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Remembering Ananth Kumar, the ‘Great Survivor’ of Karnataka Politics and BJP's Man for All Seasons

Remembering Ananth Kumar, the ‘Great Survivor’ of Karnataka Politics and BJP's Man for All Seasons

The BJP may not see a mercurial, committed, powerful leader like Ananth Kumar again.

Bengaluru: In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP denied ticket to sitting MP, renowned economist and Professor K Venkatagiri Gowda from Bangalore South and fielded a new face, Ananth Kumar. Naturally, the move raised eyebrows. Ananth Kumar was just 36 years old, a newcomer and an ‘outsider’ from Hubli-Dharwad.

The Congress had fielded Varalakshmi, the widow of former chief minister R Gundu Rao against him. The Janata Dal, led by HD Deve Gowda, was in power in Karnataka.

Most thought that Kumar had no chance against such formidable candidates from the Congress and the Janata Dal, though Bangalore South had the unique distinction of electing only the opposition candidates for decades.

Proving the sceptics wrong, Ananth Kumar, the blue-eyed boy of BS Yeddyurappa, won his maiden election, beating Varalakshmi Gundu Rao by a small margin.

For the first time, the entire state looked at this young man who was not so well-known till that day beyond the RSS, ABVP and BJP circles.

A quick-learner and an intelligent man, Ananth Kumar knew how to win friends in politics. Though new to New Delhi, within a few months he became famous in the corridors of power earning the goodwill and confidence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani.

Prior to 1996, he was an ABVP leader who was loaned to the BJP by the Sangh. Yeddyurappa first recognised his talent and took him under his wings, grooming him in politics. He made him a general secretary of the state BJP. Ananth Kumar played a major role in the 1994 Karnataka Assembly polls in which the BJP won 44 seats and became the main opposition party in the Assembly. It was a massive jump from just four seats in the 1989 elections.

An excellent organiser and a powerful orator, Kumar rose quickly in state politics and became Yeddyurappa's No.2 in state BJP, surpassing all others.

Speaking to News18, Yeddyurappa said that together they built the BJP in Karnataka brick-by-brick and that Kumar was like his younger brother.

"Ananth Kumar had no place to stay in Bengaluru. He stayed with me for years. He was humble, hard-working and focused. He was like a family member. Our association is over 40 years old. Don't know what to say… He was just 59,” an emotional Yeddyurappa said.

In 1998, Kumar was re-elected to the Lok Sabha by a huge margin and became a cabinet minister in Vajpayee's NDA-1 government at the Centre. He was given the charge of Civil Aviation and Tourism. He was just 38 and the youngest cabinet minister.

Again in 1999, he won by defeating Congress leader BK Hariprasad and joined the Union Cabinet as Minister of Culture. Later, he was given the charge of Urban Development as well.

In 2003, he quit the Union Cabinet to head the BJP in Karnataka for the 2004 Assembly polls. Under his leadership, the BJP emerged as the single-largest party by winning 79 seats.

Vajpayee lost at the Centre and Ananth Kumar had to sit in the opposition for the next 10 years. But he was given important party posts, including that of national general secretary and was made a member of the all-powerful BJP parliamentary board.

Ananth Kumar had one quality which is not common among the state BJP leaders. He had an excellent rapport with the Congress and JD(S) leaders in Karnataka. He always defended Karnataka on all major issues, be it Cauvery river water dispute, central assistance to the state or something else, he was there. When it was his state Karnataka, politics was secondary for him.

Starting from JH Patel to HD Kumaraswamy, he was the man in New Delhi for all Karnataka chief ministers.

He also had a good relationship with JD(S) supremo and former prime minister HD Deve Gowda.

According to his confidants, he wanted to be the chief minister of Karnataka and being a Brahmin found it difficult to achieve that goal in the highly caste-ridden politics of the state.

His chief ministerial ambitions led to a huge rift between him and his mentor Yeddyurappa, and their relationship was never the same again after 2004.

When the Narendra Modi-led BJP came to power in 2014, many thought that Ananth Kumar would be in trouble because of his close association with LK Advani.

But he became a cabinet minister once again, earning the title of the ‘great survivor’ in Karnataka politics.

His father Narayana Shastry was an engineer with the Railways and mother Lalitha Shastry was the deputy mayor of Hubli-Dharwad city corporation.

Ananth Kumar was also among those jailed during the Emergency in 1975.

He married fellow ABVP activist and engineer Tejaswini in early 1990s and Yeddyurappa had presided over their wedding. They have two daughters.

Kumar had won six straight terms from Bengaluru South between 1996 and 2014, creating a record of sorts. He was one of the few BJP leaders who had never lost an election.

In his last election, he had defeated corporate czar and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani of the Congress by over 2 lakh votes.

A lawyer by education, Ananth Kumar was a connoisseur of food, music and literature. He was also a good host and used to enjoy the company of his friends and acquaintances.

His meteoric rise in national politics had surprised both his friends and rivals alike in the state. His wide network of contacts and friends were a subject of discussion in Karnataka.

Irrespective of their party affiliation, people used to go to Ananth Kumar if they had any work in New Delhi. He also used to help fellow Kannadigas in need.

With his untimely death at the age of 58, both Karnataka and the BJP have lost a tall leader who always rose to the occasion. His party may not see a mercurial, committed, powerful leader like him again.