Eshwarappa: Booked in contractor suicide case, right-wing’s poster boy and fiery orator

In 2012, when BJP’s K S Eshwarappa, now 73, was the deputy chief minister of Karnataka, the state Lokayukta police carried out a search at his residence in connection with a corruption case. The search found the BJP leader to be in possession of a currency counting machine.

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The discovery of the currency counting machine has been the bane of Eshwarappa’s existence since then with the opposition Congress and Janata Dal Secular never failing to make a reference to its finding whenever Eshwarappa has targeted them on the issue of corruption.

“I am a businessman, I need a currency counting machine. It is not like I was in possession of a currency printing machine,” Eshwarappa told the state legislative council in 2015 when Congress leaders turned the tables on a corruption issue.

Eshwarappa, a Kuruba (backward class) leader, who is credited along with former chief minister B S Yediyurappa and former Union minister Ananth Kumar for building the BJP into a potent political force in Karnataka, is now at a crossroad in his political career with the Opposition Congress baying for his exit from the Basavaraj Bommai Cabinet over the suspected suicide of a civil contractor who had accused Eshwarappa of harassing him for commissions. Santhosh Patil, 40, a contractor involved in government projects, was found dead in a hotel in Udupi on April 12. On Wednesday, the Udupi police booked Eshwarappa, Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, on charges of abetment to suicide.

Patil had blamed Eshwarappa and his associates of reneging on payments of nearly Rs 4 crore for repairing roads in Hindalga village of Belagavi district. Patil has alleged that the minister asked him to carry out the work but refused to acknowledge the work or clear his bills without paying a commission.

In keeping with his defiant in-your-face politics, Eshwarappa has refused to buckle to the Congress demand for his resignation even as the Karnataka CM indicated he may seek the minister’s resignation.

“Let the Congress protest on the moon, I will not resign,” Eshwarappa declared at a press briefing in his home district of Shivamogga on Wednesday after being told that the Opposition party had taken the protests against him to New Delhi.

A dyed-in-the-wool RSS man, Eshwarappa has built his career as one of the poster boys of the right-wing’s communal agenda in Karnataka. A fiery orator, he is known to be among the state’s BJP leaders (along with a few others like C T Ravi) who are fiercely loyal to the RSS and the BJP.

Most recently, Eshwarappa was at the forefront of a communal conflagration in Shivamogga city over the murder of a Bajrang Dal worker, Harsha Hindu, 27, allegedly by a Muslim gang, on February 20. Soon after the murder, Eshwarappa said “Muslim goondas” were behind the murder.

He also led the funeral procession for the murdered activist that witnessed incidents of violence with right-wing members pelting stones in localities dominated by members of the minority community.

Last month, a special court directed the Karnataka police to register a case against Eshwarappa to probe allegations that he made provocative speeches following the Bajrang Dal worker’s murder.

On Wednesday — with his resignation hanging in the balance following the contractor’s suicide — the senior BJP leader referred to his statements from February. “Instead of calling the persons involved in the murder ‘Muslim goondas’, should I have called them patriots,” he said, continuing to play to his gallery in his home constituency.

Given the allegations against him and his advancing age, Eshwarappa is known to have been struggling to keep his place in the Cabinet amid talk that he could be among senior ministers who could lose their place in the impending reshuffle. The hard Hindutva line the BJP veteran has been treading is widely seen as an effort to keep himself relevant in the BJP.

His statements on the Shivamogga murder came at time when Eshwarappa’s future in the state Cabinet was in question due to a Congress demand for his ouster for his statement that the saffron flag would replace the Indian flag in the future.

A five time MLA and a regular minister in BJP governments in the state – 2008-2013 and 2019-22 – Eshwarappa has been a deputy CM and a state president of the BJP.

When Yediyurappa was the chief minister between 2019-2021, Eshwarappa had expressed deep resentment over the former interfering in financial matters of his ministry. He wrote letters to the Karnataka governor alleging “direct interference by the CM in the affairs of departments of other cabinet ministers in violation of The Karnataka (Transaction of Business) Rules, 1977”. Eshwarappa also accused Yediyurappa of clearing the sanction of two tranches of Rs 774 crore and Rs 440 crore without consulting him — forcing him to stay the release of the funds from his Rural Development Ministry.

Eshwarappa had then claimed to have brought Yediyurappa’s functioning to the notice of PM Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and the BJP.

Eshwarappa, who, like Yediyurappa, hails from Shivamogga district, has had frequent fights with the former CM over political issues only to quickly resolve them because he was aware that his electoral performance in Shivamogga depended on Yediyurappa.

In 2012, when Yediyurappa broke away from the BJP to create his own Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), it was Eshwarappa, who was then BJP state president, who helped keep the party together in the face of an imminent split.

“He (Yediyurappa) left the party to create the KJP and did not look back at us. He said he will not return to the BJP. I am a party loyalist and see the party as my mother,” Eshwarappa said recently.

The Lokayukta police’s probe against Eshwarappa from his 2012 tenure as deputy CM of Karnataka — where the currency counting machine was unearthed – hangs like a cloud over him despite Eshwarappa getting a brief reprieve from the courts in 2016.

In 2020, a single judge of the High Court allowed the reinstatement of the corruption allegation against Eshwarappa, his son K E Kanthesh and his daughter-in-law. A private complaint in the matter is still before the courts.

The advocate who filed the private complaint, B Vinod, has also sought a probe by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) into the assets acquired by the BJP leader’s family.

In the corruption case from 2012, Eshwarappa and his family members are accused of amassing wealth that is disproportionate to their known sources of income. The BJP leader’s family is accused of owning “educational institutions, industrial units, factories and automobile showrooms in Shivamogga — in prime locations worth several hundred crores of rupees”. They are also accused of acquiring vast tracts of land in Shivamogga and Bengaluru.

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