‘Buddha, Basavanna, Shakespeare and Marx’

PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes: A few years ago, most likely in 2005, while watching the proceedings of the Karnataka legislative assembly, I heard M. P. Prakash speak. He was then the deputy chief minister in the Congress-JD (S) coalition government.

I don’t remember the context or the issues involved but I clearly remember his speech. And that’s because in a 20-minute response to a debate in the assembly, Prakash invoked Shakespeare, Basavanna, Karl Marx, Gautama Buddha, and for good measure, several other Kannada poets.

It didn’t matter whether he was quoting them accurately or whether his invocation was even necessary. By then, the new breed of Karnataka politician had entered the Karnataka Assembly and it felt so strange to hear Prakash refer to Marx and Shakespeare.

But then Prakash was known to be a different kind of politician – as someone who enjoyed the company of books and writers, of theatre, arts and cinema. He wasn’t simply an enthusiast but an active participant in arts and literature – as a writer, actor and theatre director.

Prakash’s sensibilities were such that when Janata Party was in power in the 1980s, the intellectuals of Karnataka wanted him to take charge of the education ministry. When he was the minister for Kannada and culture, our writers and artists felt he was someone approachable, and further that he would understand their needs and perspectives.

In this regard, he filled the void left behind by K. V. Shankare Gowda of Mandya.

In India: A Million Mutinies Now, Sir V. S. Naipaul writes extensively on Karnataka, which he sees through the eyes of Prakash. In his earlier works on India, Naipaul wasn’t optimistic about the changes taking place in the first three decades of independence, but if he revises his opinion and sees reasons for optimism, if he has a more nuanced understanding of the complexities and contradictions of Indian society and polity, the credit for that at least partially should go to Prakash.

More significantly, Prakash was a politician a writer or thinker could interact with and learn from.

In the last ten years, Prakash was struggling to retain his political base in a Bellary district that had been overtaken by the Reddy revolution. His only son too had apparently become part of the new and booming economy of mining and had benefited from that.

While that may hint at a sad change that had come about in this one time socialist, it also shows the tragic side of Karnataka’s politics: even someone like Prakash had come to believe he needs the mining wealth in order to survive in politics.

Prakash’s demise creates a void in Karnataka politics, which will remain unfulfilled for a while. We may find some faults with him, but he remained a man of culture in an arena that’s increasingly becoming bereft of just that and where fistfights and physical threats have become order of the day.

I would like to remember the man who spoke of Shakespeare in the Karnataka legislative assembly for it is going to be a while before we hear such chatter.

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: What M.P. Prakash told Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul