April 13, 2001


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Beyond the Budget

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

The Tau of politics...

Devi Lal's demise last week, at the ripe old age of 86, did not inspire the media to recall the man's life and times, and more importantly, the few years that he was a major player on the political proscenium -- such a major player that he was a mere heart-beat away from the prime ministership. Long before the phrase Big Bull came to be coined by the media, Devi Lal was all that and more. Truly, those were the days, my friend...

The tale of how Vishwanath Pratap Singh brought down Rajiv Gandhi over the Bofors issue, after swearing undying loyalty to him once, is well chronicled. But not much is recalled of Devi Lal's own role in the campaign against Rajiv Gandhi.

Not many recall that it was Devi Lal in Haryana who first drove the nail into Gandhi's political coffin, in 1987, at a time when the nation was not yet fully out of the spell cast by the dashing pilot turned politician. Not many were willing to give this ageing Jat much of a chance; in fact, eyebrows soared when India Today 's opinion poll predicted that he would sweep the state in the assembly election. A cartoon in The Hindu summed it up neatly afterwards: it showed the Haryana buckle falling off Rajiv Gandhi's 'Hindi' belt...

Where and how he scored over the mighty Congress party was with his earthiness. At 72 years of age, he traversed the countryside, striking a chord with the villagers, and telling them of the administration's misrule.

Power took this man to New Delhi, but it didn't take the village out of him till the end. You could disagree with him violently, and often one did, but he was not to be ignored ever.

There have been other kisan leaders, before him like Chaudhary Charan Singh, and alongside him like Mahendra Singh Tikait in western Uttar Pradesh and Sharad Joshi in Maharashtra. But no one since has been able to convert this base into tangible political power.

For a suddenly jobless V P Singh freshly out of the Congress party, veterans like Devi Lal became the political rudder. If it is a marvel that a former Congressman could so easily take over the Opposition, part of that credit should go to leaders like Devi Lal who saw the limit to their own abilities, overcame this and agreed to propel the neo-convert ahead. On their own, V P Singh and his band of merry men would have won in only a handful of seats in UP, but the former prime minister had that extra something which made veterans like Devi Lal give him the headspace.

Thanks to its almost maniacal obsession with corruption, the media portrayed V P Singh as a messiah, and his anti-graft campaign, of which the Bofors deal became the fountainhead, had immense appeal over the middle class. This was a section that eluded the others, this was a section that Singh took away from Rajiv Gandhi, this is the section that decides who should be PM and who shouldn't, and Devi Lal was realistic enough to see that this section had gone with V P Singh.

Among all the veterans who aided him in his climb to the top -- like Basu for one, whose left became 'natural allies' for a man whose first Union Budget for Rajiv Gandhi was the very antithesis of what the left stood for -- Devi Lal it was who contributed the most. In fact, without Devi Lal by his side, V P Singh could never have become prime minister; and conversely, the latter's fall from grace began when he began to fall out with his deputy prime minister.

There were some in the Opposition at that time who would not be circumscribed by their inability. These were men, like Chandra Shekhar, who believed that the prime ministership of India was based on seniority, the number of years they had put in in the wilderness, waiting for Dame Luck to smile on them. To them, Singh was a Johnny come lately who was running away with the prize they had dreamt would be theirs, and Devi Lal neutralised the threat to Singh from these prima don't-knows.

In particular, the threat from Chandra Shekhar, another Thakur leader from Uttar Pradesh just like V P Singh. There was no way Shekhar could yield to an ex-Congressman replacing a Congressman as prime minister, and made his antipathy to V P Singh very clear. Finally came the hour that everyone was waiting for, none more eagerly than Shekhar who was waiting to see his foe cut to size.

For, in a case of backroom politics, Shekhar had struck a deal with Devi Lal to nominate him as prime minister, gambling on the fact that there was no living way that V P Singh would demur. But when politics is taken into backrooms, backstabbing becomes de rigueur. And unbeknownest to Shekhar, Devi Lal had decided to turn down the offer, and nominate V P Singh as prime minister instead. A piqued Shekhar could do little but walk out of the Janata Dal Parliamentary Party meet.

Thus it was, that Devi Lal made the government of 1989.

Alongside must also be told the story of how he unmade the same government in 1990, of which he was deputy prime minister.

The Constitution of India does not have a provision for DPM, the founding fathers wisely realising that there cannot be two swords in a scabbard. V P Singh's government, supported from the outside by both the left and the right, was flawed for another reason as well: a politically strong deputy prime minister. V P Singh realised early on the three threats to his government, and had been fashioning a strategy that would counter two of them -- the rampaging BJP and Devi Lal -- which came in the form of his government's acceptance of the Mandal Report.

Ultimately, when the National Front government fell, everyone had learnt their lesson. V P Singh, who mercifully bid adieu to active politics. Devi Lal, who became DPM in the government that succeeded and wisely stayed out of any federal configuration after that. The BJP, which decided never to propel anyone else at the Centre. The people, who perhaps realised since that when a politician promises to fight corruption, he means to fight it only till he wins political power, after that he will fight to stay in power...

These were lessons learnt in the one year that Tau played a prominent role in the central government, lessons learnt thanks in large measure to him, and lessons that won't be forgotten in a hurry.

Devi Lal's death: Big loss to farmers' community

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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