In the town of Kanakapura, located 65 km from Bengaluru city, the mere mention of the names of Congress politicians DK Shivakumar and his brother DK Suresh evokes a cautious response. Shivakumar, the energy minister in the Karnataka government, is fighting the May 12 polls to retain his Kanakapura seat in the state assembly. Suresh is the member of Parliament from the Bengaluru Rural constituency,

Asked if the brothers have done any good for the area, a shopkeeper near Suresh’s bungalow, which dominates Kanakapura town, said: “Do you want me to say they have not and lose my business?”

Similar responses echo across the region. The brothers evoke both fear and respect in Kanakpura – though fear is the dominant emotion.

“The entire place is under the control of the brothers,” said Shiva Mahendra, an autorickshaw driver who was one of the few in the town who was willing to talk about the siblings. “The fear is such that if you have any trouble, the first thing people will scare you with is a phone call to Suresh anna.” Anna means big brother in Kannada.

Shivakumar is so strong in the area that Nandini Gowda Kadahalli, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, alleged that some of her own partymen are on the minister’s payroll. “I am fighting hard to get the party machinery fully immersed in the campaign,” said Kadahalli.

To be sure, Shivakumar would not seem to be short of funds. Considered one of the richest politicians in India with declared family wealth of over Rs 800 crore, Shivakumar is believed to be the moneybags of the Congress in Karnataka. His wealth has increased considerably since 2013, when he declared that his assets were worth Rs 251 crore. His wealth mainly consists of land and houses, which were valued at Rs 548 crore. Congress officials in the area said the real estate was the main source of the brothers’ income, given that their Bengaluru Rural stronghold, into which Bengaluru city is slowly expanding, is now a prized market. Shivakumar’s immovable assets include 55 residential buildings. Three of these are in New Delhi. Shivakumar has also obtained several unsecured loans amounting to over Rs 101 crore from real estate companies and individuals.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, his brother Suresh declared assets worth Rs 13.5 crore.

In addition, Shivakumar is the campaign committee chairman of the Karnataka Congress, with direct access to party president Rahul Gandhi. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and former Chief Minister SM Krishna – his mentors – had held this postion before they were appointed to lead the state government. He is seen by many in the party as the second-most senior leader in the state, and the prime candidate for the post of deputy chief minister if the party wins the May 12 election. Also working to his advantage is the fact that he is the party’s most prominent face of the Vokkaliga community, which dominates South Karnataka.

Last year, after the Congress party in Gujarat feared that MLAs would be tempted to defect to the BJP ahead of elections to the Rajya Sabha, Shivakumar was the man who arranged for these legislators to be sequestered away in a resort in Bengaluru. This allowed Congress leader Ahmed Patel to win a fifth term. The fact that Shivakumar was given the job of keeping the MLAs in check indicates the enormous level of trust he has been accorded by the Congress leadership.

Bengaluru Rural Lok Sabha member DK Suresh's house in Kanakapura. (Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan).

Aspiring city

Located just outside the Bengaluru city limits, Kanakapura is aspiring to become a satellite town. The international centre of the Art of Living, the organisation run by spiritual leader Ravi Shankar, lies midway between Bengaluru and this town.

Kanakpura hopes it will become an accommodation hub for the substantial numbers of foreigners who visit the centre. This is the reason Shivakumar has focused on building roads over anything else, residents say. Much of the Kanakapura Road, a highway connecting Bengaluru with the town, is being upgraded to two lanes.

According to local officials, the constituency has about 1.9 lakh voters, consisting of at least 80,000 Vokkaligas, the caste to which Shivakumar belongs. Even when the Narendra Modi wave swept the state in 2014, Shivakumar’s brother Suresh was able to win the Bengaluru Rural Lok Sabha constituency. He defeated the BJP candidate Muniraj Gowda by a margin of 2,31,480 votes.

The BJP is aware of Shivakumar’s strong position. In August, the Income Tax Department conducted a raid on the minister, sparking talk that the party was trying to cut the Congress’ flow of funds. Over 60 locations were searched. This was followed by a notice from an economic offences court in Bengaluru in February, which sought to prosecute Shivakumar for destroying evidence related to the raid.

Basaivaiah, a voter in Kanakapura. (Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan).

Patron politician

People in opposing camps complain that the DKS brothers have used their money to further their political control of the region. “It is through money that they have strengthened their hold in the area,” alleged Basavaiah Gowda, who was the local taluk panchayat president in 2000. Basavaiah said he quit politics a few years ago as he realised that no one is ready to take on the brothers in Kanakapura.

“This election is a waste of time,” he added. “They could just declare him [Shivakumar] the winner.”

But besides the obvious fear, there is also respect. Both Shivakumar and Suresh are known to be liberal in doling out money for community functions. Whether it is a wedding or a temple event, having a banner advertising their names as patrons are an essential feature. “These banners alone will keep the police away from causing trouble,” said Mahendra.

Kanakavalli, a flower seller in Kanakapura, said Shivakumar is building a housing project for the poor in the area. The BGS Layout project, which consists of about 1,700 low-cost housing units, is nearing completion. When visited the site, contractors working there said the project had been sanctioned in 2012, when the BJP was in power. Local officials refused to confirm this.

But Shivakumar’s biggest achievement since 2013 has been to build roads. Local residents say that last year’s Income Tax raid had slowed down the road laying. “Till then, he monitored it almost every day,” a local resident said.

In ward one of Kanakapura, where Shivakumar’s wife Usha was campaigning, residents said even the water supplied in the area through tankers is called “DKS water”, a refers to the brothers’ initials.

Usha was confident of an easy victory for her husband. “People here love and respect him,” she said. “They know how hard he has worked.”

While Shivakumar was away touring the state with Rahul Gandhi, Suresh is focusing on the neighbouring Channapatna seat, where former Chief Minister HD Kumarasamy is contesting on a Janata Dal (Secular) ticket. Kumarasamy is also contesting the other neighbouring constituency of Ramanagara.

Usha Shivakumar campaigning for her husband DK Shivakumar in Kanakapura. (Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan).

Opponents doubtful

It’s clear that Shivakumar’s opponents have a difficult fight on their hands. Nandini Gowda Kadahalli, the BJP candidate, said helping voters overcome the fear of the brothers was her biggest hurdle. She said the BJP’s full might will necessary to counter this. “I have pleaded with the high command that Modiji and Union ministers should come here to give people confidence,” she said.

Kadahalli added that it was a monumental task to get her campaign going as BJP leaders who were in charge of the area in the past have secret links with the brothers. The area did not even have a BJP office till a few months ago. “If the big leaders do not come here, it will be a huge setback for me,” she said.

In fact, her campaign has barely taken off. “I am starting full-day campaigns from Monday,” she claimed. Kadahalli also alleged that cash-for-votes was rampant in the constituency.

Narayana Gowda, the Janata Dal (Secular) candidate for Kanakapura, did not respond to several attempts by this correspondent to contact him. An independent candidate with the same name is also in the fray.

But Dileep Gowda, a local Congress leader, said the narrative of fear around Shivamumar was merely a ploy of the BJP. “They know they are losing so they are spreading this story,” he said. “While other parties have not even begun their campaign, DKSji has completed one full round,” he claimed, dismissing allegations of cash distribution for votes.

Chinnapa Gowda, another Congress worker, said that the prospect of sure defeat had kept Kumarasamy away from entering the fray in Kanakapura. “He came up to Ramanagara and Channapatna but did not dare contest against Anna,” the worker said.