My most intimate experience with former prime minister HD Deve Gowda was in a rather incongruous setting: the PM’s aircraft travelling through the boondocks of eastern Uttar Pradesh. The year was 1996. Deve Gowda was campaigning in the UP elections: a Vokkaliga farm leader in the Hindi heartland, he was using his Sancho Panza and then Union Minister CM Ibrahim as translator.
Long speeches followed by equally lengthy translations: Deve Gowda on the campaign trail in UP was a cure for insomnia. As we wound up after a rather long and hot day, he glowered at me, “I know all you English-speaking journalists are laughing at me. I don’t care. I have been a legislator since 1962, grassroot politicians like me will always survive.” And then, the political Rip Van Winkle literally dozed off in the aircraft.
A little over a decade later, one must confess that Deve Gowda was probably right. Sure, he was a figure of derision for the country’s chattering classes: a somnolent Deve Gowda was a cartoonist’s delight. There are several anecdotes of how the ‘humble farmer’ would mumble his way to drowsiness during important meetings. But he was also, as events in the last week in Karnataka have proven, a great survivor. If the Indian team won the Twenty20 world cup, Deve Gowda has won round one in Karnataka’s unique version of Twenty20 politics. He has brazenly denied the BJP the prize of a southern state chief ministership for the first time after having completed his 20 months in power. The manipulative skills he demonstrated in the process were typical of when he was the pm: for a consummate neta like Deve Gowda, there are truly no permanent friends or enemies in politics.
That he became pm may rankle those who feel that his ascent to the post devalued the august institution. His choice was pure luck (no wonder Deve Gowda swears by his astrologer), plucked out of obscurity to the highest post only because the other contenders eliminated each other. And yet, Deve Gowda will go down in history as one of only two Indian pms (Charan Singh being the other) with well-defined rural roots, a consciously non-elite leader and, in his case, the first to perhaps have no connection with the Delhi durbar. In a sense, he was the first genuine regional satrap to become pm, a politician who derived his sense of power and importance, not from his proximity to the national leadership of his party but from his control over a particular state.
In 1996 though, Deve Gowda’s ten-month tenure was an aberration: he won out on the principle that the least deserving is often seen as the least threatening. He was a creature of a peculiar coalition arrangement in which neither the Congress nor the BJP exercised any direct influence. Instead, it was the (dis)United third front that was able to call the shots, thereby giving regional bosses like Deve Gowda a chance to exercise a disproportionate influence. Eleven years, and two BJP and one Congress government later, the wheel could well be coming full circle: leaders like Deve Gowda may once again be in a position to hold the balance of power at the national level. Only this time, the presence of regional bosses with rising aspirations isn’t an oddity, but a political reality.
As the mid-term election trumpet is sounded, the echo isn’t being heard gleefully in the corridors of the big national parties. Both the Congress and the BJP privately concede that they will struggle to get 150 Lok Sabha seats on their own (the BJP getting much less), leaving them well short of a majority. The Left is even more acutely aware that an election will further erode its double-digit numbers. Into this hazy, fragmented picture, enter the real noise-makers: the regional parties with leaders who are convinced that even a dozen seats in the next Lok Sabha will offer a guarantee of ministerships and more.
Deve Gowda’s Twenty20 brand of politics — where the battle for power becomes an exercise in rapid deal-making — is only symbolic of what can be expected in the next 12 months as and when elections take place: a brand of casino politics where principles are set aside, where every pound of flesh is extracted and very little is offered in return. The national party election rhetoric may be about nuclear nationalism and Ram Setu, the 20-20 political rhetoric is about placing a price tag on each MP.
Then, whether it’s a Karunanidhi or a Jayalalithaa, a Mamata or a Mayawati, even a Sharad Pawar, the guiding principle for 21st century regional satraps is to deal with the national parties as a relationship between equals, one where the national party can be virtually bullied into submission by the small ally. Karunanidhi, whose party, the DMK, has the singular distinction of serving in every cabinet bar one in the last decade, has proven that even with 16 MPs, he has the political weight to force the Centre to bend to his every whim. During the 1996 United Front government, Karunanidhi was one among an array of leaders. Today, he can justifiably claim first-among-equals status, simply because an enfeebled central government has been made dependent on his support.
Indeed, while the Congress weighs its options of projecting Rahul Gandhi and LK Advani prepares for a final shot at 7 Race Course Road, the real challenge in the next election could lie elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is apparent that the national parties are still to fully come to terms with the new dynamics. The manner in which the Congress has failed to forge alliances in UP is a sign that past glories continue to blur a vision for the present. The BJP’s failure to win power in Karnataka is at least partly due to the fact that its leadership took Deve Gowda for granted in the mistaken belief that the ageing leader had run out of options, obviously forgetting that a 24x7 politician never fades away.
The rise of the regional satrap is, in a sense, a testimony to the failure of the so-called ‘national’ leaders: those whose politics is not based on mass support or ideological rigour, but on straight deal-making in Lutyens bungalows. Take the case of Karnataka itself: in the last few years, Rajya Sabha memberships from the state have been auctioned to the highest bidder, with party loyalty or ideological commitment counting for little. In this moral vacuum, why should anyone be surprised if even the cm’s chair is being traded in the political marketplace?
A Mayawati might now take the logic of Twenty20 politics to another level. Unlike a Deve Gowda or a Karunanidhi, her numerical strength is likely to be much greater as is perhaps her ambition. Moreover, as a Dalit woman in power in India’s politically largest state, she recognises that no political formation can afford to ignore her. in the months ahead, she will deal with her rivals on her terms, one of which could include Kanshi Ram’s unfulfilled dream: the pm’s chair.
Maybe, it’s time to consider what Twenty20 politics could mean for the country’s polity with Mayawati playing kingmaker. Think about it: Mayawati agrees to a Manmohan Singh (or a Rahul Gandhi, or an Advani) becoming PM for two-and-a-half years only if she is given the first shot at the balance period. Bring on the political cheerleaders, the fun may be about to begin!
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN and IBN-7