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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

How long will Deve Gowda last?

H D Deve Gowda 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 accession. 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 constituents regard it as their scared 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 CPI-M - has taken to complaining about everything at the slightest provocation. If this chorus of criticism continues then the CPI-M 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 Congressmen were bitterly disappointed. As the second-largest 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.

Vir Sanghvi Continued

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