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Taming A Rival

The leadership cracks down on Hegde, Gowda's arch enemy

Taming A Rival
BIHAR Chief Minister and Janata Dal President Laloo Prasad Yadav, willingly lent his shoulder to Prime Minister Deve Gowda and his supporters to fire their salvo against arch rival and former Karnataka chief minister R.K. Hegde—he was expelled from the party on June 13. Putting it in perspective, Laloo Yadav told Outlook that "despite having ignored his previous outbursts against the party, we could not have overlooked Hegde's latest acts of indiscipline and the fact that he was working against the Janata Dal leadership." 

The fact remains that the Gowda-Laloo duo—with V.P. Singh as friend, philosopher and guide—effectively comprises the party leadership today. Gowda definitely initiated the 'oust Hegde' campaign which succeeded a day after the United Front government won the trust vote. But the fact that Laloo Yadav and V.P. Singh have no love lost for Hegde, ensured that the die was cast the moment the move was launched.

Laloo has for long resented Hegde's stand on the JD's social justice plank, and the former Karnataka chief minister has been one of V.P. Singh's chief critics. Many in the JD—and even the UF—feel that Hegde, with his incessant sniping at the "dehati (rustic) Deve Gowda" and his support to the President's decision to invite the BJP to form the government over the "opportunistic UF-Congress alliance", got what was coming to him as he proved a bad loser.

But the speed at which Gowda and his supporters moved came as a surprise. Senior leaders, including Gowda, Laloo Yadav, Sha-rad Yadav, Biju Patnaik and C.M. Ibrahim went into a huddle at Bihar Bhawan late on June 12, and Laloo Yadav had his five-page expulsion order ready the next day. "My assessment was that Hegde had been mar-ginalised and would have no more than nuisance value even in Karnataka. And that Gowda would perhaps monitor his moves to prevent him springing a surprise. But not this," said a senior JD leader in Delhi.

What worries some partymen, however, is that Gowda not only bears a grudge and is not given to forgive easily, despite his humble man persona, but that he is singleminded when he gets an opportunity to demolish an opponent. And that he is letting a 'parochial' view tainted by caste rivalry—Hegde is a Lingayat while Gowda, a Vokkaligga—colour his vision. The fact that he has been seen to act in unseemly haste is one fall-out of the whole affair. The other has been that his ruthlessness has been manifest in extreme heavy-handedness. Even the NDTV news programme Tonight was blocked on June 14—it carried interviews with Hegde and Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel in which both leaders were critical of Gowda.

While there is near-unanimity within the JD that Hegde was "blinded" by his rivalry with Gowda and that he had gone too far this time, the party's action has led to some discord. A majority of leaders are glad that the party's Mandal line and its proponents have emerged on top and that Gowda has shown that he is no pushover—iron fist in velvet glove, et al. But there are others, including the likes of Sharad Yadav, Biju Patnaik and even I.K. Gujral, who were not too happy with the manner in which the decision was taken but fell in line.

It is perhaps on realising this that Hegde, at a press conference in Bangalore on June 15, did not once rule out a possible reconciliation. That his expulsion will have no major impact on the national party is evident. But in state politics as well, Hegde does not seem to command the support of even one-third of the 116 JD MLAs. While some Hegde supporters view his expulsion as an "opportunity to strike back", they admit that as things stand, it would be difficult to destabilise the Patel government. That there have been no resignations in support of Hegde—though five ministers have expressed regret—indicates that even his supporters do not want to take hasty steps.

Chief Minister Patel, who was authorised by his cabinet to talk to the central leadership to effect a rapprochement, cancelled his trip to Delhi, saying that "there was no meeting point between the leaders". Even if and when "reconciliation talks" are initiated, there is no telling which way they will go. According to Laloo Yadav, "if Hegde realises his mistakes and submits a written apology I may consider it." A clear upping of the ante, though the final word will obviously be Deve Gowda's. 

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