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Ambition was Hegde's undoing
January 14, 2004
In a decade of political false gods Ramakrishna Hegde was king.
To understand that statement fully, you need to have been a youth in the 1980s. Was there or has there ever been a decade like that since?
It easily qualifies as the most turbulent decade ever, even more so than the nasty nineties. It was the decade when India's first post-independence generation that was untouched by the Partition of the country had come into franchise; it was also a decade in which the festering violence in the political discourse -- starting with the Naxalbari movement in the previous decade and ending with Operation Blue Star in 1984 -- climaxed, claiming no less than the prime minister.
Naturally there was a lot of angst among the youth and the political class stood discredited. If ever there was a time ripe for revolution in this country, it was then. Hope was torched through this bleak scenario by the emergence of a handful of politicians. Old-timers will recall how a greenhorn politician like N T Rama Rao overthrew the entrenched Congress government in Andhra Pradesh in 1983; in all that hype, it is forgotten that what Ramakrishna Hegde achieved in neighbouring Karnataka at the same time was no less significant. Both these states had stood by Indira's Congress even during the Janata Party wave of 1977.
With that single act Hegde led to the revival, however limited, of the Janata Party from the ashes of the federal experiment of 1977.
He also led many to believe that he would usher in a different, value-based system in politics.
In fact, he was the original Mr Clean of Indian politics, before one certain Rajiv Gandhi stole the title from him, only to have it snatched, in turn, by Vishwanath Pratap Singh. But if there was an initiator of this principle in politics, it was R K Hegde.
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So much so, in the general election conducted against the backdrop of Indira Gandhi's assassination, when the nation was first introduced to the concept of televised election appeal from political parties, the Opposition did not have far to look for someone to counter the young Rajiv Gandhi's charm and enthusiasm for the top job.
The suave and sophisticated Hegde it was, who went out to bat for the Janata Party on Doordarshan; nothing could have withstood the Rajiv Gandhi gale that followed, but Hegde presented a sober point of view -- 'it is no time for an on the job experiment' -- that came a-knocking when the young prime minister was soon found to have feet of clay.
Ironic, because the three great hopes for the middle class in the 1980s -- Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh and Hegde -- all proved to be non-starters. They were the letdowns of that decade, men who promised so much only to deceive. Gandhi, of course, never really recovered from the Bofors scandal; Singh chose a higher calling, above the plank he used to capture the electorate's imagination and fell by the sword. But Hegde, despite being caught up in accusations of corruption, soldiered on.
Perhaps he had begun to believe in press reports that had portrayed him as the Mr Alternative, a prime minister in waiting. Thus, he ended up as another one of those politicians who were destined to forever remain the bride's maid. There are a clutch of them around, you can still see them: Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh, to name just two.
But unlike them, Hegde had the mortification of seeing one of his arch-rivals, who till the other day remained content as a provincial political leader, suddenly get catapulted into the country's top job. Deve Gowda's anointment from relative obscurity as the prime minister in 1996 would have taught Hegde -- sometimes politicians simply refuse to learn the obvious -- that beyond ability, charm, personality and appeal, a factor called luck plays a tremendous role in what you end up as, and where.
Can two politicians in a given matrix ever remain friends? No, unless one of them has subsumed his ambition as is the case with A B Vajpayee and L K Advani. Since it was clearly not the case with Deve Gowda and Hegde, they could not have remained allies for long.
This, despite the fact that Deve Gowda was among those who proposed Hegde for the chief ministership in 1983. Aspiring puppeteers sometimes realize to their horror that the marionette they sought to control often has a life of its own, as did Hegde. After 1996, even if he was not expelled by Deve Gowda, there was no way he could have continued in the party he helped nurture for so long.
Perhaps there is a lesson in it for the rest of us, the voters. A fractured mandate not only gives room to self-appointed kingmakers to twist around the popular vote as it were, it also allows the country's topmost appointment to be brought to the level of a public sector appointment, settled through haggling and other means.
Ultimately, what went against Hegde was not his record in Karnataka, his sophistication or his desire to mingle with the Page 3 set, but his own vaulting ambition.
Of course politicians need to harbour ambition, just like the rest of us, but Hegde's fault was that he wore it on his sleeve, rather like Pawar did. Sure, in a bunch consisting mostly of school dropouts and worse, they stand out in many respects. Yet, politics is often a team sport, not one of individual excellence. And it is the team that often gets to decide what position you will play at in the final XI. The trick is to blend individual aspiration with team desire, which despite being a consummate politician perhaps Hegde forgot to keep in mind.
Thus, in his life and times is a lesson for so many younger politicians -- on what to do and what not, when to do and when not, and how to do and how not.