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September 6, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ S Bangarappa

'People don't realise Sonia has charisma'

S Bangarappa I don't know how to use the Internet myself, but I will definitely hire a secretary who can access it for me when I am in Parliament in Delhi, a few weeks from now," says S Bangarappa loftily. "I like the idea of my being on the Internet: after all, paper is so short-lived, and today's print magazine is tomorrow's bhel puri packet. But the Internet immortalises you…."

Coming from anyone else, these statements would have sounded pompous in the extreme. But Bangarappa's egotism is coupled with a strange naivete that is a part of his charm. He may still be accused of being one of the most corrupt chief ministers ever to have graced the Vidhana Soudha. But the memory of the Karnataka electorate is notoriously short-lived, and Sarekoppa Bangarappa is back in the Congress fold as one of its star campaigners this time, with a clear mandate to spend a lot of time in Bellary, as he is a known crowd-puller.

The gimmickry may be gone, and Bangarappa will neither travel by his favourite vehicle, the helicopter, nor release audio cassettes of his own songs on election eve. Bangarappa left the Congress in a huff in 1992 when he was asked to step down by then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, because of his declining public image and the growing corruption charges leveled against him. He then started a regional party with much elan, and achieved his objective of splitting the Congress votes and preventing that party from winning.

Then, when the time was right, he rejoined the Congress along with his small group of elected supporters including his son, Kumar. In fact, the man himself seems like a low key version of his former self, dressed in a worn, white dhoti and full sleeved shirt, instead of the shiny white shirt, trousers and sun glasses that he usually wears. But then, this could be because this is his last free morning before he leaves for his parliamentary constituency of Shimoga, and then on to the rest of the state as general party campaigner.

He sat comfortably in his throne-like chair in the living room of his home in the posh residential locality of Sadashivanagar, while a few supporters chat desultorily on his lawn, and held forth about his plans for the election to M D Riti.

What are your campaign plans for the election?

My party has asked me to campaign all over the state and in my home district of Shimoga in particular. Time is too short for any of us to cover all the assembly and parliamentary constituencies. So I will be touring some constituencies in the Hyderabad Karnatak area, the Bombay Karnatak area and some parts of old Mysore and Dakshina Kannada. It all depends on how much I can squeeze in and when.

Shimoga is also crucial for me and my party as state BJP president B S Yediyurappa, past president and assembly Opposition leader K S Eashwarappa and Chief Minister J H Patel are all standing from there. My party wants me there for many days.

Why don’t you use your favourite chariot, the helicopter? That will save you a lot of time. You managed to visit every corner of the state last time by doing that.

Last time, I was president of my regional party, the Karnataka Congress Party. I was its sole star campaigner. The scenario is very different this time, so I will travel only by road.

What brought you back into the Congress last year?

I left because of certain major problems with the Congress high command of that time, namely Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. This whole situation changed with the advent of Sonia Gandhi. I have always been very close to the Gandhi family. Indiraji was quite fond of me. Rajiv made me chief minister in 1990. Wherever a member of the Gandhi family is on the scene, I am there with them and backing them fully.

Did the initiative come from you or from her?

That is irrelevant. It was a coming together of two like-minded people, that is all.

Do you think regional parties have no future in Karnataka?

Though certain parties like the Janata Dal call themselves national parties, they are actually regional parties. This is very evident in the pettiness of their actions.

Did you return to the Congress because the KCP was a failure?

It was not a failure. We contested all the seats in the last assembly election, and got about eight per cent of the votes, and ten seats. However, the important thing was that we came second in 60, 70 constituencies, and lost by narrow margins. If I had had another six months before those poll, I would have won a clear majority in Karnataka and formed the government.

Why, then, did you join the Congress and not just continue building up your party, so that you could achieve a clear win this time?

We are all Congressmen at heart. But Narasimha Rao's attitude towards senior Congressmen was responsible for many of us leaving. Arjun Singh, N D Tiwari, Madhavrao Scindia and I; we all were pushed into leaving and forming our own parties. When Soniaji took over, everything changed and the party went back to being the old Congress we all knew and felt we belonged to.

Why are you now opting out of state politics by contesting repeatedly for Parliament and not the assembly?

