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|April 20, 1998||
The man Jaya banks on in DelhiN Sathiya Moothy in Madras
"Who do you think 'Amma' will nominate for a major berth in the Cabinet, now that the All India Anna DMK with its 18 MPs is the largest partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the latter too stands the chance of heading a coalition government at the Centre?" A Delhi-based BJP strategist asked this of a Madras-based journalist-friend within hours of the final results of the Lok Sabha poll started trickling in, in the first week of March.
"Whether or not he gets a Cabinet berth -- and the chances are he may not -- the key portfolio from the AIADMK's viewpoint will go to R K Kumar, and Jayalalitha will insist on his getting some part of the finance ministry."
"R K, who?" asked the Delhi strategist. Not that he had not heard of Kumar's name, but even he did not know that the suave and low-profile auditor-politician from Madras merited that high on Jayalalitha's preferences. "He is one AIADMK man you can have in the ministry to give it some kind of a professional image in North Block -- and the best thing you can do to promote his nomination is to keep quiet," added the journalist, quickly.
Raghavachari Krishna Kumar has travelled some distance in the last month as the minister of state for finance. Rather, minister of state for banking and finance, to be precise.
Possibly for the first time, the President had to issue a separate notification on the allocation of work between Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and his minister of state -- a job otherwise done through an office circular issued by the senior minister himself. Jayalalitha would have none of the vagueness attached to such circulars, and Kumar would not budge -- or, attend office -- until things had been sorted out to Amma's entire satisfaction.
It is this kind of loyalty, bordering on self-effacement, that has been the cause for Jayalalitha smiling benevolently on Kumar while choosing her party's nominees for ministerial berths at the Centre. And it is also this kind of loyalty to the party leadership, starting from the days of AIADMK founder, the later M G Ramachandran, that has kept him low-profile.
"Maybe, but for this, Kumar might have become a Cabinet minister, but maybe that kind of over-reach and ambition might have finished him off in the slippery slope of regional politics," says a one-time acquaintance.
The 56-year-old chartered accountant, whose past-time was writing short stories in Tamil for weekly magazines, turned towards politics when he became associated with MGR in drafting various memoranda against the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi and his DMK government. Kumar, whose wife's uncle was MGR's personal auditor, soon got attracted towards the party and its leader -- and became a member, soon enough.
"I had never asked anything of either MGR or Jayalalitha, other than loyally serving the party," recalls Kumar. If his professional contacts with the political elite in Delhi gave him a clear insight into the national political scenario -- and also the way the game was being played -- his nomination for a Rajya Sabha ticket when Jayalalitha was chief minister, took the party by surprise. Many in the party had not even known who Kumar was, but without focussing the limelight on himself, he served the leadership well.
This is not to discount Kumar's ability to move with the cadres and read the voter's pulse as any astute politician with grassroots-level experience would do. "We are winning 30 Lok Sabha seats," he declared to whoever was willing to hear him after the first leg of Jayalalitha's campaign tour in February. He was proved right, and the AIADMK-BJP alliance won 30 seats in all.
That way, Kumar could be said to have been the talisman in Jayalalitha's bandwagon this election-time. He was the new face in the entourage, organising her schedule, and coordinating with the media at all levels. "But it had nothing to do with me," he says in all humility. "The election victory owed entirely to Madam's strategy of forming a formidable alliance, and undertaking a strenuous campaign tour across the state. It's her victory," says Kumar, who started the new year with a new responsibility -- of coordinating the media coverage for the AIADMK's state-level conference at Tirunelveli from January 1 to 3, and made a success of it.
Though Kumar is hesitant to talk about his own inputs in drafting the party's strategy, knowledgeable sources say his days in Delhi in the last two years in particular, have given the AIADMK leadership a new insight into predicting the course of national politics and taking unpredictable moves, like overnight deciding to form an alliance with the BJP, to begin with.
Says a party veteran: "Other than G Swaminathan, who is retiring from the Rajya Sabha in June, Kumar is the only other second-line AIADMK leader with a grip of national politics." According to him, Kumar, bereft of any personal ambition and goals, has more contacts in Delhi than most AIADMK politicians.
For all his suave manners and strategic silence at all times, Kumar is already in the eye of more than one political storm. If some of them have not blown already on his face, or on the face of his party's leadership. it's only because of more pressing matters on hand -- like the forced resignation of party colleague Sedapatti R Muthiah -- and the 'positive image' that the national press has still been projecting about the BJP and Vajpayee.
Apart from the row over the classification of responsibilities between Sinha and Kumar, in which Jayalalitha took a personal interest, Kumar's posting in the banking and revenue portfolio is seen as a "purely political move" by the AIADMK's detractors. According to them, he will be used to settle political scores, and erase some.
"But Kumar is nobody's fool," says the old acquaintance with some idea about the working of the bureaucracy. "Even if Kumar wanted it, the higher bureaucracy will not take orders from him all the time, given the minority-status of the BJP within the ruling coalition. If anything, Jayalalitha's tantrums even before the government was formed, could send out wrong signals to the bureaucracy -- that the days of this ministry could be numbered and they should not be seen as being biased, by a successor regime."
The insinuations against Kumar are these: first, as the man in charge of the Enforcement Directorate and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, he would cause the pending prosecution against the family of Sasikala Natarajan, the live-in confidante of Jayalalitha, to evaporate into thin air. Two, with banking too under this belt, he would cause embarrassment to some leaders of the Tamil Maanila Congress, whose names reportedly figure in the Rs 13 billion 'Indian Bank scam'.
"Jayalalitha does not need me, or anyone else to defend her," declares Kumar. "Her convictions and self-respect would not permit her to do anything as demeaning as that. She has said that she would face all prosecution in the courts, and she would do precisely that." Adds he in this context: "Even otherwise, those who know the working of the system know fully well that a minister by himself cannot do as he wishes."
As for the Indian Bank scam, AIADMK sources say the media-hype is misplaced. "Those found guilty should be punished, and there cannot be one rule for the AIADMK and another for TMC. Just because some TMC leaders may be found guilty, that should not be seen as a biased action by Kumar, or anyone else."
Otherwise, Kumar is likely to use his good offices to help restore the Tamil Nadu Mercantile Bank to the Nadar community -- an electoral plank of the AIADMK.
A modest man of moderate means, Kumar got into a controversy of another kind when he visited Madras for the first time after assuming office. The local press claimed that he was running riot in the local offices of the Enforcement Directorate and similar establishments coming under his care. And Kumar was quick to retort: "I used the ED guesthouse only to receive well-wishers who had come to greet me in large numbers. My two-bedroom flat could not take the crowd, and anyway it would have been a nuisance to my neighbours."
Some modesty this, some moderation this -- in today's politics!
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