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|February 17, 1998|
The race could well be between dark horses
Fame comes in queer ways. Who could have imagined hearing magazine vendors in New Delhi's Khan Market or in Colaba, Bombay, talking of a man from Hardanahalli? So they did, I assure you, when Hardanahalli Deve Gowda emerged out of the blue to wrest the crown of India. The man with thirteen heads!
The latest Newsweek puts Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the forerunner for the crown. Most opinion polls say so too. So will the golden Mont Blanc come out at Rashtrapati Bhavan again? Well, I wouldn't bet my last shirt on it.
I'd still take a look at the most likely ones in the race, though there are so many of them that it is quite a menagerie. Even so, to begin with the remotest possibility, I would once again start off with Hardanhalli! He has never given up hope of winning back the crown, and I really like that.
One of the first questions one remembers being asked soon after Deve Gowda became prime minister was: 'Does a PM have to know what CTBT is?' It was a veteran MP who had asked the question, and for a moment I could not make out what he was talking about. It had taken me a while to understand what he was getting at: the prime minister did not seem to have the foggiest idea what CTBT was all about when he first encountered that abbreviation.
But the question arose: does a PM have to be a know-all? If so, why would he need so many wise ministers and mandarins to help him? Not a very fair question to ask, I had decided. 'Give the new man a little time,' I had said. Wasn't Deve Gowda himself saying all the time what a long way he had come -- from a petty PWD contractor to the country's top job?
Sure enough he would pick up, one thought, if he only tried. And could anyone say he was not trying? He was sleeping so little that he was falling off to sleep at quite the wrong places, at the wrong time. There was the story in a tabloid on the growing problem of sleeping: 'Sleepless in the Capital', screamed the headline and atop it, by way of illustration, was a picture of Prime Minister Deve Gowda snoozing away at a public meeting.
One had given full marks to the man from Hassan. The picture only showed how hard he was trying to be the prime minister of a problem-ridden country. One had thought the friend sitting beside him, the Marxist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet, ought to have been more sympathetic to the man instead of smiling so sardonically. Which PM before him had so many masters to serve? And such bizarre men at that -- from Laloo to Surjeet to Ram Vilas to Mulayam to god knows who!
There was, of course, first the Sahib P V Narasimha Rao, to be kept happy, for not only was the entire Deve Gowda circus dependent on the old man's goodwill but there was also the personal gratitude he had to show to his former 'guru'. Without the blessings of the wily old fox, Hardanhalli could never have become prime minister.
Poor Deve Gowda may want to be the prime minister again, for the job provides such great foreign junkets for the whole Deve Gowda clan, but does he remember how he was forever on the razor's edge? Or did he enjoy it? One can see how frustrated a man Deve Gowda must be.
He had been chief minister of Karnataka, and even as the prime minister he could rarely be anything but the 'prime minister of Karnataka', and eventually he fell between two stools -- lost both the state and the Centre. But hope springs eternal in the human breast. If Deve Gowda aspires to be PM again, who can stop him from aspiring? Except that he may have to go on aspiring till the cows come home.
From the 2 per cent Deve Gowda let's move on to the 4 per cent bhadralokof West Bengal, Jyoti Basu. The percentage represents his chances of becoming India's prime minister, as per one of the opinion polls in my favourite Indian weekly, Outlook. How the Marxist-bhadralok must be gnashing his teeth and scoffing at the audacity of those pollsters, but that's about all he can do. For two years now he has been licking his wounds, inflicted by his own party.
Can he ever forget the 'historical blunder' that the CPI-M Politburo committed by denying him the crown that had come to him on a platter? The pain of it had welled up much after the chance of a lifetime had come and gone, and it had happened, one imagines, only because of the rapport that the young lady biographer had established with the chief minister. How easily the hardest of old nuts can crack open when they are charmed!
To be fair to Basu, he certainly deserved to be prime minister, except that he always seemed to be the right man in the wrong party. That's often said of Atal Bihari Vajpayee too, but of course he counters it violently, which in a way shows how much it affects him.
Jyoti Basu is a veteran Marxist, but you have to see him, say, at his birthday bash at the glitzy Ritz Hotel in London, surrounded by the glitterati of the business and diplomatic world, the tables and carpets lost under heaps of flower, the hushed talk interspersed by the tinkle of glasses, the sparkling champagne...
A Bengali bhadralok to his finger tips, there was behind him the long memories of Cambridge, where he had been a contemporary of the then charming daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. They had even sailed on the same ship. Old memories perhaps never faded, and even through his frenetic state-Centre war in the early eighties. Basu never got bitter with the lady in 1, Safdarjang Road.
Basu was justified in feeling thwarted. No other politician in the country had earned the right to have the top job as he had. The highly politicised state of West Bengal has known only two great chief ministers -- the great Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy and the even more durable Jyoti Basu.
Dr Roy was a legendary figure, and nor just as a doctor, but as a chief minister. Even in those days when Nehru strode the scene like a colossus, he was one man who could hold his own, and even do some plain-speaking to 'Jawahar' when he thought fit. To his own ministers he was like Lenin to the lesser Bolsheviks.
The story goes that when Roy's ministers complained they had no work, he would look at them with dismay and say, "Bari diyechi, gari diyechi, chakri diyechi, aar ki chhao?" (I have given you a house, a car, a job, what else do you want?) Apocryphal though the story may sound, it is true, on good authority.
Basu is no less of an autocrat, and for him to be snubbed by the Politburo when it came to his becoming the prime minister was a bit too much. His anger, I must say, was well placed, and thanks to the lady biographer we have a slice of history which could have been lost forever.
What now? No doubt with the fiery Mamata Banerjee scoring same-side goals (in the Congress net, that is, to which she too actually belongs), the CPI-M might do even better than before. And it is not impossible that the United Front and the Congress would be forced into each other's arms just to keep the main enemy, the 'communalists', at bay. But would the Congress play second fiddle? Secondly, would the Politburo let the old man have the last laugh? Even if it does, the lady of 10 Janpath may not bother about history, or about old ties.
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