AS dusk sets, a strange silence takes over Punya, the private residence of Karnataka chief minister J.H. Patel. Ensconced alone in his first-floor room, 67-year-old Patel watches a slapstick comedy Kannada teleserial on Bangalore DD. On another day it could be Discovery Channel. Or he could be listening to Kumar Gandharva. Missing from the scene are the regular hangers-on: some ministerial colleagues and friends. And most conspicuous by their absence are the tinkling of glasses and the free-flow of imported scotch whisky.
It's official. Patel has kicked the bottle on the advice of an Ayurvedic doctor. And Ban-galore can't believe it. Cabinet colleagues can't stop admiring his ability to have done so. Bureaucrats and minions in the chief minister's secretariat whisper in amazement.Sarvamangala Patel, his wife of 38 years, is thrilled. And the man, who's never made any bones about his weakness for wine, among other things, is extremely pleased, though 'bored' in the evenings.
With Patel, all this fuss isn't misplaced. Ever since he admitted his fondness for the "good things in life" on a private TV channel last year, Patel's passions have been the topic of animated public discussion. A chief minister with roots in socialist politics whose favourite alphabet is 'w': wine, women and wit. All readymade to go with his cool image: multi-hued Hawaiian beach-shirts, casual trousers, sports shoes and designer sunglasses.
Nosey interviewers inevitably brought up the question; local newspapers bounced Patel's candidness at other politicians and one daily even conducted a phone-in through which callers rapped him. That did not deter Patel. He went ahead and compared himself to Lord Krishna in his yen for good things. It raised the hackles of an advocate in Gujarat, who moved court to prosecute Patel for hurting Hindu sentiments.
A politician who drinks is as old as politics itself. And Karnataka has had a good share of politicians and chief ministers given to the pleasures of wine. But unlike his prede cessors, Patel says he does not believe in portraying a sanctimonious image of himself: "Hypocrisy is the norm in India. But I just say what I am, what I will be and what I think about these things." So the stories started making the rounds about Patel who had his first drink as a law student in Belgaum in 1954. ("Some six of us went over to Goa, still under the Portuguese then, and had beer. It was damn cheap and it became a regular feature.")
Conversations with Patel's cabinet colleagues and friends reveal the man's passionate affair with the bottle. Like downing a drink or two on the 40-minute chartered flight from Chennai to Bangalore after discussions about Veerappan's demands with Karunanidhi three months ago. Nothing surprising except that the flight took off around noon.Or arriving afloat at Hubli during a north Karnataka tour and shouting at party workers waiting to garland him and police officers for not controlling the crowds. Or a serious road accident driving his Fiat after quaffing some cheap brandy some 30 years ago.
All that seems set to change now, even if forced by recent health problems and his age. Gone are the endless 'lively' evenings at Punya which some cabinet
colleagues privately frowned at. "He's energetic and more active now. And it shows in his face. Moreover, we need not hesitate to contact him at late hours now," says a senior cabinet minister. "His will power must be admired if he can one fine morning get up and give up something he has been so passionate about," adds another senior cabinet minister who has often shared the bottle with Patel.
"I think he's got more time to devote to his responsibilities now," joins in Mrs Patel. "He's never heeded anyone, including me, in the past. However, he had given it up intermittently for his father and for Lohia." For now though, she is keeping her fingers crossed. Says she: "Though one can't be sure if he'll start again, considering his attitude this time, I feel he might not do so." And notwithstanding the fact that Patel has started off with a month's lay-off, going by his attitude, temperance will no longer be unwelcome at Punya. Bottoms up to that.
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