I woke up yesterday (12 November) to the devastating news that H N Ananth Kumar had succumbed to cancer after a brief but difficult battle. For many in Bengaluru South, Ananth Kumar was more than just a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, minister in the Union cabinet and a record six-term MP. His long association with the constituency had endeared him in a personal capacity. Whether it was seeing him on a morning walk in Lalbagh or catching up with him sipping coffee at SLV or munching idli at Brahmins’ Coffee Bar or meeting him at an evening of Carnatic music concert at Fort High School, constituents of Bangalore South have fond memories of him. Perhaps, this is the one reason that his loss is felt so acutely at a personal level.
Ananth Kumar was truly one of the most influential political leaders that Karnataka saw in the last 20 years. It is to his and B S Yeddyurappa’s (BSY’s) hard work and partnership that BJP owes its strength in Karnataka. The only other partnership in the political world that would rival BSY-Ananth Kumar’s (AK’s) is the partnership of Atalji and Advaniji at the national level. Even to this day one will hear stories of how the BSY-AK duo cycled to even the remotest villages in Karnataka building the organisation ground up. Having a keen eye for talent, Ananth Kumar groomed many capable second-in-command leaders across the state. Despite coming from the numerically small Brahmin community, Ananth Kumar grew to be one of the most influential political leaders within and outside of the BJP in Karnataka. His ability to forge a new leadership for the party keeping in mind the delicate caste dynamics in the state is worthy of an academic study by any interested student of politics.
Ananth Kumar was essentially an organisation man. However, in many ways he grew even beyond the organisation – a true hallmark of a statesman. His record six terms win in the Bangalore South parliamentary constituency is a testimony to his appeal cutting across party lines. Perhaps, it was this quality of Ananth Kumar’s that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in mind when he allotted the important Parliamentary Affairs Ministry to him.
The one quality that made Ananth Kumar popular across party lines was his affable and jovial nature. Despite his taxing schedules, he always had tens of jokes and anecdotes to keep everyone around him in splits. There was never a moment of dullness or boredom when he was around. Even if you were his junior by decades, he always made you feel at ease in his company. Meeting him always felt like meeting an old friend. If you were to see the many tweets by senior politicians across the country offering their condolences on his death, you will notice that almost all of them fondly recollect that he was their good friend. Ananth Kumar had this rare quality where he was your friend first and a political leader next.
His wit, humour and sense of political correctness was superlative. Whenever I had the occasion to travel with him in his car, he would ask me to write down a poem or a couplet that he would come up with. His knack to play with words and coin attractive slogans was an asset to the organisation, and most of the slogans for the party’s electoral campaigns were created by him.
Ananth Kumar’s record six-term victory also meant that he played a pivotal role in laying the foundations of modern Bengaluru. The Bengaluru International Airport, the Namma Metro, Cauvery drinking water for Bengaluru, the suburban rail, the major urban infrastructure and housing projects, all bear Ananth Kumar’s imprint - so do hundreds of small community halls, school auditoriums, drinking water tanks, public parks and cultural centres in all of Bangalore South – which Ananth Kumar improved out of his Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds over his 22-year long unstinted term as MP.
The period of S M Krishna as chief minister of Karnataka and Ananth Kumar as Union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government witnessed unprecedented growth for Bengaluru. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it was this golden period of great political stability, partnership and foresight, which resulted in laying the foundations for modern Bangalore. Truly, Krishna and Ananth Kumar transformed Bengaluru from a retirement paradise to a burgeoning global metropolis.
This is the primary reason why the educated middle class voters of Bangalore South had made Ananth Kumar their default choice for MP. I have fond memories of working on his election campaigns in the last two general elections. His ability to connect to the grass root workers, his rooted cultural moorings that had incredible attachment to traditional middle class voters, his immense capacity for hard work and his friendships across party lines ensured his voting margins increased from every term. In a way, he represented the true spirit of Bengaluru – a young, happy, inclusive and a jovial city with a great promise of tomorrow. This was so much in sync with Ananth Kumar’s personality.
He had this inimitable ability to touch the retired middle class voters of Basavangudi as well as the young start-up entrepreneurs in Koramangala. He spoke Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English with as much ease as Kannada – a quality that endeared him to the large Telugu, Tamil and north Indian population in the city. In addition to this, he had one another blessing, about which told me with superlative confidence during the 2014 elections when he was fighting a tough battle against IT czar Nandan Nilekani. I asked Ananth Kumar what his strategy was to beat the five-term anti-incumbency. He showed me his palm and said, “My grandfather was a great astrologer. He has told me that I have this line on my hand that vanquishes all who contest against me. You don’t worry, let us just work with focus”. Whether it was his grandfather’s prediction or Ananth Kumar’s incredible political strategy combined with the Modi tsunami, AK won with a record margin of over 2 lakh votes.
