Despite the Niira Radia scandal breaking out during his tenure as Civil Aviation Minister in 1999, Ananth Kumar will be remembered by the BJP for his tremendous organisation and backroom negotiations.

Ananth Kumar the BJP man who braved scandal with a smilePTI File photo
news Obituary Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 12:07

When I first met Ananth Kumar, he was the State General Secretary of the BJP in Karnataka, sitting in the old office in Bengaluru’s Malleswaram 6th Main Road and quietly crossing swords with BS Yeddyurappa, then the party’s state unit president as well as Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly.  The BJP had won 40 seats in the 1994 Karnataka Assembly Elections, five more than Congress which had been reduced from ruling party to a mere 35 seats.

The BJP, however, was still a party regarded with suspicion by all other parties and most of the media was hostile in their interactions with them. Ananth Kumar, at that time in his mid-30s, was well aware of this. He would go out of his way to be friendly and polished with politicians from other parties and all members of the media. He maintained the political friendships all through his career as an MP from 1996 to 2018 but became very reserved with the media after his first stint as Civil Aviation Minister, when the scandal with lobbyist Niira Radia broke out. With allegations that the lobbyist was attempting to influence the government’s aviation policy, Ananth Kumar was shunted to the youth affairs and sports ministry in October 1999.  

The man behind the politician was by nature very careful and planned. He always smiled at everyone and was friendly and attentive in his interactions.  The only time I saw him looking down and unhappy was after the Niira Radia scandal in 1999, when he had been MP three times, minister twice, but still a rookie with just 3 years of experience in the man-eat-man political scene in New Delhi.

He told me and a senior colleague of mine, with genuine anguish, “They are referring to my wife as my ‘first’ wife. How can I tackle this?” His wife Tejaswini, however, stood solidly behind him and stories of his link up with Radia and the Rs 22,000 crore Airbus deal with India slowly faded away. He became extremely cautious in all his public dealings and learnt to deal with any allegations of scandals in the various ministries that he held since with a smile and no responses to questions. He very seldom interacted with the media.

His wife, meanwhile, stepped up and took over the entire management of the Bengaluru Lok Sabha constituency. A very warm person with a strong control of logistics, Tejaswini ran a local newspaper called Namma Ananth Kumar (our Ananth Kumar) as well as the Adamya Chetana Trust which took up the supply of mid-day meals to a large section of the government schools in Bengaluru, Kalaburgi and Kumar’s hometown of Hubballi.  

This left Kumar free to concentrate on building up the BJP in Karnataka and as National General Secretary with varying responsibilities, in other parts of the country. He got into politics due to the influence of his mother Girija, a former Deputy Mayor of Hubballi in North-West Karnataka (commonly referred to as Bombay-Karnataka). From RSS shakhas, it was a mere step for Ananth Kumar to join the ABVP in college.

Ananth Kumar once told me with an amused but self-effacing smile, “I used to be considered very handsome by the girls in college!” He used that charm and sense of humour to further the cause of his beliefs and the ABVP. All his supporters, proteges and followers -- and he has them in hoards -- have one memory or the other of his jovial approach to any problem and situation. It also played into his capacity for tremendous organization and backroom negotiations, a lot of which is responsible for where the BJP is in Karnataka, today: the single largest party that holds 104 seats in the 224-member assembly, just nine short of a majority. It is also the party that holds 17 of Karnataka’s 28 Lok Sabha seats.

An urbanite through and through, Ananth Kumar had trouble connecting with masses, with next to no community support as his Brahmin community forms less than three percent of Karnataka’s population. His on-and-off partnership and battles with Yeddyurappa is stuff of BJP lore, deciding the party’s fortunes at every level. Both he and Yeddyurappa had severe issues in trusting other people, making their own relationship a very wary one, forged only out of necessity. They called themselves "Hakka and Bukka" -- the brothers in Karnataka's history who started the Hindu Vijayanagar empire -- but it was a relationship that often failed. Both were ambitious, but Yeddyurappa pipped him to all elected posts as he had solid backing from his majority Lingayat community along with good oratory skills, while Ananth Kumar had to survive on his organizational and negotiation skills alone.

Ananth Kumar’s plus was that he was multilingual with fluent Hindi that wedged a bond with Delhi leaders of the party. Former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani was his mentor and stood behind him through thick and thin. It made the Vajpayee faction of the party suspicious of Ananth Kumar, despite the efforts he made to overcome that. The new BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah was also initially suspicious of him, though he was inducted into the Union Ministry with a low-profile portfolio. But he managed to get around that also, by not protesting or creating any ill-will when Advani was sidelined and by keeping in the good books of the new power centres. And he proved his negotiation skills by working night and day to get the GST Bill passed, in his capacity as Parliamentary Affairs Minister.

Bengaluru South, the Lok Sabha seat that he represented for six terms without any sign of a defeat, is not an easy constituency, though it does have substantial Brahmin population as well as the BJP’s educated elite base. He faced another Brahmin - Varalaxmi Gundu Rao, wife of the former MP from this constituency and former Chief Minister R Gundu Rao - as well as the formidable Congress network in his first election in 1996 and won, hands down. Ananth Kumar never tasted electoral defeat in his entire career, though the Congress tried everything, including changing candidates against him for each election. A couple of times, it was luck that worked for him - the Vajpayee factor in 1999, the Modi factor in 2014. But it cannot take away from the fact that voters in Bengaluru South consistently voted for him and had no real issues with their MP.

His death will impact the BJP’s chances in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, without a doubt. There may be some sympathy, but his organizational skills will be sorely missed by the party as they do not have anyone else who can immediately step in for him. Still the grief expressed by opposition politicians at his death due to cancer - Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) will participate in the funeral and has ordered state mourning for three days - is genuine as Ananth Kumar did not carry politics beyond the elections and was a friend to all of them. The only dream that Ananth Kumar had and could not fulfil was to become Karnataka’s CM, but his sterling achievements - youngest MP in the 11th Lok Sabha at 37, youngest minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet, an undefeated run of 22 years in Parliament - will stand the test of posterity with regard to what he was capable of.

Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years

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