December 14, 2000


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Tribute/ Ramakrishna Hegde

'He would not betray his friends to achieve his ambition'

They were friends, colleagues and shared the same political platform for years. Ramakrishna Hegde is widely acknowledged as the force who made J H Patel Karnataka's chief minister four years ago. For years, Patel was known as a Hegde groupie, but when it came to a toss-up between personal ambition and power on the one side, and loyalty on the other, Patel parted ways with Hegde and became an H D Deve Gowda supporter, when he was chief minister.

Hegde and Patel go a long way back, right up to the Socialist platform that brought them into politics. They even shared a prison cell for some months. Their common friends say they shared other interests like a love of the arts, culture, natty dressing, a penchant for witty rejoinders, and of course, the good things of life. But while Patel allowed those predilections to shadow his political acumen after a while, Hegde has always kept his political persona razor-sharp. brings you Hegde on Patel, as told to M D Riti in Bangalore.

Patel was an uncommon politician. He was not run-of-the mill. He came from a fairly well-to-do and accomplished family. But he came under the influence of Socialist leaders like Dr Lohia. Patel was a great admirer and follower of Lohia, and remained a Socialist by conviction all along.

He was by nature a very liberal person. He personally was very honest. I have several instances of an intimate relationship with him. We were in jail during the Emergency, for some time even in the same room, five to six months in Bangalore. He had the kind of determination that is necessary for a politician to fight.

When I became chief minister, I invited him to join the cabinet. I asked what portfolio he would like to have. He said, I am a Patel, I would like to see how the home department works, I would like to be home minister. I said, I will give you a better portfolio, as the home department is a source of great headaches and embarrassment. So I made him the minister in charge of excise and power, which he managed very well.

When we won the election again after five years of Congress mis-rule in 1994, I did not want to come back to state politics. So I suggested that Deve Gowda should become the chief minister. Biju Patnaik was the central observer at that time. He asked me whether I had taken the opinion of all the members. I said yes, Gowda should become chief minister and Patel deputy chief minister.

When Gowda became prime minister, the question was who should succeed him. Gowda's main intention was that his son should succeed him, but this was not immediately possible, so he suggested the name of Siddaramaiah. I opposed this on the ground that Patel is deputy chief minister already, senior to Siddaramaiah, has greater experience, participated in more struggles. I insisted on his being chosen, and that came through ultimately.

Patel could perhaps have given much better results, but for the continuing interference of the then prime minister Deve Gowda in state affairs. He used to ring him up for every small thing, tell him you do like this, do like that. As long as Gowda was PM, this went on. I could see Patel's predicament and plight. After Gowda ceased to be PM, Patel started functioning independently for the first time as a chief minister.

As chief minister, he gave full freedom to his colleagues. This was the right thing to do. But he should have exercised certain vigilance from time to time department-wise, which he did not do. In terms of solid work, particularly in irrigation and power, his government's achievements are far from mean.

Patel did not ever practice dynastic politics. His son Mahima is an ambitious person. Perhaps he has taken an independent interest in politics. But Patel did not encourage him. Maybe Mahima was preparing himself to take over his father's legacy. After Patel lost the last time, he asked Mahima to take care of his constituency, since he himself was not in good health, that's about all.

Deve Gowda, without giving any notice, without any rhyme or reason, expelled me from the party that I had built, to which he himself had been opposed. He did this simply because he was PM and could manage to do so. At that time, Patel could not resign just to back me. If he had joined me, Gowda would have dismissed him. Perhaps he did not want to risk this, because of the larger interest of keeping the party in power, and also possibly because of the personal ambition to remain chief minister for a while longer. Otherwise, we were on the wavelength, and had a very cordial relationship.

Patel was not a very personally ambitious man, though. To nurse political ambitions is not a crime. He thought he was competent enough to be a good chief minister, and so wanted to continue as one for as long as possible. Every politician is ambitious, after all. Patel was not overly ambitious, though. He would not betray his friends to achieve his ambition.

He was one of those friends who had the habit of taking life easy. He was not a very hard worker. He was basically easy going. He used to read a lot, but in terms of solid work, administrative or otherwise, he was quite lacking. Maybe it was his poor health. He also had a lot of weaknesses that he never tried to keep secret. One of them was that he was given to heavy drinking. Ultimately, that was responsible for his untimely death.

One always tried to ignore these weaknesses because of his other qualities, like his being a good adminstrator. He was a great parliamentarian, as he was full of humour and wit, which are rare things to find in today's parliamentarians. He sometimes showed a weakness for certain friends, even if in his heart of hearts he did not agree with those friends on certain matters.

These weaknesses did give him a bad image and that in turn affected the party badly. This is why the BJP, even at the last minute, was opposed to having any truck with Patel and his party. It was I who forced them, because I thought our prospects would be better if we came together, as the Janata Dal-U had split already. Too many small parties can never make a good combination.

Did Patel shed his Socialism along the way? Socialism as a philosophy is no longer relevant. It is now only for namesake. Therefore, if Patel practised a watered-down kind of Socialism, it is quite excusable.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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