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A patriarch's predicament

Print edition : Feb 24, 2006 T+T-

H.D Deve Gowda at a press conference on January 27, announcing his resignation as JD(S) national president.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

FROM king-maker to the king's angry father in a span of 11 days has been a swift slide for former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda. Just a month ago, one could not imagine a JD(S) publicity poster anywhere in Karnataka without his life-size portrait occupying the central place. He was the supreme leader; no decision could be taken without his consent, no appointments could be made without his nod.

But no longer. And reflecting the changed situation are the latest publicity posters featuring JD(S) leaders: it is not Deve Gowda but his son H.D. Kumaraswamy whose life-size portraits adorn every poster, the former Prime Minister's image being relegated to the periphery.

Kumaraswamy's surprise decision - along with 42 of the party's 58 members of the Legislative Assembly - to align with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have triggered the decline in Deve Gowda's absolute authority in the JD(S)'s power echelons. But political pundits say that it had been coming for a long time. Deve Gowda's dictatorial attitude - which he justified on the grounds that he founded the party - and unwillingness to listen to anyone, including his own JD(S) Ministers and legislators, removed him from reality. Ministers, including Deputy Chief Minister M.P. Prakash, were made to wait if they wanted to meet him. It was, says a former JD(S) Minister, as if Deve Gowda was the Chief Minister running the coalition government.

The move to align with the BJP has thrown up searching questions regarding not only Deve Gowda's control over his party and son, but also the party's allegiance to secularism. Also, Deve Gowda is no longer seen as the party's only leader. Kumaraswamy certainly commands, at least for the present, the loyalty of a major section of it.

Party legislators gravitating towards Kumaraswamy was something that was bound to happen, since the JD(S) was an almost one-leader party. So-called senior leaders such as Prakash, P.G.R Sindhia and even M. Rajashekhara Murthy hardly have a mass base or the loyalty of legislators. Kumaraswamy filled this vacuum. Being Deve Gowda's son was an obvious advantage; but more than that, legislators were looking for a leader, someone they could pour out their hearts to. It happened to be Kumaraswamy, the rebellious but capable son who always made it known that he wanted to chart out his own political map.

In the view of many legislators, Deve Gowda may still be the supreme leader, a kind of father figure. But political expediency forced them to align with the BJP, a party that has been the antithesis of all that the JD(S) claims to be for. This move alone could kamikaze the JD(S) since it was always seen as a non-Congress, non-communal alternative, the ideal `Third Front'.

The radical shift from the party's stated secular ideology will also mean a setback to Deve Gowda's own political aspirations at the Centre. It is well known that he nurses ambitions to play a major role at the Centre, in an atmosphere in which regional powers such as Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal, Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal, M. Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party have been able to influence government formation and policy at the national level.

Deve Gowda knows better than anyone else that any dilution of his clout in the JD(S), and that too in his home State, will be a serious impediment to these objectives.

The differences between father and son over aligning with the BJP has opened a schism in the family. Informed sources say that most family members, Deve Gowda's wife Chennamma, sons H.D. Balakrishna Gowda and Dr. H.D. Ramesh, and daughters H.D. Anusuya and H.D. Shailaja have chosen to throw in their lot with the 46-year-old Kumaraswamy. The lone exception is Deve Gowda's second son H.D. Revanna, the Public Works and Energy Minister in the outgoing Dharam Singh government. In a bid to wean away Revanna, the Kumaraswamy-BJP combine has offered to let him keep his portfolio when it takes over the reins of government. Informed sources also told Frontline that ever since the crisis started, the family has been trying to get the patriarch to meet the rebel son and the MLAs owing allegiance to him.

But meeting between Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy and those between JD(S) legislators and the former Prime Minister failed to bring about any rapprochement. The patriarch's style of patronage, mixed with a little old-fashioned bullying and emotional outpouring, was ineffectual. Said a legislator: "Gowda might think that it was he who sent me to the Vidhana Soudha, but there were other factors and the fact that the JD(S) is seen as a Vokkaliga party that won me my seat. This is true of most of us." Sources close to Deve Gowda told Frontline that in his own estimate his influence had shrunk to hardly 40 constituencies.

Deve Gowda has oscillated between the absurd and the real with regard to Kumaraswamy's action. On one occasion, he called the day it happened as sadder than when he had to resign as Prime Minister. On another occasion he defended it saying that "he [Kumaraswamy] was saving the party from people who were trying to destabilise it".

Having few other cards to play, there is little else that Deve Gowda can do. He has announced his resignation as the JD(S) national president, but has not resigned either his parliamentary seat or the primary membership of the party. Politically embarrassed by his "own son", he is in an unenviable position. Expelling Kumaraswamy might jeopardise his son's political career; not doing so would hurt his own credentials. It is unlikely that he will ever be the same again politically. The feud between the father and the heir-apparent and the party's alliance with the BJP have at best damaged and weakened the JD(S), and at worst guaranteed the political suicide of a party that had won 59 (one MLA died later) seats in the 224-member Assembly.

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