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Veerendra Patil, Karnataka politician, dies at 73

[ Veerendra Patil ] Veerendra Patil, who was once sacked as Karnataka chief minister by Rajiv Gandhi at Bangalore airport, died in the city early on Friday.

Patil, twice chief minister of the southern state, was 73 and had slipped into a coma two days ago.

His abrupt and humiliating dismissal in the autumn of 1990 did not go down well with many Kannadigas and paved the way for two discredited Congress governments, headed by S Bangarappa and M Veerappa Moily. The Congress then lost control of the state in the December 1994 assembly election.

Five years earlier, when Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress lost power at the Centre, Patil had led the party to an impressive victory in Karnataka, vanquishing both the Janata Dal's Ramakrishna Hegde and the Janata Party's H D Deve Gowda. The latter politician and prime minister-to-be could not even retain his assembly seat that year.

A fine administrator, Patil twice lost the chief ministership by a series of unexpected circumstances.

Born in a middle class family in Chincholi in Gulbarga district, Patil was first made a deputy minister for home in the S Nijalingappa government in 1957. He then teamed up with Hegde to forge the famous 'Lav-Kush' combination in Karnataka politics.

This combination lasted for over twenty years -- through the Congress split, the Emergency and the genesis of the Janata Party -- until 1980 when Patil left the Janata Party and enlisted in Indira Gandhi's Congress party. The split was ideological; it did not affect their personal friendship.

In their youth, Hegde and Patil took control of the Congress organisation in the state on Nijalingappa's behalf. When he moved to federal politics, Nijalingappa chose Patil as a member of the B D Jatti cabinet, signalling his choice of successor. He was also chosen to take on Jatti -- later vice-president of India -- in a leadership battle. His task was made easier by the adept handling of the situation by Hegde and M Rajasekhar Murthy, who became Patil's finance minister during his second stint in power.

Patil's first innings as chief minister lasted 33 months and 10 days. His control over the state administration dispelled the impression that he was just a dummy for his mentor, Nijalingappa, now the president of the All India Congress Committee.

It was during this tenure that the century-old Cauvery water dispute gained ground as Tamil Nadu objected to the irrigation projects in the Cauvery basin. Patil went ahead with the projects even though the Central Water Commission refused to clear them. Subsequent state chief ministers have continued this policy.

He is also credited with being the first chief minister to think in terms of securing institutional finance to power projects outside the plan pool. It was he who promoted the Karnataka Power Corporation and separated the state electricity board from the responsibility of generating power.

However, Patil was also charged with favouring his Lingayat community. There were also some murmurs about corruption in high places.

After the Congress split in 1969, Patil's Congress-O party crashed to a dismal defeat in the state assembly election.

It would take Patil six long years to return to the hub of state politics, this time as chief of the Janata Party's Karnataka unit. He was also made the sacrificial lamb in the 1978 Lok Sabha by-election in Chikmagalur which featured Indira Gandhi in the fray. Through the often acrimonious campaign, Patil, the Janata Party leader, refused to attack Indira Gandhi.

The same year, he lost his Rajya Sabha seat to Hegde. His dream of becoming chief minister again was blocked by Devaraj Urs and when he lost the state Janata Party presidency to Deve Gowda, Patil moved over to Indira Gandhi's Congress-I. Winning election to the Lok Sabha from Bagalkot, he became Union labour and petroleum minister. However, he was later dropped from the Cabinet.

As state party chief in Rajiv Gandhi's time, Patil was lucky to see the Janata Party break up -- Deve Gowda and Hegde were on different sides -- and the split in the Janata vote steered the Congress to victory in November 1989. Eighteen years after he lost the chief ministership, Patil returned to office.

Though he lasted only 11 months in office, Patil asserted himself and antagonised Rajiv Gandhi in the process. His efforts to streamline the administration and stem the rot in the secretariat was acclaimed by many. However, he was felled by a stroke in October 1990 just as communal riots broke out in some parts of the state.

It was widely speculated then that the riots were engineered by Congress politicians who were keen to get rid of Patil. These politicians then convinced Rajiv Gandhi, who was on a visit to Bangalore, that Patil was incapable of containing the communal violence. Thirty minutes after he had called on the ailing Patil at his home, Rajiv announced to the media at Bangalore aiport that Karnataka would have a new chief minister.

Patil, however, refused to go quietly as many Congress chief ministers had done in Rajiv and his mother's time. His rebellion was in vain. The Congress Legislature Party meekly elected his successor, S Bangarappa.

Even though he remained in the Congress until his death, Patil was relegated to the periphery of state politics and his angry denunciation of his successors's regimes went unheard.

Hundreds of mourners paid homage to Patil in Bangalore on Friday. His body will be flown to Chincholi on Saturday for the last rites.

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