Ananth Kumar Hegde, who was hardly known to people in Karnataka, gave a pleasant shock to not only the public but also to party leaders when his name was finalised for the Union Ministry during the recent reshuffle. It was more than obvious that the state BJP was facing a leadership problem and wanted to project Hegde as a youth icon and a champion of Hindutva.
His controversial statements- be it on Tipu Jayanthi celebration or the recent one on secularism, have given him enormous publicity-positive or negative. So much so that his views on the need to amend the Constitution led to a storm in parliament though Hegde finally had to end it with an apology to the House. Hindutva outfits have already started projecting him as the Yogi Adityanath of Karnataka.
Those who know him from close quarters, say that they had always seen a leader with rich potential in Hegde. "When three of us including Hegde hoisted the National Flag at the Chennamma ground in Hubballi in the Nineties violating curfew, we knew he was destined for greater heights. That incident at Hubballi was a major stepping stone for him. Today, he is seen as a youth icon with good leadership skills. We even see similarities between his style of functioning and that of UP CM Yogi Adityanath," was how the BJP's Backward Classes Morcha state secretary Sathyajit Surathkal described Hegde.
Sathyajit and Anant Hegde were both active in the Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV) and are close associates since 1986. When the government clamped curfew in Hubballi during the Idagh Maidan row in 1994, a team of Sangh Parivar activists decided to hoist the national flag in the ground which was not allowed for about four years. Hiding themselves in a shop near the maidan, Sathyajit Surathkal, Anant Hegde and Ramesh Kasargod rushed out and hoisted the flag all of a sudden even before the police could realise what had happened. It became a stepping stone for Hegde who was fielded as the BJP candidate from the then Kanara constituency in the 1996 general election.
Hailing from a family of nationalists and freedom fighters from a village near Kumta, the Hegdes later settled in Sirsi as agriculturists. Anant Hegde was at a young age attracted to the RSS and became an active member and pracharak in the coastal region and in Kodagu. In early 1990, he was elevated as Sirsi Vibhag Sanchalak of HJV. He was active in strengthening the organisation at Bhatkal along with veteran, Dr Chittaranjan. "Though Dr Chittaranjan led from the front, the man who organised the youth was Hegde.
He led the protest against the atrocities on saffron activists in the 1993 violence and was taken into custody by the police who tortured him. Hindus raised their voice against this and this was one of the turning points in Bhatkal," a local leader who prefers not to be named, recollected.
Though Hegde was not a member of BJP then and was with the HJV, the party decided to field him in the 1996 general election as it wanted a strong candidate in Kanara constituency. " For the first time, a leader was directly fielded for the Parliament election even though he was not with the BJP," Sathyajit said.
One quality which has endeared him to his supporters is his straight talk. "Hegde is not someone who speaks for political gain. He speaks what he feels. Even while mooting a change in the Constitution, he never claimed it was the party stand. He was merely expressing his personal view," said BJP state executive member Uday Kumar Shetty.
However some party leaders are apprehensive that his controversial statements might damage the BJP's image ahead of the Assembly polls. They feel his hardcore Hindutva stance may trigger severe opposition from progressive thinkers and the educated class. But with no other strong alternative emerging to Yeddyurappa in the state BJP, many in the saffron camp feel he is their best bet and will help unite traditional Hindu voters. This may make all the difference between victory and defeat in the coming polls if the party fails to encash upon the anti-incumbency of the Siddaramaiah government and its failures in governance.
So do we have a Yogi Adityanath in the making in Karnataka? Those within the party and outside believe that Anant Hegde's inclusion in the Union ministry is enough indication that PM Modi wants to stress on a pro-Hindutva approach ahead of the Assembly polls.
"Nobody ever thought that Hegde would become a minister. Modi and Amit Shah want to groom a young leadership in Karnataka where the BJP has a dearth of powerful leaders," party sources said.
"Hegde is not someone too involved in party affairs till he became minister. It will not be an easy task for him to take everyone together and catapult himself to the frontline in the BJP," a party office bearer said.
"His community too may become a stumbling block, he is a Brahmin and if a Brahmin is projected as CM candidate and not a Vokkaliga or Lingayat-the dominant communities in Karnataka- it may pose problems for the BJP," he added.
What could work to his advantage is the fact that Hegde is not identified with any faction in the BJP. His close association with pro-Hindutva leaders and the aggressive stance he has taken on controversial issues, may help himemerge soon as the supreme leader in the state. "It was the same situation at Uttar Pradesh when Yogi Adityanath was selected as CM. Yogi was famous for his controversial statements, which sometimes even annoyed the BJP led NDA government at the Centre. He was a MP then and to silence the pro-Hindutva factions, he was invited to state politics. It will not be surprising if something similar happens in Karnataka," a party leader said.
With leaders like Hegde rising swiftly to the helm, state politics is no doubt in for a tectonic shift in the months to come. As the polarisation of communities gets deeper with political killings on the rise, the moot question is whether those who profess the secular stream of thought will be able to hold their own. Are they in for a whitewash like in UP, where ahead of the Assembly polls, there were enough 'incidents' to raise the hackles of the majority community? It's a question which will be increasingly debated as the crucial elections approach.