Congress

How Deve Gowda Learnt To Stop Worrying and Trust The Congress (Again)


New Delhi/Bengaluru — An emissary was chosen with one eye on the present, and one eye on the past.

A week before Karnataka went to polls, Sonia Gandhi asked veteran Communist Sitaram Yechury, to speak with HD Deve Gowda, the Janata Dal (Secular) patriarch, to reprise his role from June 1996, when Deve Gowda became Prime Minister to stall the rampaging Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

“Yechury reminded him of his secular front days in the 1990s, when all parties united behind Deve Gowda to keep the BJP out of power,” said a source close to both leaders. “Yechury, Sonia Gandhi, and Deve Gowda have always had a good equation.”

Deve Gowda had two conditions, three sources confirmed — his son HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister; and he would speak to Sonia, not Rahul. Negotiations gathered pace once the exit polls suggested a fractured mandate, and culminated Wednesday, with the JD(S) and Congress alliance.

“It was a classic Indian family saga,” a source with intimate knowledge of negotiations said wryly, “Sons would not speak to each other, so parents stepped in.”

The inside story of yesterday’s alliance, sourced from scores of interviews, offers clear lessons for 2019, as the Congress and regional parties seek to halt the BJP juggernaut:

  • The Congress will lead from behind.
  • Sonia, not Rahul Gandhi, will orchestrate negotiations;
  • A national front will emerge from post-poll alliances, based on pre-poll adjustments.

“The regional parties are clear,” an opposition leader said. “If the Congress doesn’t get a majority on its own, others will only support them if they get the top job in return.”

Senior Congress leader and strategist Ghulam Nabi Azad met with a Delhi representative of the JD(S), Danish Ali, known to be the “eyes and ears” of the leader, and suggested talks.

Old hands on deck

While old party hands in the Congress and the JD(S) had considered a post-election alliance well before polls, the possibility receded during the campaign when Rahul Gandhi repeatedly insinuated that the JD(S) had a tacit understanding with the BJP.

This feeling was widespread amongst Rahul Gandhi’s circle; JD(S) cadres, in the meantime, were livid as they felt Rahul’s allegations cost them seats by depriving them of Muslim votes in their strongholds in south Karnataka.

As the possibility of a fractured verdict loomed, Sonia Gandhi activated her wide network: Senior Congress leader and strategist Ghulam Nabi Azad met with a Delhi representative of the JD(S), Danish Ali, known to be the “eyes and ears” of the leader, and suggested talks.

The CPI(M)’s Yechury, in the meantime, had emerged victorious from an internal party battle over the Communist party line towards the Congress. Yechury, who had argued for closer cooperation and won, was asked to mollify H.D. Deve Gowda.

Sources said Deve Gowda reminded Yechury of the Congress’s “whimsical” role in coalition governments, particularly when his Prime Ministership was toppled after only a year in power, and sought a categorical assurance that a coalition in Karnataka would last its full term.

Sources close to Rahul Gandhi agreed that Sonia Gandhi was the “architect” of the plan, but said Rahul met with Ahmed Patel, Azad and Ashok Gehlot, before they left for Bengaluru, with instructions to keep the BJP out of Karnataka at all costs.

The Congress’s role, in each state, will likely be a reprisal of its role in Karnataka, where it will have to check its ambition to prop up a numerically smaller partner.

United Front Redux?

“There is no way a national pre-poll alliance will succeed in stopping the BJP,” said a senior leader, involved in discussions. “There have to be region specific adjustments that could result in a post-poll alliance.”

The first anti-BJP front in 1996 with Deve Gowda as PM, the leader pointed out, was formed after the elections that followed the collapse of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s thirteen-day BJP government. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2004 was a consequence of a post-poll alliance as well.

“In Uttar Pradesh, any adjustment would have to consider the supremacy of the BSP-SP alliance, in Bihar – maybe the RJD shall take the lead,” the leader continued.

The Congress’s role, in each state, will likely be a reprisal of its role in Karnataka, where it will have to check its ambition to prop up a numerically smaller partner.

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