajnath had proposed Sudhanshu Mittal, a close aide of the late Pramod Mahajan, as co-convenor of the Northeast, Jaitley had boycotted party meetings till Advani had intervened and wrestled things into control.
THE TIMING of Swaraj’s interview is significant, as Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde’s report on illegal mining is expected any day, as is the Supreme Court verdict on the illegal mining case, and she would like to dilute the taint of her association. But the story of the bitter intra-party fight long precedes this latest flashpoint.
Barely a few weeks ago, an Indian Express photographer had captured a memorable close-up of Swaraj with a glint of tears in her eyes as Gadkari publicly slighted her at a press conference. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had apologised for the bungled appointment of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner and the heated controversies that had stemmed from that. Swaraj, who had been a strong adversary till then, accepted the apology and graciously suggested the political fraternity should move on to other crucial issues. However, Gadkari contradicted her sharply saying the party was in no mood to let the PM off the hook.
But Swaraj is obviously no pushover in the battle of clipping wings. Soon after this incident, she made it clear to byte-seeking journalists that neither the party president nor the suave Jaitley could browbeat her into subservience. “One thing I must clarify,” she said boldly, “my relation with Nitinji or with Arunji is not that of giving instructions. We can give suggestions to each other, we can talk over issues. But it’s not that somebody will give instructions to me. That is not the relationship.”
Is it opportunism, or has Swaraj realised conservativism will only alienate newgeneration voters?
Going a step further, as the controversy and embarrassment over Yeddyurappa’s own corruptions raged, she told a TV channel it was Gadkari who had decided to give a clean chit to the chief minister. Asked if this decision would boomerang on the party given that the BJP has been snapping at the UPA government’s heel on issues of corruption, she answered sarcastically, “I am going by the advice of the party president. He must have taken everything into account.” Not too difficult to gauge how that small dagger was slanted.
As a young but prominent MP in the party says, “The press is correct to read dissonance within the party. Sushma does feel isolated because even party president Gadkari is seen to be leaning towards Jaitley.” With heavyweights Jaitley, Gadkari and Narendra Modi all punching hard against her, far from being allowed to slay dragons in the ruling party, clearly Swaraj has her hands full defending her own turf. Although Rajnath, Shahnawaz Hussain and Ravi Shankar Prasad are mildly on her side, their combined weight would only notch a bantam fight against the first three.
Swaraj’s inexplicable prominence within the party then clearly lies in her own skills. With an instinctive understanding of this, she is slowly undergoing a subtle metamorphosis — unobtrusively moving to a centrist position, likely to yield more political dividends than the more overt right-wing positions of her earlier self.
SWARAJ WAS born to a Brahmin family in Ambala, Punjab. Her father Hardev Sharma was an ardent RSS man who often took his fiery daughter along for pracharak meetings. Though Swaraj was never a pracharak herself, she was hugely inspired by the RSS. Pursuing law, she entered politics as a student leader in the JP Movement and was a strident critic of Indira Gandhi. Her ability to mobilise crowds caught Vajpayee’s eye. She began her career as a Janata Party MLA in Devi Lal’s government; she later joined the BJP and became the Information and Broadcasting minister in the Vajpayee government.
But Swaraj seems to have moulted even the scathing self of those years. She has mellowed or “aged” as she wishes to call it. She is still a fighter but the style is more easy-going; more bent on middle-path formulas.
Before his death, Pramod Mahajan was the BJP’s master negotiator, the indispensable go-between. Swaraj may not have his shrewd organisational skills, but it’s his after-image in the party she is trying to fill. Mahajan segueing into Vajpayee: it’s a tough costume to fit.
But Swaraj won’t fail for lack of trying. She is steadily working her way to acquire the Vajpayee tag of being “the right person in the wrong party”. Recently, it’s her off-the-table meeting with Pranab Mukherjee that broke the logjam over the JPC issue in Parliament. Political watchers remember her late-night meetings with BSP leader Mayawati and AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa post the 1999 General elections. But her detractors are never far off. A senior party leader known for his open opposition to her says scathingly, “By her very nature she can’t be like Vajpayeeji. He did not rely on issue-based friends and always stuck to his core ideology.”
