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Why Sitaram Kesri despises H D Deve Gowda

George Iype in New Delhi

It was not familiarity that bred Congress president Sitaram Kesri's contempt for Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda. It was the absence of a courtesy visit, a telephone call or a word of greeting from the humble farmer that led Kesri to pull the rug from under his feet.

And Deve Gowda, unaware of the 82-year-old politician's injured feelings, flung salt into Kesri's wounds by doing little to deflect the Central Bureau of Investigation from investigating the assets disproportionate to his income case against the Congress leader and, worse, conceding Rajesh Pilot's request for an inquiry into the murder of Kesri's physician, Dr Surendra Tanwar.

"Deve Gowda behaved as if he was a chief minister in New Delhi. He resorted to cheap tactics to get continued Congress support,'' observes a Kesri loyalist.

Five days after Kesri withdrew support to the United Front government, many in the Congress recall how Kesri's anger towards Deve Gowda has been building up ever since he succeeded P V Narasimha Rao as party president last September.

Soon after the election in Uttar Pradesh threw up a hung assembly, Kesri went to Deve Gowda's 7, Race Course home to ask for the United Front's support in helping the Bahujan Samaj Party-Congress alliance form a government in Lucknow.

After meeting him for 10 minutes, the prime minister told Kesri that the UF steering committee would discuss the issue and that he would come over to Kesri's 7, Purana Qila home to inform him of the decision.

Deve Gowda never drove to Kesri's modest bungalow; instead, the Congress leader learnt from Front spokesperson Jaipal Reddy's media briefing that the UF had rejected his appeal.

''Kesri went into a rage, abusing Deve Gowda, threatening that he would bring the government down,'' recalls one of the Congress leader's associates.

Kesri's dislike for Deve Gowda grew after that episode. The Congress president felt the prime minister did not accord him enough respect, not only as leader of the party without whose support his government would not exist, but also as a senior politician.

Deve Gowda never bothered to mend fences with Kesri. Instead of interacting with Kesri, the premier resorted to politicking with other Congress leaders. He would often call on other Congress stalwarts -- K Karunkaran and Narasimha Rao to name two of them -- to explain the UF stand on critical issues.

Records at Karunakaran's Tughlak Road home reveal that Deve Gowda visited the Kerala politician eight times. In comparison, the prime minister visited Kesri's home only twice.

Ignored and neglected by Deve Gowda, Kesri's patience was exhausted, his anger slowly metamorphosed into hatred.

"It is true that Deve Gowda did not care to consult the Congress president on crucial issues. The prime minister would call on other senior Congress leaders ignoring Chacha (as Kesri is known in party circles)," says Congress Working Committee member Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Azad told Rediff On The NeT, 'the feeling that Deve Gowda was consulting his predecessor (Rao) irritated Kesriji.''

Another cause for ire: Deve Gowda visited Narasimha Rao at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences when the former premier was admitted there for minor eye surgery.

But when Kesri was bed-ridden with a viral fever in January, the prime minister did not bother to visit the patient.

Soon after, in February, Kesri refused to attend Deve Gowda's iftar party and the latter reciprocated with equal animosity.

Kesri's followers list a more serious slight: The Congress chief sent a high-level party delegation to Deve Gowda asking him to remove Uttar Pradesh Governor Romesh Bhandari last month. The prime minister promised to remove Bhandari within 24 hours Kesri waited for days, but nothing happened.

The real problem though was Kesri's feeling that Deve Gowda was doing nothing to keep the heat off him. The Congress president was repeatedly quizzed by CBI officers about accumulating assets disproportionate to his known sources of income and in January, Kesri finally snapped.

When CBI officers -- who, it must be said, were directed by the Delhi high court and not the prime minister's office -- met him to pursue their inquiries, he reportedly shouted at them and dared them to send him to Tihar jail.

"Deve Gowda directed the CBI and Enforcement Directorate to dig up several cases against Kesri and other party leaders,'' a Congress leader said on Friday. Congress sources said Kesri found the line of CBI inquiry humiliating. For instance, the agency wanted to know where he got Rs 100,000 to marry off his daughter

The case that worried Kesri most was the Dr Tanwar murder case Dr Tanwar, who was murdered in October 1993, was Kesri's personal physician.

Kesri's role in the Rs 35 million Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery scandal is also being investigated by the CBI since he was then the Congress treasurer.

Today, while the Congress and UF leaders are engaged in a war of nerves, the Kesri-triggered crisis has taught them a new political lesson -- coalition governments fall because of personal enmity too.

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