A politician with elan

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Ramakrishna Hegde, 1926-2004.

in Bangalore

RAMAKRISHNA HEGDE who died in Bangalore on January 12 at the age of 77 was undoubtedly Karnataka's most influential and charismatic leader of the post-Independence generation. His interesting and varied career in politics and public life paralleled an important period of transition in India's evolving democratic experiment that saw the expansion of States' rights in a constitutionally mandated federal set-up. If his primary contribution to politics and public life lay in enriching the principle of cooperative federalism by enlarging the ambit of State rights vis-a-vis the Centre, the second part of his political legacy followed from this. He gave centrist politics in the country new direction and shape, breaking the political monopoly of the Congress while yet retaining and refurbishing what he believed were its original socialistic tenets, particularly in respect of people-centred, responsive and accountable governance. He was Karnataka's first non-Congress Chief Minister, and his tenure became a reference point for subsequent administrations.

It was in the Congress that Hegde made his political debut. Born in 1926 in Uttara Kannada district, he trained in law. He became the president of the Uttara Kannada District Congress Committee from 1954 to 1957 and rose to become the general secretary of the Mysore Pradesh Congress Committee in 1958, a post he held until 1962. Much of his early administrative experience was built up in the governments of S. Nijalingappa (1957-58 and 1962-68) and Veerendra Patil (1968-71) during which he held portfolios such as Cooperation and Development, and Panchayati Raj between 1962 and 1965; and, Finance, Excise and Prohibition, and Information and Publicity between 1965 and 1967.

In the famous split in the Congress in 1969, Hegde joined the Congress (O). He was Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Council for a few years until 1974. The 1975 Emergency crackdown on Opposition leaders saw his arrest along with other State and national level leaders. When the Emergency was lifted he joined the Janata Party becoming its general secretary. The Janata Party came to power as the single largest party in the 1983 State elections, and Hegde emerged as a compromise candidate between the powerful Lingayat and Vokkaliga lobbies. He won his government a two-thirds majority by an arrangement of outside support. He secured the support of 18 members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, six of the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist), and 16 Independents.

The principle of `value-based politics' was Hegde's contribution to political vocabulary, and to a large degree, to political practice as well. Hegde used this principle at different points in his career with his trademark elan to secure the moral high ground and thereby enhance his political stock, even though there were times when the slogan struck a distinctly discordant note. Following the poor performance of the Janata Party in the 1984 elections (it won only four out of the 28 seats), Hegde resigned on the grounds that his party had lost its popular mandate. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi allowed him to head a caretaker government. In the 1985 elections the Janata Party came to power with a comfortable majority.

Hegde's two tenures as Chief Minister (from 1983 to 1985, and 1985 to 1988) were memorable for his leadership that combined vision and administrative capability. In his very first year in office, Hegde, along with the able assistance extended by Abdul Nazir Sab, his Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, enacted a law that would devolve administrative powers to a three-tiered panchayati raj system. A wide range of financial and administrative powers were decentralised, setting a model of decentralised governance for the rest of the country. Despite the possibilities that this created, the potential of the panchayati raj system in Karnataka was never exploited to its maximum. During the Janata Party's rule it was an experiment still in its infancy. When the Congress returned to power in the State it replaced the original legislation with its own version of the Panchayati Raj Act, which took back many of the powers that had been given to panchayat bodies, thereby restricting the possibilities in people-oriented governance that the original act envisaged.

In power Hegde appeared to lead a battle against corruption. His crusade ignited new expectations and excitement in the public mind on the potential of what appeared to be a new brand of politics. However, there were occasions when his campaign rang hollow, as for example when several `scams' surfaced involving alleged corruption on the part of his own family. In most of these cases, however, Hegde did not hesitate to institute inquiries. When his son was accused of taking money for a medical seat, he ordered a judicial probe. He referred to the Lok Ayukta the allegations made by the Congress(I) against him in a case involving the transfer of shares by the NGEF company. He was cleared of the charges in 1988. He resigned twice from chief ministership, the first time in February 1986 when the Karnataka High Court censured his government for the way it handled arrack bottling contracts, and again in August 1988 when he accepted moral responsibility for the tapping of the telephones of prominent politicians in the State. These acts of resignation may not have impressed his critics, but they enhanced his stature in the public perception.

Hegde's conviction that there was a need for a non-Congress, non-BJP formation at the national level led him to play an important role in the formation of the Janata Dal in 1988. His rocky relationship with H.D. Deve Gowda dates from his chief ministership and his decision in 1988 to place a list of corruption charges by a BJP member against Gowda who was then Minister for Irrigation and Public Works before the corps of detectives with a one-month deadline to submit its report. The tussle between the leaders cast its shadow on the formation of the Janata Dal, and on the subsequent course of politics in the Janata parivar. Hegde's marginalisation from active State politics began in 1994 with the election of a Janata Dal government with Deve Gowda at its helm. Hegde did not contest the elections (in fact the last direct election he contested - and lost - was in 1991 when he stood from the Bagalkot Lok Sabha constituency).

The formation of the United Front government at the Centre in 1996 was for Hegde the end result of a long-held dream and much personal endeavour, and he made no secret of the fact that he believed he was the ideal candidate to head it. The choice of Deve Gowda as Prime Minister came as a cruel shock for him, forcing him to speak out in anguish and a certain degree of anger against the decision. To add to this humiliation came his expulsion from the Janata Dal, a move that was widely seen at the time to have been orchestrated by Deve Gowda. Hegde reacted by setting up the Navanirmana Vedike, an organisation that allied with the BJP in the next elections in the State. The alliance with the BJP marked a definite departure from Hegde's professed principles. It was a partnership that he was never comfortable with. In fact, in an interview he gave to The Hindu shortly before his death, he expressed the hope that the Janata Dal would come to power in the State in the next elections.

Hegde's contribution to setting standards of civility and refinement in political practice and discourse is often remembered by those who knew and worked with him, and will remain in the public mind. Although in his last years he was out of active politics owing to ill-health, he was always in the picture and in the mainstream of public life to which he had contributed so much.

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