Ananth Kumar’s early start in politics, his election to the Parliament at a young age and close association with L K Advani also made him crucial for the BJP at the national level. He happens to be the longest serving national general secretary of the party and was the key go-to man in many crisis situations. He helped the party win many crucial elections in many states that he was in-charge of, including, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand. His knowledge of the ground realities of these states and their constituencies was so detailed that he would rattle off names of the tens of districts and villages of various states. So was his ability to remember names of thousands of karyakartas even if they would have met him just once. Just yesterday, his bereaved wife Tejaswini Ananth Kumar was fondly recollecting that even during his treatment for cancer at the US hospital he would remembered the names of all the doctors and nurses there much to their surprise.
Ananth Kumar was essentially a man of action. Even though he read widely and had in depth knowledge of administrative and constitutional law owing to his decades long experience as a parliamentarian, he wasn’t an academically oriented person. His main strength was his supreme organisational ability, high energy and capacity for hard work, ability to get things done and an acute sense of political strategy. Ananth Kumar not only survived different internal party politics but also made himself indispensable for party presidents – perhaps,, which is why he was one of the very few leaders from the Advani camp to become a crucial part of Narendra Modi’s team. I was told that there was a joke that was doing the rounds in the Delhi political circles on this incredible surviving ability of Ananth Kumar - that if there ever were a nuclear attack on the BJP headquarters, only two things would survive – the cockroach on the wall and Ananth Kumar. I had once shared this joke with him and he had laughed at it heartily.
Ananth Kumar’s heft in the Delhi political circles helped Karnataka extensively. Irrespective of the party in power in Delhi, Ananth Kumar was Karnataka’s voice in Delhi. MPs from various constituencies in the state would approach Ananth Kumar for any work in their constituencies and he inevitably got it done. He was also involved in key negotiations in inter-state water disputes like the Cauvery and Krishna disputes, ensuring Karnataka always got a fair deal. During both his stints as the Union cabinet minister, Ananth Kumar ensured that Karnataka received major infrastructure and developmental projects. His official residence in Delhi also served as the default boarding and lodging destination for hundreds of people who would visit Delhi from the state.
Ananth Kumar’s clout in Delhi politics can be attributed to his reputation as a capable administrator. Even in the Modi government, Ananth Kumar can be credited with exemplary work like the 100 per cent neem coating of urea, all time high production of fertilisers, the reduction in the prices of essential drugs and medicinal stents, starting of the Jan Aushadhi medical stores across the country and the passing of the many crucial legislations including the all-important goods and services tax. The Modi government has indeed lost a great talent in Ananth Kumar’ death.
Though Ananth Kumar was a through and through politician, he did not limit himself to power politics. The exemplary work done by Adamya Chetana – the NGO run by his able and philanthropic wife Tejaswini– was a household name in south Bengaluru. Apart from serving mid-day meals to lakhs of government school children, the organisation has worked extensively in areas of environmental preservation, culture, education, health and rural development. Perhaps, Ananth Kumar’s adopted village of Ragihalli near Bengaluru under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana where Adamya Chetana has worked extensively is indeed a model village today. For the last two decades, Ananth Kumar and Tejaswini Ananth Kumar also set a new benchmark for the kind of work couples in public life could do. South Bengaluru will sorely miss this iconic couple and their inspiring partnership which was cut short by a cruel twist of fate.
Ananth Kumar still had a good 15 years in active politics had fate not willed otherwise. I remember accompanying him on his morning walks in Lalbagh. Whenever we approached the famed Lalbagh rock from where you can see the dome of the majestic Vidhana Soudha, he would bow his head in deep reverence with his hands folded. Such was his dedication and respect for the institutions of political governance.
Ananth Kumar will be dearly missed by Kannadigas for a host of reasons. As a cultured political leader, an able administrator, as the maker of modern Bengaluru, as the man responsible for the BJP’s rise in Karnataka, as the voice of Kannada in Delhi, as a connoisseur of art and literature, a philanthropist and importantly as a good-hearted friend. But he will most importantly be remembered as the best chief minister Karnataka never had.
With a heavy heart, I pray for the sadgati of my first mentor and guru in public life.
(The author is a Member of Parliament representing Bengaluru South in the Lok Sabha. He tweets at @Tejasvi_Surya)
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