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HVK Archives: A change is coming

A change is coming - Sunday

Vir Sanghvi ()
17-23 November 1996

Title : A chance is coming
Author : Vir Sanghvi
Publication : Sunday
Date : November 17-23, 1996

Are these the last days of the Deve Gowda government?
The question may seem surprising at first. After all, the
Prime Minister seems comfortably ensconced at Race Course
Road. His family troops on to an Air India jet to join
him on his trip to Zimbabwe. And it is hard to see how
the United Front's great rival, the BJP, can find the
majority required to take office.

But appearances can be deceptive. And despite the self-
described 'poor farmer's' willingness to touch as many
people's feet as necessary, the danger to him comes not
from the Opposition, but from his own allies in the
United Front and from the Congress.

Part of the problem derives from the manner of his acces-
sion. Deve Gowda was nobody'.s first choice for the job.
His name came up only after V.P. Singh and Jyoti Basu had
said no; after Laloo Yadav failed to gather the requisite
support; and after Deve Gowda himself threatened to walk
out if R.K. Hegde was made Prime Minister.

When you are the least-worst alternative, your position
is always unstable because all the others who believe
they should have got the job are convinced that you are
not up to the task. The only way to survive in such a
situation is to manipulate your way through and to expel
your enemies. It worked for Indira Gandhi during her
first term. And it worked for Narasimha Rao.

But both had advantages that Deve Gowda does not. They
were the shrewdest political operators of their times.
And they belonged to the Congress, a party that rallies
around the leader in nearly all circumstances.

In Deve Gowda's case, the United Front (or the Janata
Dal, the Janata Party or the National Front as it used to
be) has precisely the opposite tradition. This is a
grouping that thrives on dissent: where all its constitu-
ents regard it as their sacred duty to stab the leader in
the back.

Such dissidence usually takes a few months to come out
into the open and it is now beginning to be articulated.
Chandrababu Naidu is unhappy. Despite his own problems,
Laloo Yadav is bitter. V.P. Singh believes that his
people have been neglected. G. K. Moopanar is unimpressed
by the government as a whole and displeased by the action
taken against the former Indian Bank chairman.

Moreover, the party's ally - the CPM -has taken to com-
plaining about everything at the slightest provocation.
If this chorus of criticism continues then the CPM will
have painted itself into a corner. When the revolt
against Deve Gowda begins, the party will be unable to
back a man it has attacked on a weekly basis.

It is conceivable that Deve Gowda who despite that show
of sleepy humility is an adept manipulator - can handle
the criticism from within the United Front, But there is
no way to please Sitaram Kesri and the Congress.

When the United Front government took office, most Con-
gressmen were bitterly disappointed. As the second-lar-
gest party in the Lok Sabha, they believed that it was
their right to take power once A.B. Vajpayee's BJP regime
had fallen. But the Congress could not form a government
because the Left and various constituents of what later
became the UF made it clear that they would not back a
government headed by Narasimha Rao. And unfortunately
for the party, Rao would not let anybody else head a
Congress government.

Hence Congressmen had no choice but to back the UF almost
against their will. No sooner was Deve Gowda sworn in
than they tried to work out ways of getting some power
for themselves. Sensing their hunger for office and
recognising that it posed a threat to his position, Deve
Gowda tried to get the Congress to join the government.
Once again, Narasimha Rao said no.

But now that Rao has been deposed (though he remains
leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, he counts for
little), the Congress wants the power that it was forced
to turn down. Unfortunately for Deve Gowda, it no longer
wants to be part of the government. Now, it wants to be
the government.

Matters have been precipitated by the new Congress presi-
dent Sitaram Kesri's loathing of the Prime Minister.
Kesri says that Deve Gowda is not prime ministerial
material (fair enough), that he has wasted too much time
touching Narasimha Rao's feet (fair enough, again) and
that the best Prime Minister would be none other than
Sitaram Kesri (well...).

The Congress president is 80. If he wants to be Prime
Minister, he can't afford to wait very long. He needs to
make his move soon. By April 1997 at, the latest - and
perhaps even earlier.

Kesri is smart enough to know that nobody will back him
if he unilaterally pulls the plug on Deve Gowda. So, he
will wait for three things.

One: more squabbles within the UF so that Deve Gowda's
position is weakened from within. Two: the point of
no-return for the Left. At this rate, the CPM will have
attacked this,government so much by next March that it
will be in no position to support Deve Gowda against any
threats. And three: a genuine national crisis.

Of these, the third is the most difficult to predict.
But past experience has shown us that crises suddenly
emerge and that if a government has little public support
(and Deve Gowda must be the least impressive Prime Min-
ister in recent years), then it seems extremely vulner-

The moment these three conditions are fulfilled, the
Congress will withdraw support 'in the national inter-
est'. The BJP will be unable to form a government as will
the UF (under another leader) without the Congress'


Eventually, the desire to 'fight communal forces' will
lead everyone to the Congress where Kesri (who will have
got himself elected CPP leader by then) will reluctantly
agree to move into Race Course Road 'in the name of
secularism and the weaker sections'.

Naturally, the Left will not be pleased. The CPM will
push for another leader. But by then, nobody will be
willing to listen. Kesri will say that the CPM can only
support the Congress; it cannot dictate the choice of
leader. Others will accuse the Left of crying wolf too

Moreover, the Congress will seem a much stronger party by
then. Madhavrao Scindia is already back. The Tiwari
Congress is about to return. And the TMC-DMK MPs would
rather switch to a Congress government (if the TMC hasn't
rejoined by then) than risk losing office. A grouping of
this strength will not let the CPM dictate terms to it.

Of course. Deve Gowda will try and avert such a course
of events. He has already begun calling on Kesri and is
distancing himself from Narasimha Rao. But this alone
won't make a difference.

His best hope of averting a coup is to perform better and
to convince the country that he is prime ministerial
material. If that happens then Kesri will find it diffi-
cult to topple him.

But judging by the last few months, Deve Gowda is as
capable of doing this as he is of designing a rocket to
Mars. To put it bluntly, he is simply not up to the job.
Offered a great opportunity to become a national leader,
he has remained a small-time Karnataka politician.

And unless that changes, he will be swept away by the
Congress' lust for office.

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