Madam, I have been deeply involved in state politics for three decades now. I was elected to the assembly for the first time in 1967. I have been elected continuously from my home constituency of Sorab repeatedly, even if I never campaigned there at all. That is the rapport I had with my constituents there, at all levels.

But, I now feel since we belong to one of the world's biggest democracies, I would like to involve myself in the larger scenario now. I am very interested in nuclear policies, foreign policies, domestic policies, and national level thinking. Our society is so diverse and full of so many castes, creeds, karmas, languages and religions. We are so geographically huge, but somehow one at heart. I want to involve myself in all these issues, and therefore am opting for national level politics.

Are you grooming your son Vasant Kumar to follow in your footsteps? He is now contesting from Sorab for the second time…

No, I am certainly not interested in grooming my own children to take my place or follow in my footsteps. My family has never been a part of my political life. I have always kept them away from publicity and the limelight. My wife and five children have always respected my ideals and supported me by steering clear of my career in politics. I must admit they think I can never do wrong, though!

I contested for Parliament from Shimoga three years ago, I resigned my assembly seat. I never went to my constituency after I resigned, and certainly never suggested to my erstwhile party, the KCP, that they should put my son up from there. After all, there were many youngsters around in the party at that time, just like my son, and I have never differentiated between my children and other people's children.

My party workers merely told me then that they would like to choose their own candidate…. And they selected my son Kumar. He was taken by surprise, as he was not interested in politics at all. He won with a huge margin of over 32,000 votes; all his rivals lost their security deposits. So you can see I have certainly not groomed my son!

He is now touring Sorab on his own. I am consciously keeping myself away from there. I will neither campaign for him nor involve myself in his political endeavours.

But I am delighted and gratified to see that the people of that constituency seem to love him, as they loved me for three long decades.

What will become of his film career?

Kumar always acted only in high standard movies, never ordinary ones. Still, the Kannada film industry is in such bad shape now, and nobody has money to spend on films, so his career is now on the back burner. In spite of this, Kumar has been quite active in cinema even after he became an MLA, and two of his films are now ready for release. He is also currently working on two more.

Will he quit films if he is elected this time? Won't he have to devote more time to his political career as a second term MLA?

He already takes his political career very seriously. He spends the first week of month in his constituency even now. The other three weeks are enough for him to attend assembly and also dabble in cinema. It is only if he becomes minister that he might find time a constraint.

Do you think the Congress will have a tough fight this time, as all your rivals have come together on a common platform?

The BJP and Lok Shakti did fight the polls together last year. The new factor this time is the Janata Dal. But the Dal is almost gone: the J H Patel group is practically dead. I think the anti-Janata Dal will affect the entire combine, and tarnish both the BJP and the Shakti. The Congress is in a position of great strength, in this situation.

Do you detect signs of a BJP wave?

None at all. There was one amongst the youth five years ago, and that was why I lost in Shimoga at that time, though not in Sorab. Now that minor wave has died. I don't see any signs of a wave in favour of any political party at the moment.

Does all this politicking leave you any time for music and sports?

Not for music, sadly. Many audio companies have asked me to write another album of my own songs, and sing them as well. But that takes a lot of time, effort and practice. And with the entire speech making that I will now have to do, my voice will be gone for a while!

As for sports, I play badminton every single day, without fail, and even played my six games this morning, as usual. Whenever I am on tour, I always hunt out the badminton courts wherever I am.

There seems to be a severe shortage of charismatic political leaders in Karnataka now. This is true of all our political parties, and I think this is one of the reasons why the people find it difficult to choose between all of you.

Despite your sometimes-negative image, you have always been a crowd puller, and a star campaigner for whichever party you belong to. What, would you say, are the reasons for the lacklustre political scene today, vis-à-vis leaders with mass appeal?

Yes, this is a sad trend now. I agree totally with you that there is no charismatic local leadership in Karnataka today, in any party. It's indeed a great pity. I can't think of anyone on the scene today whom the people would follow unwaveringly.

I think the problem lies in the quality of leadership available today. The electorate has become very discerning, and they can no longer be hoodwinked with some superficial gimmicks. They look deep within the personality of every politician.

At a national level, of course, I do feel that Sonia has charisma. Perhaps people have not realised that fully yet, because they are so busy comparing her with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv, which is not a fair thing to do.

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