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Wednesday, December 13, 2000

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J.H. Patel: A Socialist who drifted away from its ideals

By A. Jayaram

BANGALORE, DEC. 12. Mr. J.H. Patel, who passed away early this morning here, was born at Kariganoor on October 11, 1930 into a family of rich landlords.

His father was a member of the erstwhile Representative Assembly. He graduated in arts from Maharaja's College in Mysore and later passed the law examination. He was, for a time, an apprentice in Bangalore in the chambers of the well known advocate, the late V. Krishnamurthy. But he forsook law for politics and joined the Socialist Party despite his landlord background. Among his close friends were the Jnanpith Award winner, Dr. U.R. Ananthamurthy.

His entry into the Socialist Party was influenced more by the fact that Shimoga District (of which Channagiri was a taluk till recent times) was the hotbed of the Socialist movement. Mr. Patel became a close follower of Ram Manohar Lohia and courted arrest several times along with Socialist leaders such as the late S. Gopala Gowda. But, like most Socialists, he drifted away from its ideals in later years and joined the ranks of the now-familiar, high-living political nobility.

Mr. Patel shot into the political limelight when he was elected to the fourth Lok Sabha in 1967 from Shimoga on the Socialist Party ticket defeating the Congress stalwart, H.S. Rudrappa. In that election, the Congress could win only 17 out of the then 26 seats from Karnataka. Unlike most other MPs from the State, Mr. Patel was an active participant in the proceedings along with other leading lights from the State such as J.M. Imam and Mr. J.M. Lobo Prabhu (both of the Swatantra Party) and also Mr. S.M. Krishna, the present Chief Minister.

Historic speech in Lok Sabha: He created history when he became the first MP from Karnataka to speak in Kannada in Parliament. The then Speaker, N. Sanjiva Reddy, who had a smattering of Kannada, encouraged him to speak in that language. It was a time when the DMK members were insisting on speaking in Tamil. Mr. Patel was defeated in the 1971 parliamentary elections. He was again to taste defeat at the hands of the highly respected Congress leader, Mr. A.R. Badrinarayan in 1977, despite the Janata wave.

Mr. Patel then entered State politics and was elected to the Assembly in 1978 and again in 1983 and 1985. In the first ever non-Congress government in the State formed by Mr. Ramakrishna Hegde in 1983, Mr. Patel became minister for Power and Excise. After the 1985 elections, he became Minister for Large and Medium Industries. He was also Chairman of the Parliamentary Board of the Janata Dal and for some time its Secretary-General. When Mr. S.R. Bommai succeeded Mr. Hegde as chief minister in 1988, Mr. Patel found a berth in his Cabinet. He tasted defeat in the 1989 Assembly elections at the hands of his old rival, N.G. Halappa. Mr. Patel's failure to build up Channagiri as a safe constituency cost him dearly at crucial times.

Ready repartee: Mr. Patel was one of the better known parliamentarians produced by the State. He was a brilliant speaker in both English and Kannada known for his ready repartee and witticisms. His speech was disarming and he used to humble his critics with ease. But, as chief minister, he found it difficult to live down his image as a laggard.

Despite his immense abilities and knowledge, Mr. Patel came to be surrounded by a coterie of narrow-minded officials and casteist ministers. In fact, the Karnataka High Court in a judgment delivered in December 1997, on the validity of the Karnataka Excise Sale of Indian and Foreign Liquor Amendment Rules 1997 delivered by then chief justice, Mr. R.P. Sethi, and Mr. Justice A.M. Farooq had commented: "The Chief Minister, Mr. J.H. Patel (respondent no. four), appears to have been misled by the bureaucrats at the instance of the liquor lobby, and the State political executive has not shown to have exercised effective control over the officers who were, perhaps, hand-in-glove with the liquor lobby."

Formation of new districts: The three-year Patel chief ministership will always be remembered for the formation of seven new districts in the State which was a long-delayed decision. He displayed statesmanship when he signed the Cauvery accord with his Tamil Nadu counterpart, Mr. M. Karunanidhi, on August 7, 1998 in the presence of the Prime Minister, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee.

His administration also gave impetus to Information Technology and attracted foreign investment. Steps towards taking up the Devanahalli international airport, which is still a non-starter, were taken by his regime. He also steadfastly stuck to the controversial Bangalore-Mysore expressway project. The Government also undertook a massive rural housing programme.

In concrete terms, Mr. Patel's stewardship of the State administration can be complimented for achievements such as investing Rs. 4,800 crores on irrigation projects such as Ghataprabha, Malaprabha, modernisation of Visvesvaraya Canal, work on Varuna Canal and near completion of the Alamatti Dam across the Krishna. In one year, power generation in the State went up by 600 MW and the fifth and sixth units of the Raichur Thermal Power Station were completed in a record 26 months. But the Cogentrix power project did not take off for various reasons. The Government was able to attract Rs. 17,000 crores of investment in the industrial sector besides Rs. 13,392 crores of foreign investment.

Mr. Patel used to bemoan that his achievements were not reflected by the media which focussed on the infighting in the Janata Dal organisation.

Mr. Patel's innings as chief minister took some time to come out of the Deve Gowda shadow. After Mr. Ramakrishna Hegde floated the Lok Shakti, Mr. Patel successfully warded off the challenge to his Government. The Lok Shakti leader, Dr. Jeevaraj Alva, who had claimed that he could topple the government in 24 hours, had to eat his words. In the end, only about half a dozen MLAs went over to Mr. Hegde's outfit.

His chief ministership had its quota of dissidence led by Mr. Siddaramaiah, which also sullied its image. At one time, Mr. Patel had sought to have the Assembly dissolved to outwit and even browbeat the dissidents.

Mr. Patel was not the one to merely repudiate criticism. When criticisms of casteist bias were levelled against him, Mr. Patel was quick to retort: "Where else can you find Lingayats in India, except in Karnataka?" The unusual and the non-conformist were to be seen in him in the way he named his two bungalows in the City, "Punya" and "Amma". In him was a political figure who stood high above the run of the mill and who will be difficult to replace.

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