Ananth Kumar was everybody’s favourite; his death comes at a time when BJP in Karnataka needed him most

For some 20 years, there have been references to an ‘A group’ or an ‘A factor’ in the Karnataka unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Such references are made on the very rare occasions when the usually grim-faced and straight-jacketed BJP functionaries lapse into jovial banter about what goes on inside their party.

Even in these mirthful sessions, this “A group” was never called an “A team” perhaps for fear that it might spark speculation on who formed the “B” team. And the “A” meant different things at different times.

There was a time when “A” began to mean LK Advani. Then it began to mean either Advani or Ananth Kumar, who died on Monday. It didn’t matter which one, because Advani and Ananth Kumar were once part of one powerful group within the party. At some point, the “A” stood for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Then the “A” began to mean either Atal or Ananth Kumar. It didn’t matter which one, because Ananth Kumar knew what was in Vajpayee’s mind.

The “A group” disappeared with the rise of Narendra Modi on the political scene, since Kumar was identified with Advani who had no love for the Gujarat chief minister. And since Modi, according to those who knew him well, had no qualms about unceremoniously ditching whoever cocked a snook at him, there were serious questions about where Kumar stood.

 Ananth Kumar was everybody’s favourite; his death comes at a time when BJP in Karnataka needed him most

File image of BJP leader and Union minister Ananth Kumar. PTI

But soon that situation changed. Rajnath Singh, then the party president, gave Kumar the job of “talking” to whoever was not warming up to Modi. So Kumar prevailed upon his own mentor Advani and the likes of Sushma Swaraj to do the needful. It is a different matter whether Advani and Sushma wholeheartedly accepted Modi’s leadership, but Kumar himself had decided to abide by the majority view within the BJP in favour of the new leader. And when Modi became the prime minister, Kumar became part of his cabinet.

Then it was only a matter of time before the new party president Amit Shah decided that Kumar was a man he could depend upon as far as the Karnataka unit of the BJP was concerned. So the ‘A group’ came back: this time, the ‘A’ standing for either Amit Shah or Ananth Kumar.

A great persuader

Kumar was a favourite of everybody, and had friends in every political party, not just in BJP. Such friendships can be useful when parties fall short of numbers. Above everything, he was a splendid persuader.

I still remember that afternoon in 1995, when he walked into the office of the newspaper where I worked. With a smile that was permanent on his face, he said the BJP had been receiving “disproportionately low” publicity in our newspaper. I denied any deliberate cold shoulder to the BJP, saying that ruling parties generally tended to take up more media coverage at least in terms of volume.

He then fished out from his pocket a notebook which had on it a “comparative statistical analysis” of the coverage we gave to Janata Dal (then the ruling party), Congress and BJP. We did a random check and he seemed right. And we did indeed do something about it, even if it meant covering the speeches of his party’s leaders only slightly more than before.

Kumar made it a point to make friends in the media, though as one devoted to the party, he never gave out much significant information, aside from an occasional, innocuous snippet which reporters would foolishly consider a scoop that would alter India’s future political course.

Amit Shah’s hopes

Amit Shah’s discovery of Ananth Kumar’s usefulness was not surprising. After BS Yeddyurappa had returned to the party in 2014 and become the state unit president once again in 2016, the party was politically stronger but was in an intractable organisational mess. (Yeddyurappa had quit as the BJP chief minister in 2011 over the mining scam and floated a regional party called Karnataka Janata Paksha the next year.)

With his clout among his upper-caste Lingayats, Yeddyurappa brought back some political muscle to the BJP, but the party was divided by factionalism with no clear and methodical agenda aimed at defeating Congress in the 2018 assembly election, something which Shah wanted.

There is no denying that Yeddyurappa and Kumar together were responsible for BJP’s remarkable growth in Karnataka.

The BJP grew from just a 3.88 percent vote share and two seats in the Assembly in 1985 to 33.86 percent vote share and 110 seats in 2008 when the party formed a government on its own for the first time. Yeddyurappa’s exit cost the BJP heavily in the 2013 election, when it was reduced to 19.97 percent votes and 40 seats. But after his return, the party’s graph climbed up to 36.3 percent votes and 104 seats in the Assembly elections in May this year. The government formed by him, however, lasted only six days till chief minister HD Kumaraswamy of the coalition of Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress took over after a nail-biting drama.

Yeddyurappa contributed to this growth with his caste clout and organisational skills. Besides organisational prowess, Kumar was strong on strategy and had a humble, disarming way of dealing with party members who see Yeddyurappa as abrasive and dictatorial. Both had a love-hate relationship, and the central leadership had all along done the best it could: it confined Yeddyurappa to Karnataka while pitch-forking Kumar in national politics.

Ananth Kumar as chief minister?

Kumar had made no secret of his ambition to become the state’s chief minister. Before floating his own party in 2012, Yeddyurappa accused Advani of having forced his resignation to install Kumar in his place. Many in the party, who believe that Kumar was never given the due he deserved in BJP, feel that if indeed he was made the chief minister, the party might have been better off today.

Though critical of Yeddyurappa, Kumar, unlike other senior leaders, didn’t actively nurture a faction of his own, a quality that endeared him to the central leadership. But it wasn’t easy to bring Kumar to state politics to replace Yeddyurappa. That could mean losing Yeddyurappa and the votes of his Lingayat caste.

But the wily Amit Shah might have thought of giving Ananth Kumar some significant responsibility in Karnataka affairs, considering the mess that the BJP is in in the state and keeping in view how important the state is for the party.

The loss of Ananth Kumar leaves a vacuum that isn’t easy for BJP to fill. His death came as a blow just when the party needed him most.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Nov 12, 2018 20:55:43 IST