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The arrogance of political dynasties

May 30, 2008 13:57 IST
In 1982 a newly-minted Congress general secretary arrived at Begumpet airport on a 'private' visit. Much to his ire, the rising star of the Congress-I was met by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister T Anjaiah, who greeted him with all the pomp he could command. The episode ended with the angry Congress leader publicly berating poor Anjaiah, who was in tears when the tirade ended.

The furious leader who gave vent to his rage in that dramatic fashion was a certain Rajiv Gandhi. All this was over a quarter of a century ago but to the best of my memory, none of this received much play in the Delhi newspapers just then. (It is now part of folklore of course.)

It did, however, create waves across Andhra Pradesh, where the insult to their chief minister was resented. An immediate result was that it served to crystallise certain nebulous political ambitions held by N T Rama Rao; within the year his Telugu Desam would sweep the Congress out of power with the clarion call of 'Telugu Atmagowravam' (Telugu self-respect).

It has been said of the Bourbons of France that they were a family who 'learned nothing and forgot nothing.' (This was the dynasty whose excesses precipitated the French Revolution.) You could, I suppose, say much the same of our home-grown Bourbons, the Nehru-Gandhis.

On May 7, the Congress organised a party rally in Tumkur, Sonia Gandhi being the chief speaker. S M Krishna too was present at the site, but you would have had to strain to get a glimpse of him. Why? Because he, a Fulbright scholar, a former chief minister of the state and lately governor of Maharashtra, was commanded to sit in the second row, behind Sonia Gandhi.

Do you think this insult went unnoticed? If so, please take a look at the assembly results. Specifically, at the Tumkur City and Tumkur Rural constituencies; the first was won by S Shivanna Sogadu and the second by B Suresh Gowda, both Bharatiya Janata Party candidates.

Rafiq Ahmed of the Congress lost the Tumkur City seat by fewer than 2,000 votes out of a total of 198,057 votes cast. Would it be fair to say that he paid the price for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's blind arrogance?

Please note that this was scarcely the only incident where Karnataka's Congress leaders were shown their place by the Nehru-Gandhi family. In March, Rahul Gandhi was in Dharwad as part of his pan-Indian 'road show,' talking to students. M Mallikarjun Kharge was publicly snubbed on the occasion, being asked to stay away from the Congress general secretary. (Which, you may recall, was the post held by his father 26 years ago on that dramatic day in Begumpet airport.)

Once again, please check the results of the assembly polls. The Dharwad, Hubli-Dharwad East, Hubli-Dharwad Central, and Hubli-Dharwad West seats are now all held by the BJP.

Mallikarjun Kharge was, like S M Krishna, being touted as a potential chief minister should the Congress win. He was, arguably, the most prominent Dalit leader from the party in Karnataka. When Congress spokespersons wonder aloud why the BJP did so spectacularly in reserved constituencies, would they care to look at how the party treated its Dalit leaders?

What happened in Dharwad and later in Tumkur were minor, isolated incidents that drew little attention from the national media. But they were definitely noticed -- and resented -- by Karnataka's voters.

Not in significant numbers perhaps, but I will draw your attention to the result in the Dharwad assembly constituency where the BJP's margin of victory over the Congress was a mere 723 votes out of a total of 165,722 votes cast. (I hope the newly-elected Seema Ashok Masuti has the grace to send Rahul Gandhi a thank-you card!)

There are many reasons why the Bharatiya Janata Party did so well in Karnataka; rising prices and dipping internal security undoubtedly played a part as did the Congress's reluctance to name a potential chief minister. (S M Krishna and Mallikarjun Kharge were but two of something like six or seven whose hats were in the ring.) But I suspect, the arrogance of political dynasties also had a role.

Please note that the Nehru-Gandhis were not the only family to be slapped in the face by voters who were tired of being taken for granted. The Bangarappa clan are local satraps and the Deve Gowda family have provincial ambitions. Both have been humbled in their own strongholds. Yet, I repeat, the worst losers are those in the Congress's first family.

Karnataka was once a stronghold of the Congress-I. Defeated in Rae Bareli in 1977, Indira Gandhi found refuge in Chickmagalur. When Sonia Gandhi was making her first foray into electoral politics, she opted for Bellary as the safest of safe seats. C M Stephen was beaten by Atal Bihari Vajpayee from New Delhi in 1980; rather than risk standing from his native Kerala he contested a by-election from Gulbarga. Incidentally, the Congress MP who was asked to resign for Stephen was a certain Dharam Singh, a future chief minister of Karnataka.

I doubt if future generations of Congress leaders will ever again dare to take Karnataka's voters for granted. The majority of the assembly seats in the three Lok Sabha constituencies named above -- Chickmagalur, Bellary, and Gulbarga -- fell to BJP candidates in the 2008 polls.

A certain Congressman -- I refrain from naming him for obvious reasons -- put it to me very succinctly, "Our leaders treat us like bonded labour!" He pointed out that after winning Bellary, and then leaving it for one of the family seats in Uttar Pradesh, Sonia Gandhi hadn't set foot in the place for close to nine years. (I am not quite sure if that is true but what is important is that he was voicing a popular opinion.)

Incidentally, Sonia Gandhi's BJP opponent in Bellary all those years ago was none other than Sushma Swaraj. Rather than snap all links with Karnataka after 1999, the BJP leader actually nurtured her links with the state to the extent of learning Kannada. So much so that Sushma Swaraj was much in demand as a campaigner in the 2008 polls! What does that say of the relative importance in which the two major national parties hold Karnataka?

If there is one lesson that comes out loud and clear from Karnataka it would be: Respect the voters and respect the local leaders who represent them!

Tailpiece: I understand the Congress is now making much of the fact that there is not a single Muslim among the 110 newly-elected BJP MLAs in the Karnataka Assembly. I find the tokenism slightly silly, but running through the list of victorious candidates, may one ask how many women there are in the Congress ranks?

T V R Shenoy