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The Rediff Special/ A tribute to S Nijalingappa

A politician who rose above politics

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M D Riti in Bangalore

The very first time I saw him almost a dozen years ago, he was already a semi-retired politician, living happily in his hometown of Chitradurga.

S Nijalingappa I caught him on one of his frequent trips to Bangalore, where he always stayed in an austere room in the government VIP guesthouse of Kumara Krupa.

The very first statement he made to me in response to a question on politics, almost knocked me off my all-weathered sandals. "If there had been a prize for the biggest liar in India, Indira Gandhi would have won it," he declared, his one good eye gleaming.

"She misrepresented me and spoke lies about me even when I was her Congress party president. I am sure she was also very corrupt. All the industrialists were at her beck and call. They gave her so much money. I do not know whether she made any money for herself, but she certainly collected huge amounts."

That was the time when Ramakrishna Hegde's Janata Party government ruled Karnataka, and the atmosphere in the State was certainly conducive to anti-Congress declarations. But S Nijalingappa had resigned from the Janata Party too when he began to feel they too were morally corrupt.

Earlier, he was instrumental in setting up the Janata Party as an alternative to the single-party domination of the Congress, during the Emergency in1975.

The 20th century saw the rise and fall of hundreds of politicians, and a handful of statesmen. Nijalingappa belonged to the second category. His legendary integrity and courage saw him tower over Indian politics for many years, and he continued to remain a strong voice and presence even from his beautiful home in Chitradurga.

He had been ill with various ailments for years now. Recently, he suffered a hairline fracture caused by a fall in his home and this caused him to deteriorate into an illness which finally took him away from his family and his numerous admirers on Tuesday night.

Karnataka has declared a three-day mourning for its very first chief minister. Schools and colleges are, anyway, closed both Wednesday and Thursday because of Dr Rajakumar's abduction.

Nijalingappa will be given a State funeral in Chitradurga and Chief Minister S M Krishna and other prominent politicians have left for the town.

This correspondent was with Krishna two weeks ago when the chief minister in his chambers at Vidhana Soudha received a telephone call from his officials who were at Nijalingappa's bedside. Krishna's face paled as he listened to what was obviously not very heartening news. He quickly brushed aside waiting officers and petitioners, got into his car and rushed to the hospital.

Nijalingappa did inspire great devotion, admiration and trust in the people he interacted with. His refreshing honesty made even the most wily of politicians acknowledge his superiority. "People whom I would not touch with a barge pole are now set up as candidates," he had remarked in disgust, explaining his decision to remain apolitical, at least in terms of party affiliations, for the rest of his life.

"I asked Ramakrishna Hegde: How can I ask people to vote for them? Communalism is rampant in the party and so many decisions are taken on that basis, which I disapprove of completely."

For over a dozen years, I had the privilege of interacting with Nijalingappa as a journalist both in Bangalore and at his home in Chitradurga. I used to search for opportunities to speak to him, primarily because it was such a rare pleasure to talk to a politician who did not indulge in doublespeak and who was never afraid to speak his mind.

Two other men of similar stature and of the same generation that I used to talk to often at that time were Veerendra Patil, another ex chief minister of Karnataka, and M A Sreenivasan, former dewan of Gwalior and constituent assembly member, who happened to be my grandfather.

There were some of those spine-tingling luncheons at my grandfather Sreenivasan's lakeside home, to which Nijalingappa and Patil would come, when I would pass around the canapes and listen to their spicy memories of the Nehru family, Gandhiji, Mountbatten and just about everyone else.

Often, they would dismiss the politicians ruling the State and country with a few terse exchanges. "All of them are corrupt in varying degrees," Nijalingappa said to me once, in disgust. "No party has a leader worth its name. Every party criticises the others but does no work in building up its own organisation."

And building up organisations and parties was really what Nijalingappa had devoted the best years of his life to.

Born in a village in Bellary district, Nijalingappa lost his father when he was just five. All that Nijalingappa remembered of him was his aquiline nose! "My father's ancestors were all rich profligates," Nijalingappa once admitted to me with typical candour. "They dissipated their wealth on gambling, drinking and womanising. My mother's father helped my parents, but we were still very poor."

He grew up in Davanagere and joined high school in Chjitradurga in 1919. The political writings of Annie Besant helped to arouse an interest in politics in his young mind.

