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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

Nobody believes that Deve Gowda has misused the prime ministership for his own ends

Most people in politics had assumed that by now, Sitaram Kesri would have come close to toppling H D Deve Gowda. Though I had always reckoned that the moment of truth would come in the early summer (roughly, May-June), the Congress itself had put it about that Deve Gowda would not be prime minister by the time Parliament opened for its Budget session.

Now that those calculations have failed, this might be a good time to pose two key questions. One: Why couldn't Kesri topple the government according to his own schedule? And two: What happens next?

The first of these questions is not difficult to answer. To put it crudely, not only was Kesri in too much of a hurry but he also made the cardinal error of seeming too greedy.

Nobody seriously believes that Deve Gowda is prime ministerial material. He is merely a man who has got the job through an accident of history and is doing his best to cope. Sadly, his best isn't always enough and so, the public continues to regard him as a stop-gap prime minister.

But equally, nobody sees him as a bad person; as the sort of devious manipulator who wormed his way into the chair. Rightly or wrongly, he is perceived as morally neutral. And most people were willing to give him a chance.

The notion of moral neutrality is something that politicians never seem to grasp. And yet, the Indian public will never respect a prime minister who is morally negative or openly devious and manipulative or dishonest.

Take the case of Rajiv Gandhi. His mandate collapsed by his government but because he lost the moral battle. After the Bofors cover-up, people stopped trusting him and entertained doubts about his moral stature.

Much the same sort of thing happened with V P Singh. The Raja's supporters say the politically-aware classes drove him out of office because they feared that Mandal would adversely affect their interest. That is an over simplification. Mandal is now a part of the political agenda - much of what V P Singh proposed has already been done -- and the middle classes do not hate, say, Mulayam Singh Yadav, because he represents a pro-backward position.

V P Singh lost his old constituency only because he lost his halo of moral uprightness. No one believed that he was introducing the Mandal proposals because he cared about backward classes. Rather, the Indian public believed that he had suddenly turned pro-backward only to stay in office.

Once he was seen as a manipulator and a devious character who would do anything to get ahead, he ceased to seem prime ministerial and could not survive.

A more recent example is Narasimha Rao's. Like Deve Gowda, he got the job through an accident of history. Like Deve Gowda, he did his best. But unlike Deve Gowda, he grew in the job and earned the respect of the Indian people.

It was only after hawala -- in January 1996 -- when he was perceived as morally negative that he ceased to appear prime ministerial. Everybody believed that hawala was a stunt; a devious ploy to finish off his political rivals. And once that perception was fixed in people's minds, nobody believed he deserved to be prime minister. That is why today, several months after he stepped down, he is still so hated.

Unlike Rao, Deve Gowda has not grown into the role. That is why people believe that he won't survive in the long run. But nobody believes that he has misused the prime ministership for his own ends. And so, there is no rush to get rid of him.

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