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Ramakrishna Hegde, 1926-2004

THE ABIDING CONTRIBUTION of Ramakrishna Hegde to public life lies in his enrichment of Indian democratic practice. His vision and creativity in developing cooperative federalism will remain an enduring aspect of his political legacy. As Chief Minister in Karnataka between 1983 and 1985 and again between 1985 and 1988, he became an active votary of State rights within a federal set-up, but one who made no concession to regional or linguistic chauvinism. Secondly, he took innovative initiatives in expanding the federal principle within the State, primarily in the area of devolving power to local bodies and in trying to enforce accountability. During his Chief Ministership, Karnataka pioneered legislation on panchayati raj that devolved a substantial degree of financial and administrative powers to a three-tiered structure of local government. In 1984 he introduced legislation to deal with official and administrative corruption through the institution of the Lokayukta.

Mr. Hegde did his best to operationalise his vision of a more responsive and accountable brand of politics in the State. He distinguished himself as a development-minded Minister in the administrations of S. Nijalingappa (1957-58 and 1962-68) and Veerendra Patil (1968-71). He joined the Congress (O) after the party split in 1969. Not surprisingly, he was among the many Opposition leaders imprisoned in Karnataka during the Emergency. He showed that it was possible to have a workable alternative to the Congress that was closer to the people and more sensitive to their needs. From a State leader of considerable dynamism and talent, Mr. Hegde emerged as one of the most influential national leaders of the post-Emergency era. His conviction that there was a space for a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party formation at the national level led him to play an important role in the formation of the Janata Dal in 1988.

Mr. Hegde acquired an aura that extended beyond the State. "Probity in public life" and "value based politics" became phrases popularly associated with him. He appeared to lead a crusade against corruption, demanding that politicians be clean and demonstrably so. His fealty to these principles held such appeal that he appeared always to hold the moral high ground through a turbulent political career that saw some lows in the final years. His political stock of yesteryear and his image saw him through a phase of alliance with the BJP, a somewhat unexpected departure from his professed framework of political partnership. Mr. Hegde's alienation from active politics at the State level began with his defeat in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. He did not contest a popular election after that, although he was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1996 and served as a member till 2002. Despite the weakening of his political stock, he continued to play the role of elder statesman in the fractious Janata Parivar. With the fruition of a long-cherished dream, namely that of a Third Front taking office at the Centre, Mr. Hegde seemed well-placed to head the coalition. That his candidature fell in the cracks of coalition politics was a disappointment he accepted with dignity. The setback led him on a political trajectory that further distanced him from his original moorings. Although in recent years his ill health kept him away from the political spotlight, he did not for a moment allow himself to be cut off from the mainstream of public life or from issues that mattered. Ramakrishna Hegde was a leader with true mass appeal; he thought interestingly and created new possibilities in Indian politics.

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