Ananth Kumar: A strategist who anchored BJP’s growth in Karnataka
The year was 1996. The Bharatiya Janata Party was yet to emerge a dominant force in Karnataka, with the undivided Janata Parivar and Congress being the two political poles in the state. The saffron party had made a breakthrough in the previous Lok Sabha elections, in 1991, in the prestigious Bangalore South Lok Sabha constitutency, a cosmopolitan, largely middle class borough with an emerging tech workforce. It fielded a Congress turncoat Professor K Venkatgiri Gowda, an economist, and won.
A few years into his term, both Gowda and the party realised he was a misfit in the BJP (he was later expelled for “anti-party” activities). In 1996, the BJP was looking for a fresh face who could help it retain the prestigious constituency. It surprised everyone by fielding a then unknown Ananth Kumar, a leader of the Akhila Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of BJP. He was all of 36.
The Congress hit back by fielding Varalakshmi Gundu Rao, the wife of a former Congress CM R Gundu Rao and the mother of the current KPCC president in the state Dinesh Gundu Rao. Kumar was hardly known in the city, but worked hard and won by a margin of 22,000 votes.
That was actually his worst performance in the constituency from where he was re-elected five times. With his toothy grin and ability to take everybody along, Kumar furthered the Sangh Parivar’s growth in Karnataka along with B S Yeddyurappa, B B Shivappa, and K S Eshwarappa. Kumar’s meteoric rise in the national BJP was also courtesy his fluency in Hindi.
Whenever senior leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee or L K Advani addressed meetings in Karnataka, he would translate it in Kannada. He was rewarded with a ministership in Vajpayee’s first term itself. While Yeddyurappa was the Lingayat face and Eshwarappa, the Kuruba one , Kumar was the Brahmin face of the party in Karnataka.
What endeared him to Sangh Parivar was his unquestioning loyalty. While he had a decidedly mixed relationship with Yeddyurappa, Kumar always put party above self. His caste meant he missed out on becoming the CM of the state twice, first when Yeddyurappa was forced to step down to make way for Sadananda Gowda, and then, when the latter made way to Jagadish Shettar. He didn’t let his resentment, if there was any, show.
A staunch Advani loyalist in his early years , he was part of the party’s quartet of strong leaders, the others being Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu. In 2013, he was among the earliest to support Narendra Modi . That, and the defeat he handed Nandan Nilekani (the Congress candidate) in 2014, ensured that he was rewarded with a key ministry, Chemicals and Fertilsers; and when Naidu was elevated as the Vice President of the country Kumar was also entrusted with the parliamentary affairs portfolio given the goodwill he enjoyed across the aisle.
A key troubleshooter for the party, he was dispatched to different parts of the country where the party utilised his political acumen. What made him indispensable was his clean public image without any taint of personal corruption despite a long innings in public life , the ability to articulate the party’s line clearly, and unquestioning fealty to the ideology of Sangh Parivar. While he was never a mass leader – unlike say Yeddyurappa who could sway crowds by his oratory – Kumar was a suave and intelligent backroom strategist who ensured that BJP became a formidable force in Karnataka.
His well regarded NGO ‘Adamya Chetana’ serves mid-day meals to students and provides them free coaching. The NGO is now run by his wife Tejaswini, who is already being touted as his possible political successor. With a united coalition of Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress challenging BJP in the state, it may be difficult for the latter to retain the 17 of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats it won in 2014 in the absence of its master strategist. Ananth Kumar will be sorely missed by the state BJP and the Sangh Parivar.