Karnataka elections: Meet the five brothers from Belagavi who are contesting against each other
A small town in north Karnataka’s Belagavi district, Gokak is famous for its sticky sweet ‘Karadantu’ (which means fried gum). The other thing the district is famous for are the Jarkiholi brothers. The five — Ramesh (57), Satish (55), Balachandra (52), Bhimshi (50) and Lakhan (42) — have amassed fortunes and harnessed political power by sticking together in spite of shadow boxing with each other from different political parties over the years. These sugar baron brothers wield enormous influence in the district, which accounts for 18 of the 224 seats in the state assembly. Belagavi has the second-highest number of seats for a district after Bengaluru.
Gokak has its share of landmarks and monuments, but ask any local and they would know the exact locations of the houses of the Jarkiholis — children of Laxmanrao Jarkiholi, a landless labourer from the Bedara-Nayak community.
The community is classified as a scheduled tribe.
The story of the brothers, a local Congress worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, was intricately tied to the increase in sugarcane cultivation in the district. Between them, the brothers control three sugar factories in a district that grows the highest amount of sugarcane in the state, having displaced Mandya as the state’s sugar belt over the last decade. Apart from sugar, the brothers dabble in the liquor and education sectors.
With overlapping interests, their political loyalties differ as well. While Ramesh and Satish are contesting as Congress candidates from the Gokak and Yemkanmardi seats respectively, Balachandra is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Arabhavi. Lakhan, the youngest brother, had an eye on Yemkanmardi for his political debut, but Satish (the Congress candidate) did not relent. While rumours of Lakhan contesting against Satish on a BJP ticket did the rounds, he is campaigning for Ramesh in Gokak these days.
The exception to the unspoken rule of brothers not contesting against each other despite being members of different parties was in 2008 -- Bhimshi contested from Gokak for the BJP against Ramesh, who was the Congress candidate. The brothers have been contesting elections since the late 1990’s. Ramesh said there was no discord among the brothers, and all internal issues are sorted out as and when they crop up. “It is true that Lakhan wanted to contest from the Yemkanmardi seat, and he was upset that he did not get it. He was assured a ticket by the BJP but I convinced him that it wouldn’t be wise of him to jump parties at this stage,” he said.
In 2016, chief minister Siddaramaiah’s decision to replace Satish with Ramesh in the state Cabinet had caused a flutter in the family as the former had been a close aide of Siddaramaiah who moved to the Congress along with the chief minister in 2006.
But Satish, who is valued for his organisational skills, was made a secretary of the All India Congress Committee. He has now been given the responsibility of ensuring Siddaramaiah’s victory in the Badami seat in Bagalkot district, where the Nayakas -- the community to which the brothers belong -- have a high presence.
Satish also denied that there was any rift among the brothers, saying such speculations had been proven untrue time and again. “We brothers do not interfere in each other’s private affairs; as a result we are quite close,” he said.
Others concur with this view, although for other reasons. Bhimappa Gadad, a Right To Information (RTI) activist who is contesting the Arabhavi seat for the Janata Dal (Secular) against Balachandra this time, alleges the brothers rule the district in collaboration.
“Anybody who opposes them ends up in a lot of pain, even if it is not physical harm. They might have represented different political parties but always they ensure that the family interests are addressed. It is actually a smart strategy -- whether it is Congress or BJP in power, one of the Jarkiholi brothers will be a minister,” he said.
Gadad alleges that no one knew the brothers 20 years ago: “Where did their money come from?” For farmers’ group leader Kurubur Shantakumar, the answer is simple: sugar.
“Of the 64 active sugar factories in the state, 22 are owned by politicians, distributed across party lines,” he said, adding that unlike in government factories, where there is an onus on procurement, private factories can refuse to buy cane if the price is not to their liking.
The brothers have been in the crosshairs of various authorities over the years. In January 2017, income tax sleuths raided the properties of Ramesh, but he said nothing was found, hinting instead at a political conspiracy to malign him.