It is not easy picking one’s way through the byzantine innards of the party. Swaraj picked a difficult enemy when she had opposed Gadkari’s choice as party president. Asked to comment on her, he says darkly, “No leader, man or woman, should think they are above the party line.”
STILL, SWARAJ’S capacity for flank shots remains unabated. Rumours suggest she played some role in the recent muted but strongly felt dissidence against Modi in the Gujarat BJP. While it’s a known fact that she openly criticised Modi’s role and was upset with the party leadership for supporting him in the Sohrabuddin encounter case, a lessknown fact is her visit to former home minister Amit Shah, around the time he was in trouble and starting to feel rebellious against Modi. In fact, she is seen by many in the Modi camp as siding with an anti-Modi RSS lobby headed by Sanjay Joshi. In the past, she has not hesitated to make a PowerPoint presentation to senior BJP leaders about the negative impact of Modi’s election campaign in most states except Gujarat. (This provoked a sulking Modi to approach Gadkari and Advani. A palliative was found. A Karnataka supporter put out an advertisement claiming “Modi was the crowd-puller for the BJP.”)
For all this, Swaraj’s concern that the scales sometimes weigh in favour of Jaitley are not without reason. Despite his electoral prowess in Gujarat, Modi will find it difficult to gain political acceptability at the Centre. This puts Jaitley in a strong position to lead the party, even though he lacks a support base on the ground. He enjoys Advani’s support; he has legal acumen the party likes drawing on; and his friendship with business houses like the Birlas and Adanis and capacity to raise funding is useful to the party.
In this complicated war zone, Swaraj has developed a kind of 360-degree thwack. When her mentor Advani had made his controversial speech praising Jinnah, it was she who had struck the first note of dissent. This was clearly done with an eye to please the RSS. She knew the then RSS president K Sudarshan and ideologue KL Vaidya were livid with Advani: their approval would strengthen her position against her rival Arun Jaitley, who also does not have much RSS support.
As a senior BJP leader says, “Count the number of politicians, especially women politicians, who have made it to the top without any godfather or dynasty to boast of. She is the true Chanakya.”
Another senior leader says, “The problem is Sushma lacks ideology. One day she will talk of tonsuring her head if somebody becomes the PM. Later she will turn up at the same doorstep to further her own ambition.” But Swaraj is happy to admit she has mellowed down and no longer finds Sonia Gandhi the ‘foreign’ enemy but a senior and ‘respected’ rival. Perhaps this leader’s disgust was augmented by the fact that Swaraj recently called the Ayodhya movement — in which she had actively ratcheted up the communal temperature along with Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Rithambara — “a political movement that had nothing to do with religion”.
So is this opportunism or political maturation? Has Sushma Swaraj realised a hardline, conservative attitude will only detach her from new-generation voters? Swaraj insists her collegegoing daughter in the UK drinks only orange juice when she goes to pubs but she flayed the Sri Ram Sene for the ugly Mangalore pub incident. She is also making it a point to be seen at BJP rallies with young blood within the party, the likes of Varun Gandhi, Smriti Irani and other budding politicians. Irani recalls, “I remember Sushmaji engaging with a delegation of Kashmiri youth talking of Azadi. Instead of engaging in a fiery debate, she chose to have a constructive dialogue with the youngsters. Her ability to calm the youth on such a sensitive topic made a lasting impression on me.”
It’s early days yet. For the moment, Shahnawaz Hussain has the best parting shot on her place in the world of Indian politics. “Mamata Banerjee has her party, and Jayalalithaa and Mayawati have theirs. The Congress is Soniaji’s.” Now figure who the BJP should belong to. Anything is possible in politics. Provided the taint of corruption does not take its new toll.
