Ever since he won the seat for the BJP in 1996 for the first time, among the reasons Ananth Kumar never lost even when the BJP fared badly in the rest of Karnataka, was the astute politician’s ability to forge alliances across party lines.
He enjoyed a bonhomie with top leaders of all major parties which he put to use during elections, which facilitated his quick rise to the top echelons of the BJP. Since 2016, Kumar was Union Cabinet Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers and Parliamentary Affairs.
The MP and minister died at the Shankara Cancer Hospital in Bengaluru — which is also funded by the Adamya Chethana foundation run by his wife Dr Tejaswini — where he was on life support for several days after his health slipped drastically. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.
In the 2009 and 2014 Parliament polls, the Congress, sensing a prevalent anti-incumbency mood, made strong efforts to loosen Kumar’s grip over the Bengaluru South Lok Sabha seat by fielding candidates like the youthful Krishna Byregowda and former IT honcho Nandan Nilekani, only to see the BJP leader have the last laugh after forging alliances, behind the scenes, with key leaders of rival parties.
The organisational strength of the BJP in south Bengaluru coupled with the capacity of Ananth Kumar, a Brahmin, to strike ground level alliances ensured that the former ABVP leader remained a formidable electoral force despite no major backing from any single caste or community.
Imprisoned during the Emergency, Kumar parachuted into mainstream national politics in his second term as an MP when he was made a minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet in 1998. As civil aviation minister in the Vajpayee government, Kumar’s heart was still in his south Bengaluru constituency resulting in him being a frequent Delhi-Bengaluru flyer in those early years.
The rise of the BJP in Karnataka in 2004 — when the party won an unprecedented 80 seats in the state assembly elections — was essentially scripted by Ananth Kumar, and his friend and foe B S Yeddyurappa, through clever ground alliances and strategies.
“We (Ananth Kumar and Yeddyurappa) are like Hakka and Bukka (twins who founded the Vijayanagara kingdom) of the Vijayanagara empire. We single-handedly built the party in Karnataka,’’ Kumar said a few years ago amid rumours of severe differences with Yeddyurappa.
With his strong ties to the BJP’s national leadership from the Vajpayee era — especially his close association with L K Advani — Kumar nursed hopes of becoming the chief minister of Karnataka but was beaten to the post by Yeddyurappa who became the first BJP chief minister of Karnataka in 2008.
The BJP’s first term in power in Karnataka between 2008-2013 was riven by factionalism which resulted in Yeddyurappa being forced to resign amid corruption charges in 2011 even as rumours flew of Ananth Kumar engineering Yeddyurappa’s fall by using his proximity to Advani.
When the Modi-Shah era dawned on the BJP in 2014, and Advani was eclipsed, Kumar was expected to be relegated to the ranks of the margdarshaks on account of being an Advani man. Yet, the Bengaluru parliamentarian emerged in the good books of the new BJP dispensation, wearing his new loyalty on his sleeves, to be among the ranks of senior ministers in the Narendra Modi regime.
A pithy orator who could switch between Hindi, Kannada and English with ease he was often chosen to translate speeches of leaders like Advani and Modi at rallies. His own speeches were often colloquial and entertaining and held the attention of his audience without meandering.
His election campaigns in south Bengaluru often involved morning walks to talk to local laughter groups, playing cricket in the local fields and eating south Indian food in the local restaurants.
The deterioration of the 59-year-old’s health since he was diagnosed with lung cancer in June this year was rapid. He attended the Monsoon Session of Parliament in July and August and even stated on August 10 in his typical vein that the Monsoon Session had been a “festival of social justice”.
“He was affected by a very aggressive form of lung cancer which progressed rapidly. He went to the US and was treated with some experimental drugs at a well-known hospital. There were some problems and the treatment could not be continued and he returned to India. We tried a new treatment and it seemed to be working for a while,” said his oncologist Dr B S Srinath.
A teetotaller, Kumar lead a disciplined life but was affected by a form of lung cancer where the prognosis is generally of a lifespan of less than a year, Srinath said.
“Ananth Kumar was elected to Parliament for the first time the year I became the Prime Minister of India. He served society well till his death. We have lost a good man. My association with him goes beyond three decades. I have lost a good friend,” said former prime minister and JD (S) president H D Devegowda, a resident of the Bengaluru South region, in a message Monday.
“We worked together to build the BJP in Karnataka. He rose quickly to a high position in politics. It is a loss for the party and a personal loss for me,” said BJP state president B S Yeddyurappa. “Even though he was in the BJP he was a good friend of mine. Recently when Vajpayee died we were seated next to each other. He was still healthy then. I have lost a friend,” said Karnataka’s Congress Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara.
The JDS-Congress coalition government declared a state holiday Monday and three days of mourning after Kumar’s death. The final rites are scheduled to be conducted Tuesday with several leaders cutting across political parties in attendance.