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The Rediff Special / George Iype in New Delhi
May 03, 2004
They once decided the fate of hundreds of millions of Indians.
Now they have been relegated to the shadows.
The general election is on, but they have hardly been visible.
We are talking about former prime ministers Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, Haradanahalli Dodde Gowda Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral.
Chandra Shekhar and Deve Gowda are in the electoral fray, but have limited their campaigns to their constituencies.
rediff.com finds out what the five gentlemen are doing these days.
V P Singh
Highpoint in 1989, when his Janata Dal won 54 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh alone with a 36% vote share. He became prime minister for nearly a year from December 1989 to November 1990.
But those political gains were subsequently wasted as the Janata Dal broke up into many pieces.
Singh, 73 this June 25, is largely out of politics, battling with cancer and kidney disease. He lives in New Delhi, but is busy with dialysis and chemotherapy.
But Singh continues to be very articulate about matters political. "Politics is in my blood. Though I am confined to my home most of the time, I am eagerly following the election," he told rediff.com
He says his best campaign was in 1989. "I used to address at least 25 election meetings every day. I finished addressing election rallies late at night and would get up early in the morning for another day of hectic campaigning."
This time, no political party has requested him to campaign. Singh has come out in support of the Congress, which he left in 1988. He has severely criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party -- a party Congressmen accuse him of rescuing from oblivion by striking an electoral alliance before the 1989 election -- for attacking Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin.
"Either you don't give citizenship to a foreign origin person. If a person of foreign origin's patriotism is in doubt and the person can be a security threat, how can the country grant citizenship to a person?" he asks.
Despite his ardent support to the Congress, Sonia and her advisers did not invite him to campaign.
He is now giving final touches to a collection of poems. It will be published in a couple of months. Singh is also a painter who can't resist the urge to pick up a brush every day.
Prime minister from November 10, 1990 to June 21 1991.
In the late 1960s, Chandra Shekhar was part of the Young Turks -- the ginger group that included Mohan Dharia, Krishna Kant, Ram Dhan, Chandrajit Yadav and others -- who took on the old guard in the Congress. Disullusioned with Indira Gandhi's dictatorial ways, he drifted to Jayaprakash Narayan's side in 1974 and was one of the few Congressmen arrested during the Emergency. Appointed president of the Janata Party in 1977, he has been an MP since 1962, except from 1984 to 1989.
Chandra Shekhar, who turned 77 on April 17, is contesting the election from his traditional constituency, Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where polling was held on April 26.
"He is no longer a national figure, but everyone respects him for his political courage, conviction and integrity," says Communist Party of India Secretary Doraiswamy Raja.
Chandra Shekhar is the lone Samajwadi Janata Party candidate in Uttar Pradesh. In 1996 he found support from the BJP -- no doubt, because of his old association with Atal Bihari Vajpayee -- for his candidature from Ballia.
After V P Singh's government collapsed when the BJP withdrew support to it, Chandra Shekhar became prime minister in November 1991. He resigned abruptly in March 1991 when Congressmen accused his government of placing Rajiv Gandhi's home under surveillance. He was the caretaker prime minister when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
He still believes he can be a consensus candidate for the prime ministership in the event of a hung Parliament.
P V Narasimha Rao
Prime minister between 1991 and 1996. The last time people saw him campaign for the Congress was during the 1996 general election, in which the party was badly defeated. After his government lost the election he was forced to give up the reins of the Congress. Since then, Rao has been confined to his Maulana Azad Road home in New Delhi, writing books -- his novel The Insider remains one of the nation's best-sellers; a sequel is eagerly awaited -- and poetry.
His home is just walking distance away from the All India Congress Committee headquarters and the home of party president Sonia Gandhi. The cases that tainted his image -- the JMM bribery case and the Lakhubhai Pathak case -- have concluded; he was absolved of any wrongdoing, so there was no legal basis for the Congress leadership keeping him out of the fray. A number of leaders from Rao's home state of Andhra Pradesh requested Sonia to nominate the former prime minister to contest the election, but the request was turned down.
That Rao, 83 this June 28, was the architect of India's economic reforms is forgotten. Wherever she goes, Sonia credits the Congress with the reforms, but conveniently forgets the former prime minister.
"Rao has exited from politics because the Congress ignored him completely," says a party leader who was once close to the former PM. "So there was no question of the high command asking Rao to get involved in this election."
H D Deve Gowda
Deve Gowda is perhaps the most politically active former premier these days. When he was in the hot seat for some 10 months in 1996-1997, he called himself 'the prime minister of India's farmers.'
These days Deve Gowda, who heads the Janata Dal-Secular, is confined to his home state, Karnataka. Polling in the Kanakapura Lok Sabha constituency, from where he contested, was over in the first phase on April 20. He was also busy campaigning for his two sons -- Kumaraswamy and Revanna -- who contested the assembly election.
Deve Gowda, 71 on May 18, believes his Janata Dal-S can play a key role in the event that no party wins a majority in the Karnataka assembly election.
This former prime minister, we dare say, may still want to become chief minister. Deve Gowda's ambitions are clearly limited to Karnataka. When I K Gujral, his successor as prime minister, invited him to a meeting of former premiers to discuss the Ayodhya issue two months ago, he declined, citing political preoccupation in Karnataka.
I K Gujral
Gujral considers April 21, 1997 as his greatest day in politics. It was on that day he was sworn in as India's 12th prime minister.
Though his rule lasted just 11 months, Gujral -- the dark horse who won the prime ministerial race after Deve Gowda resigned -- believes his 'theory of friendship between India and Pakistan' led to the current good relations between the two countries.
Gujral has campaigned for his son Naresh, who is contesting from Jalandhar on an Akali Dal ticket this election. "I have been to Jalandhar a number of times to help out my son. That has been my only political outing after a long time," he says.
These days Gujral, who will be 85 on December 4, is busy with his books at his Janpath home in New Delhi. He often writes articles for newspapers and magazines. "I am watching this election very keenly," he says.
Three years ago, he floated the idea of an exclusive club of former prime ministers. It was meant to discuss ideas and draft possible solutions on pressing national issues like Ayodhya and Kashmir. Gujral recalls the ex-premiers met a few times.
But the concept appears to have petered out.
Gujral continues to be active on the India-Pakistan front. He meets experts, intellectuals and diplomats, discussing ways and means to what he says could "help end the feeling of alienation in Jammu and Kashmir."
Image: Rahil Shaikh