Two decades ago, the dusty city of Ballari, which was otherwise noted for the Hampi ruins in Hosapete, was put on the global map when two political stalwarts decided to contest from the Ballari Lok Sabha seat in 1999.
The surprise entry of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi as the party's candidate for the parliamentary seat pushed the BJP to field its firebrand spokesperson Sushma Swaraj, who was then 47 years old. For the next 18 days, the international media's spotlight was on the two women who made the Ballari parliamentary seat a battle royale with Swaraj giving it the tag of Swadeshi vs Videshi.
Though she lost the contest, Sushma made Ballari her destination every year until 2012, when she would fly down for the Varamahalaksmi puja (puja performed to propitiate Goddes Lakshmi). It's a coincidence that Varamahalakshmi puja is on August 9 this time.
In her election speeches, Sushma used to bring the house down with impromptu speeches in Kannada. She would attack Sonia and her daughter Priyanka Vadra Gandhi, who was the star campaigner for the mother. On most occasions, the crowd would come to listen to her Kannada speeches than the BJP stalwarts who had come to campaign for her.
During the 1999 poll, the BJP gave the responsibility of poll management to the mining czars, the Reddy brothers and their aide, now party MLA, B Sriramulu. She became their Sushma tai (godmother) and the photo of her placing her hand on the heads of mining czar, former BJP minister G Janardhana Reddy and Sriramulu kneeling on either side of her went viral those days. However, in later years when Reddy was arrested by the CBI in mining offences, she distanced from them and also stopped visiting Ballari.
Janardhana Reddy and Sriramulu owe their entry into politics to their 'Tai'. According to BJP sources, Sushma, who had access to then party's central leadership - former PM AB Vajpayee and leader LK Advani - was in a way responsible for Janardhana Reddy becoming a minister in the 2008 cabinet of BS Yediyurappa. He was an MLC then.
An emotional Janardhana Reddy reacting to Sushma's demise told the media that if not for his Tai, he would not have entered politics. However, in later years when he was arrested by the CBI in mining offences, she distanced herself from the Reddys and also stopped visiting Ballari.
During her visits to Ballari, Sushma never used to stay in a hotel. She preferred to stay in the house of Dr BK Srinivasa Murthy, a physician. Recalling his association with the BJP leader, Murthy told TNM that he got to know her by accident.
"During one of her poll campaigns in 1999, she felt tired and I was called by the BJP to treat her. After I checked her up she asked me whether it would be alright if she shifts from the hotel to my place. And for the next 15 days, she became part of the family and the association continued over the years,'' an emotional Dr Murthy said.
During the stay, Sushma took a liking to the north Karnataka cuisine and Ballari's guntapongalu or paddu pongalu (variant of a idli). "She would return from the campaign late in the night and we would all be waiting to have dinner with her. Even after becoming the Union Minister she kept in touch with my family and used to send gifts. My family and I had visited New Delhi a month ago to see her,'' Dr Murthy said.
Naheed Ataulla is a journalist who covered Karnataka politics for over two decades and is former Political Editor of The Times of India.