February 13, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Jeevaraj Alva

M D Riti in Bangalore

It was 1978. Jeevaraj Alva, a young doctor in his late twenties, had just won his first election.

To us adolescents, he seemed the ultimate dream man. Suave, dashing, rich, wordly-wise and the youngest MLA of a new anti-establishment political party that had successfully fought Indira Gandhi's regime.

He spoke flawless English, dressed in spotless white and had perfected the art of harmless flirtation.

What made the picture even more exciting was his romance with 16-year-old Nandini Seth, our classmate and friend, which was the stuff of our dreams.

And when she married him secretly just before our tenth standard final examinations, it seemed like the ultimate fairy tale ending to the romance of the decade.

For the next 10 years, Alva led the perfect life. His prospered in politics under the wings of his mentor Ramakrishna Hegde, who himself looked all set to become the next prime minister of India.

Alva's picture-perfect little family - an increasingly beautiful Nandini and two little children - seemed like a dream come true. Nandini went on to become an accomplished classical dancer. She learnt to speak flawless Tulu almost forgetting her native Punjabi in the process.

Alva was one of the early second generation politicians in Karnataka. His father Nagappa Alva was a gracious and reputed politician, who headed the state Congress at one point of time.

Alva started out as a youth Congress leader and displayed very early the tremendous skills in organisation that made him invaluable to Hegde and his party later on.

Alva did his share of party-hopping and the joke was that he had named his first-born Priyanka after the young Priyanka Gandhi when he switched to the Congress.

Before he became a minister, Alva even used to escort dance troupes around the country as an organiser, usually the ones that Nandini was part of. The Alvas were a 'happening couple' in Bangalore's social scene, a position they occupied for more than two decades, even when Alva was not in power.

He continued to stay in his family home with his parents and brother in Rajmahal Vilas, just opposite the picturesque Sankey Tank, even when he was a minister. Jeevaraj and Nandini shared a small bedroom for almost two decades.

In the first few months after he became a MLA, Jeevaraj found time to personally drive his white Fiat car and drop Nandini who had just joined Mount Carmel College.

Nandini discontinued studies after pre-university and settled down to domestic bliss simultaneously pursuing her vocation as a dancer.

Soon, she had her own dance school and troupe. As time passed, she acquired a partnership in a beauty parlour and today owns a parlour in one of Bangalore's most popular five star hotels.

Favour-seekers, hangers-on and businessmen constantly thronged Alva's house, crowding the living quarters and often spilling out onto the road outside the compound, irrespective of whether he was in power or otherwise. Only, the numbers changed.

A wide and genuinely friendly grin constantly adorned his face and he was always well-dressed, mostly in white. His greying temples and moustache made him look much more elegant than his senior colleagues who took pains to dye their hair black.

Known to be Hegde's right hand man, he was part of all the wheeling and dealing that was associated with Hegde. Their families were in and out of each other's houses though their wives belonged to different generations.

When Ramakrishna Hegde became chief minister in 1983, there was no stopping Alva. He was, by far, the most high profile, articulate and fiery leader in Hegde's ministry. Everyone knew that he was the big man's protégé and seen as a future chief minister.

When Alva was a rising politician, one would see him walk down the road along the edge of the fence bordering Sankey Tank with assorted politicians and others, several times in the course of a morning or evening, when he was at home.

At first, people thought it was his way of getting his exercise. Later, rumours began to float that this was his way of holding confidential meetings, without fear of being overheard or recorded.

It was, one must recall, the era of the 'Moily tapes' scandal, when Karnataka politicians had suddenly begun to be wary of their clandestine dealings being secretly recorded on tape.

Then came Hegde's fall from grace and his poll debacle in 1989. Alva's star, which was always closely linked to that of his mentor's saw a similar descent. But he continued to be a politician who enjoyed the reputation of one who could 'get things done' irrespective of whether he was in power or not.

He was best remembered in this avatar as minister for culture, youth affairs and sports. Alva had a fondness for the arts, which was partly what drew Nandini and him together.

He always had time for the arts and cultural events in Bangalore. He was closely associated with the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad and was invariably invited to arangetrams, dance and music recitals, where he always made crisp, amusing and delightful little speeches.

Alva was an excellent raconteur who could strike the right chord with rural masses, city slickers and the upper strata with equal ease.

His well-wishers and critics were, however, taken aback when Alva quit the Janata Dal and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. Some saw him as Hegde's Trojan horse in the BJP.

Was he sent to pave the way for his political mentor's entry into the BJP? Or had he genuinely become disillusioned with Hegde's political gimmickry, as he confided to this correspondent. These questions continued to do the rounds as long as he was in the BJP.

The BJP, with its disciplined style of functioning, did not take to the flashy Alva from the very beginning. The day he came to join the party, he was accompanied by hundreds of rowdy, noisy supporters who stormed the BJP office, much to the dismay of its senior leaders and longstanding office staff.

Not surprisingly, Alva soon fell out with them. It was a just a question of time before he returned to the Hegde's fold. However, when he did, he was no longer considered a frontrunner in the party.

Hegde himself was in a weak position and Deve Gowda's star was on the rise. There was never any love lost between Gowda and Alva although they maintained a façade of friendship in public.

There were several confrontations between Alva's 'boys' and Gowda's supporters in public rallies all over Karnataka following the split in the Janata Dal after Gowda became the prime minister and ensured Hegde's expulsion from the party. Alva filed numerous cases against the Gowda's supporters and even accused them of conspiring to kill him and Hegde.

Around that time, Alva had shifted to a posh apartment in Ulsoor with his family following the death of his parents. He was beginning to show some visible signs of ageing and weakening physically, which had never been evident before.

His till then loyal electorate also had begun to distrust him. He shifted constituencies, alternating between victory and defeat, till 1999 saw him fight his last election from Jayamahal from where he had first begun.

Campaigning in that election, in October-November 1999, the old spring in his step was replaced by a shuffling gait. Alva attributed it to a bad foot, which he said had deteriorated after supporters of his rivals tread over it during the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, which he had lost.

By then, his marriage to Nandini had already unravelled and he was rumoured to be romantically linked with a young kinswoman, introduced to me as his niece.

As always, his family stood stoically campaigned for him. Nandini's notable absence was compensated by her adolescent daughter Priyanka, a replica of the young Nandini, who had flown down from the United Kingdom, taking a break from her studies.

This time, when Alva lost, everyone knew that it was all over. He had suddenly and dramatically lost weight, which made it obvious to anyone who saw him that he had some serious health problems. But the charisma was intact.

The last few months saw Alva virtually disappear from public life as he spent his time in and out of hospitals. His old family home too underwent several changes of façade, causing old friends to wonder about the goings-in Alva's suddenly closed private life. The occasional glimpse of Alva shopping for clothes at Shopper's Stop became all the more precious.

The end came suddenly on Monday evening in a hospital.

At the best of times, even when his marriage to Nandini was young, he had been known to lead a good life - wine, women and song - like his close associates Hegde and J H Patel. Confidantes believe that this possibly hastened his demise.

Jeevaraj certainly leaves Bangalore a less colourful place with his absence. His abrupt departure will undoubtedly leave many sad memories of a warm handshake and a charming grin that one will never see again.

Design: Lynette Menezes

The Rediff Specials

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