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February 11, 1998


Campaign Trail/Madhuri V Krishnan

Ramakrishna Hegde picks up from where he left off

A brand new blue Tata Estate weaves its way through the dusty terrain of Dakshina Kannada. Its three inmates -- political icon Ramakrishna Hegde, his wife Shakuntala and driver Madhappa -- course more than 300 km, with a cavalcade of four cars following them across the villages of Madikeri, Honsur, Brahmavar, Puttur, Sullia, Kundapur.

While the landscape imperceptibly alters from hot and dusty playgrounds to picturesque glimpses of the Cauvery, coffee and teak plantations in Coorg, the speech delivered by the Lok Shakti maestro is the same.

The crowds have been waiting patiently for more than four hours to see and listen to Hegde who has been catapulted into the political arena after his strategic tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Predictably, they want to know why he has joined hands with a 'communal' party, what were his compulsions. And the man who is treated as a messiah by the masses, answers just that at the onset. In the Muslim dominated belt of Honsur, he speaks in chaste Urdu.

"You may be surprised at the alliance but can I ask you one question -- what has the Congress done for you in the past 40-odd years that they have ruled us? Kya kiya? After I became the chief minister I gave you the first medical college for Muslims, I begged the Centre to increase the grant given to the Muslim Minorities Development Council from Rs 1 million to Rs 10 million and created the Muslim Minorities Enquiry Commission to take up cases of social inequality and injustice.

"Why did I now join hands with the BJP? Because Vajpayee, in his brief tenure of just 13 days as prime minister, improved travel arrangements by changing the visa rules in favour of Hindus and Muslims meeting their brethren across the border. Even today, in Maharashtra, a stronghold of BJP-Sena, there has not been a single case of communal riots."

"I therefore appeal to you to give Vajpayee a chance. Give the BJP just five years and if they do not perform, you can throw them out, but give them that one chance today."

The crowds patiently listen to him and clap every time he takes potshots at Sonia Gandhi or the Congress. He's further goaded to speak on Deve Gowda by the frontbenchers but he joins his hands and says: "Why waste precious time over someone who will not be around after one month?"

As Hegde moves swiftly covering villages, he also makes a few unscheduled stops when groups of party workers create roadblocks, holding up garlands and shouting 'Jai Lok Shakti'. Hegde gets down every time with his hands folded in a namaste, accepts the garlands and the shouts of 'best of luck'.

"I don't like wearing garlands," he says, as he settles down in the car. "They use different flowers, and I am allergic to certain smells. Besides, garlands are meant for gods and goddesses, not for mortals like me. And most importantly, my wife is the only one who has garlanded me and I allowed it to happen 45 years ago -- you see how I got trapped," he laughs.

Sixtyfour-year-old Shakuntala Hegde is making one of her rare appearances with her husband, sans any jewellery, wearing a black and green Kanchipuram cotton sari. The jewels, including her mangalsutra and thali were donated by her during S Nijalingappa's rule when Hegde was a minister in his cabinet, at her husband's behest.

Resigned in a stoic sort of way, she says: "People look at us and think we are happy, but how can anyone be happy when the husband is an active politician? We have no family life, it has been tough on me and the children. Even today they tell him, 'Appa, please retire and spend some time with Amma and us'. We have five grandchildren who stay in Bangalore, they visit us but there's hardly any time."

Shakku, as she is fondly called by Hegde, is gently chided. "Is she complaining or making fun of me?" he asks from the front seat. She suddenly switches to Kannada and tells him, "Don't tell them we had a love marriage," and predictably Hegde answers, "Well, we did not have an arranged marriage!"

Reports abound that this may be Hegde's last hurrah. He is not interested in active politics, which he admits himself, and may retire to stay home with the dogs Tipu and Sultan and spend time reading, and improve on his 18th stroke in golf. Rajaram Reddy, Lok Shakti's national secretary and once aspiring candidate, says: "He does want to retire, in fact he left the scene after his humiliating expulsion which he never got over for a long time but we forced him to come back for the sake of the flock, we need a forum like Lok Shakti to build our strength. Even after the election, we are sure he will be offered a ministry which we want him to accept, senior politicians with sound political capability like him are extremely rare these days, we don't want him to leave."

Shakuntala says: "He has been saying he wants to leave politics since the past so many years, I don't believe he ever will, even after March 2."

Though she is tired of the long drive, the unending array of speeches where she often stifles a yawn on the dais, she will remain with Hegde on the first leg of campaigning which will end on Thursday. February 13 is a big day for the BJP and Hegde, as A B Vajpayee is flying in for a massive rally to be held in the evening at the National Grounds in Bangalore, so although Hegde wanted to go Lucknow, where he is lesser known, he may not have the time. Hegde plans to travel to Dharwad South after February 16, and to Raichur, Bijapur before February 22.

Anantha Kumar, the BJP candidate from Bangalore South, joins Hegde in the middle of the campaign trail. They both stop at a roadside, say a couple of words from Hegde's open Tata Estate with a mike to enthuse party workers.

Kumar says: "We have actually given Hegde a rebirth," but despite what he thinks, it is evident who the crowd wants to hear: Hegde's issue-based and serious speech compared to the BJP candidate's trite rhymes (eg: Bangarappa Doubt, Deve Gowda Out, J H Patil Not out) and anecdotes borrowed from L K Advani's and Vajpayee's speeches.

A close friend of Ananth Kumar, G M Inamdar remarks: "Why is Hegde talking of what happened in 1977 or 1989, who is interested? We want to know the present and the future of the country." And the answer was not far in coming.

Sure enough, we saw what happened at an unscheduled halt at Brahmavar near Mangalore. Hegde refused to speak because of extreme fatigue, it was also way past midnight, but the local candidate had managed to relax the EC's condition of wrapping up rallies by 2200 hours by two hours, and he was forced to speak as the crowds had been waiting for him for nearly six hours. Hegde spoke first and the minute his 20-minute appeal ended, the crowd dispersed within seconds, leaving Kumar high and dry.

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