With Ballari contest, Sushma Swaraj unlocked Karnataka for BJP

Sushma Swaraj opened two doors in her lifetime, especially in the last two decades of her illustrious career. One political and the other administrative.

The second one was making the Foreign ministry the port of call for distressed Indians. Be it a case of lost passport or stuck in an unfriendly foreign location or delay in securing a visa, @sushmaswaraj was the Twitter handle to tag. Even Mars was not out of bounds for her office, as she jocularly said in one of her very popular tweets.

If she made a mark with her digital diplomacy, her political achievement was Karnataka. Since 1991, the BJP’s star was on the ascendant in select parts of the southern state but the real push came thanks to Swaraj in 1999. Her taking on Sonia Gandhi in the Battle for Ballari (or Bellary as it was then spelt) was the highlight of the election that year. She lost by 56000 votes but laid the foundation for Karnataka to become the Gateway to South India for the BJP.

I recall that day when the Congress was trying every trick in the book to keep Plan Sonia under wraps. YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the face of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, was one of the key men coordinating the Ballari nomination plan for Sonia Gandhi. The Congress knew the BJP would field someone strong against Sonia so it wanted no one to know about it till the last minute. So YSR made it seem Sonia was flying into Hyderabad to eventually file her nomination from Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh. But a little after Kurnool, the special aircraft carrying Sonia took a right turn in the Andhra airspace to cross into Karnataka.

But the BJP with its moles in the Congress camp knew Sonia was trying to do a Chikamagular (the constituency in Karnataka from where Indira Gandhi had contested in 1978 and made an electoral comeback) and had kept Swaraj ready in Bengaluru. Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar were the two BJP leaders handling her nomination formalities then. The stage was set for a battle royale between the videshi bahu and swadeshi beti

It took Swaraj less than a month to gain a working knowledge of Kannada and she drew huge crowds during her campaign. She was small-built but the party used her to punch above its weight in Karnataka. Her big bindi and vermilion helped her make an instant connect, both in terms of optics and sentiment. In contrast to Sonia, who was often lost for words and always needed a script, Swaraj forever flashed a smile and was armed with a ready wit. She lost 1999 but thanks to the foundation laid by her blitzkrieg, the BJP breached the Ballari seat, a citadel of the Congress since Independence, in 2004. 

The Sushma vs Sonia rivalry continued in 2004, though not in the political theatre of Ballari. When the Congress was about to form the government, Swaraj in a moment of high emotion threatened to tonsure her head, don a white saree and symbolically mourn by eating groundnuts if Italian-born Sonia Gandhi became PM. Over the years, however the two were to develop a relationship of mutual respect.

When the mining scam broke a decade after her foray into Ballari, Swaraj was pilloried for encouraging the Ballari Reddy brothers. But she never stood in the way of the BJP taking a hard position against Gali Janardhana Reddy when he faced the wrath of the law. That remained a sore point with the Reddy family. His brother G Somasekhara Reddy was to tell me in 2013 that they wished she had helped them when the times were tough. 

Swaraj’s position was that her connect was with the people of Ballari, not with one family. Which is why she made it a point to travel to the town to celebrate Varamahalakshmi puja every year, for several years after the electoral battle. It was only in recent years that because of her health issues and schedule as India’s Foreign minister that trips to Ballari became rare.

Twenty years after her flight to the mining land of Ballari, the BJP is in the saddle again in Karnataka. The party owes a big thankyou to the small-built woman who enabled it to leap to power in the state. 

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