Rana Ayub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
Mining their own business
From a chit fund to iron-ore exports, the Reddy brothers have come a long way. Imran Khan tracks their highs and lows
THE STORY of Bellary’s infamous Reddy brothers is the stuff Bollywood thrillers are made of. Karunakara, Janardhana and Somashekara Reddy have come a long way from being sons of a police constable to becoming mining barons and later, power brokers of Karnataka politics.
The trio, who started off with a chit fund company called Ennoble Savings and Investment (they had to wind it up in 1998 due to complaints of fraud and cheating to the tune of Rs 200 crore), were a political non-entity until BJP leader Sushma Swaraj decided to fight the Lok Sabha election from the mining town of Bellary in 1999.
As Congress chief Sonia Gandhi battled it out against Swaraj for the Bellary seat, the Reddys emerged as the latter’s trusted aides. Though the BJP lost, the Reddys gained her trust and confidence.
The same election also saw the rise of Sriramulu, often referred to as the ‘fourth’ Reddy brother and Sushma’s adopted son. With her blessings, the brothers worked tirelessly to establish BJP’s hold in what was once a Congress bastion.
The year 2000 was a gala time for the mining industry. Cashing in on the international iron-ore export boom, the Reddy brothers bought the Obalapuram Mining Company (OMC) in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, bordering Bellary. In 2003, when China started to import iron ore for its rapidly growing infrastructure needs, the Reddy brothers got a slice of the export pie, which catapulted them to the big league.
Meanwhile, the brothers started to dip their toes in the political waters. The first was Somashekara, who contested the Bellary municipality in 2001 and won. He was followed by Karunakara and Sriramulu in 2004, who won the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections respectively.
In 2008, when the Janata Dal (Secular)-BJP coalition government led by HD Kumaraswamy tumbled due to a disagreement over seat sharing, it was the Reddys who played a crucial role in helping the BJP garner 110 seats, and later helping to secure the support of six independents to help BS Yeddyurappa realise his dream of heading the first BJP government in Karnataka.
HOWEVER, IN 2009, the brothers faced a big blow from the death of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, who was their friend, protector and business partner. Their subsequent support to YSR’s son Jagan Mohan Reddy didn’t go down well with the Congress leadership. In Karnataka, they fell out with Yeddyurappa and tried to oust him, but in vain.
The brothers still hold top posts in the Karnataka government. Karunakara is the revenue minister, while Janardhana is the tourism and infrastructure minister. Somashekara is the Bellary MLA.
A special puja done at the Reddy household during the Varamahalaxmi festival never starts without Sushma Swaraj’s presence
While Swaraj has been quick to dissociate herself from the Reddy brothers and their induction in the Cabinet, it is a known fact that the Reddy brothers consider her as their godmother. In fact, a special puja done at the Reddy household during the Varamahalaxmi festival has never started without her presence since the late 1990s.
In November 2009, Dharwad-based NGO Samaja Parivartana Samudaya filed a petition in the Supreme Court, alleging rampant illegal mining in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The apex court appointed a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to look into it. A month later, the Andhra Pradesh government ordered a CBI probe.
Last July, the Yeddyurappa government banned the export of iron ore from the state. This hit the Reddy brothers hard. More bad news followed. In January, the CEC recommended cancellation of mining leases in Bellary reserve forest area and Anantapur district. A month later, the Income Tax department issued two notices to OMC: one for failing to pay self-assessment tax of Rs 55.59 crore for 2010-11, and another to pay arrears amounting to Rs 73.37 crore between 2004-05 and 2008-09.
On the political front too, the Reddy brothers have been losing their considerable influence. In last December’s zilla panchayat elections in Bellary, the Reddy brothers managed to cling on to power only after poaching a rival party member.
Cornered from all sides, the Reddy brothers backed out of their proposed steel plant in Bellary district. Having gauged the situation, Janardhana, the most powerful of the brothers, said in the Legislative Council in March that he would not undertake any mining business in Karnataka and dedicate himself to politics. He even went so far as to demand that all the mines in the state be nationalised.
Imran Khan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.