He started wearing khadi, but had to wait till he was 21 before he could become a member of the Indian National Congress.

Nijalingappa went to college in Bangalore, graduated in law from Pune and then practised law as a barrister for 12 years. During these years, he was also involved in the freedom struggle, and established the Congress party in what was then Mysore State in the 1930s.

He was jailed for the first time in 1939, for participating in a forest satyagraha, and lost his license to practise law.

One of the few political leaders who won Nijalingappa's true admiration as far back as then was Mahatma Gandhi. "I still remember so clearly a Quit India meeting he addressed in 1942, which I attended," he said to me some years ago. "His speech flowed like the Ganga!"

Soon after, Nijalingappa and several of his colleagues were arrested all over the country. "Kamaraj Nadar and Sanjiva Reddy were arrested first, and then I was picked up in Bangalore," he said.

By then, Nijalingappa had risen to the post of a general secretary in the party. He was put in prison in the small town of Kolar, near Bangalore, where he found he was the only political prisoner. All others were mostly gold thieves, accused of having pilfered the precious metal from Kolar Gold Field.

Nijalingappa found several discrepancies in their prosecution, filed appeals on their behalf from jail, and had many, who were wrongly confined, released.

He himself was released a month early because the jail doctor diagnosed him as having contracted tuberculosis.

When India gained Independence, Nijalingappa became a member of the constituent assembly, and later a member of Parliament. When the division of states took place in 1956, and the state of Karnataka was born, Nijalingappa became its first chief minister.

Two years later, a revolt in the party led by Basappa Dhanappa Jatti reached its peak and All India Congress Committee general secretary Sriman Narayan came down to Bangalore and ruled that Nijalingappa had lost his majority.

Jatti replaced Nijalingappa as the chief minister. "Jatti was just propped up by Nehru and his cohorts in Delhi," said Nijalingappa, who was never very close to Nehru.

However, Nijalingappa was back as chief minister four years later in 1962. Unlike Karnataka's present chief minister, who says the time is now right to focus primarily on development of Bangalore, Nijalingappa's main focus was on rural development.

Water from the Cauvery was tapped for Bangalore. The Sharavathi hydro-electric scheme was completed within six years. Six irrigation schemes were launched. Old age pension was introduced. "I was most satisfied with what I managed to do for the people during that time," Nijalingappa told me once.

Indira Gandhi later invited Nijalingappa to Delhi and made him president of the INC. "I regret having accepted," he later told his friends. "I should have stayed back in Karnataka. I could have done much more useful work for the people here."

Years later, Nijalingappa found he had glaucoma of the right eye. However, he put off having it surgically treated for two years, and when he finally had cataract surgery after the glaucoma operation, he lost his eye.

In the great Congress split of 1969, at the end of Nijalingappa's term as party president, he formed the splinter Congress (O) with the dissidents, and became its president.

"Indira herself proposed Sanjiva Reddy as the party's candidate for the President's post, but then she worked against him," said Nijalingappa. "That certainly amounts to moral corruption. The corruption of the voter can also be traced back to her. Until her tenure, only a few lakh of rupees were spent all over the country on general and state legislature elections. During her time, as much as Rs 50 lakh were spent for parliamentary elections and slightly less for state-level elections.

"She imposed Emergency upon the country. But people realised they were being taken for a ride and she was defeated. That was one of the greatest moments in Indian history, when the whole country decided it wanted a change. But within just two years, the Janata Party, in whom the people had reposed such faith, quarrelled like cats and dogs and had to be sent out."

Nijalingappa's growing disillusionment with party politics made him opt out of the system slowly, resign from all party memberships and go back home to a life of tranquility at Chitradurga, to a house that he had built during the years he was a practising barrister.

"I start my day talking to my plants and end it listening to music," he said, with a peaceful smile, to this correspondent, on a recent visit to Bangalore. He continued to keep track of political developments all over the country, and was ever willing to share his sharp assessments with anyone who genuinely wanted or needed them, irrespective of whether they were political leaders, journalists or social workers.

In this year, that marks the turn of the century, Nijalingappa's death symbolises the passing of an era. He has left us with an entire generation of tainted, scheming politicians, with their biological and ideological heirs waiting in the wings.

Former Karnataka CM S Nijalingappa is dead

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