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HVK Archives: Distance from Parliament, not from power

Distance from Parliament, not from power - The Asian Age

Sankar Ghosh ()
10 December 1996

Title : Distance from Parliament, not from power
Author : Sankar Ghosh
Publication : The Asian Age
Date : December 10, 1996

For no fault of its own, Calcutta has been denied the
honour and privilege of welcoming the Prime Minister for
a half day. Calcutta had suddenly been informed by New
Delhi last week that the Prime Minister planned to visit
the city to wish the ailing Mother Teresa a speedy recov-
ery, that he would go straight to the hospital from the
airport and return to the capital in the afternoon. The
Prime Minister's meeting with the Mother could not have
taken more than a few minutes, and it remained unclear
what he would do with the rest of his time in the city.
Lunch and siesta could not have kept him busy for hours.

Speculation on this score was put to rest as Doordarshan
announced within a few hours that the Prime Minister's
visit had been canceled. The morning papers did not cite
any official reason for the cancellation. Some papers
said that the Prime Minister's presence in the capital
was necessary for a vote in Parliament, while some others
said that a parliamentary committee meeting held him
back. The rest preferred to remember that silence was
golden.

In the matter of voting it is the Lok Sabha that counts.
Our Prime Minister is not a member of the Lok Sabha. His
presence in the House cannot therefore affect materially
the verdict of the Lok Sabha on crucial issues. Of
course, the question of propriety remains. The Prime
Minister is expected to stay put in the capital when
Parliament is in session. That is the tradition that
Jawaharlal Nehru had set up. The tradition has eroded
with time, some of Nehru's successors finding it diffi-
cult, to spend so many months in the year without romping
about the country and the world.

Mr Deve Gowda has already cast himself in the role of a
non-resident Prime Minister. He divides his time between
New Delhi and Bangalore. Hardly a week passes when he
does not visit the capital of his home state. The offi-
cials of the two governments are finding it increasingly
difficult to find a pretext for his going to Bangalore.
His weekly visits to Bangalore have raised many eyebrows
but the Prime Minister ignores them. This is understand-
able for nobody knows better than he that his political
bread is buttered in Bangalore. For even if the United
Front government manages to drag on its precarious exist-
ence, Mr Gowda's position as Prime Minister will be in
jeopardy if the Janata Dal loses its hold in Karnataka.

It seems that the voter in Karnataka is not prepared to
trust either the Congress or the Janata Dal permanently.
He is voting them to office alternately and the next turn
is of the Congress. Whether the Congress in its decimated
state will be the people's choice is a difficult question
but signs of the party desperately trying to regroup
itself in the state are unmistakable. The Prime Minis-
ter's own party, the Janata Dal has also been weakened by
the expulsion of his arch rival, Ramakrishna Hegde along
with his followers. The present chief minister of the
state belonged to the Hegde camp, though he did not
follow his leader out of the party. May be the lure of
office held him back. The Prime Minister may well feel

that the chief minister of Karnataka needs constant watch
lest he should succumb to the call of old loyalty.

That explains only partially his habit of keeping away
from the capital. The call of Karnataka may keep him
busy for a day or two, but there must be other reasons
for his staying away from New Delhi for the remaining
days of the week. The peasant son's dislike for the hot
seat could be assumed to be the reason for his apathy,
but that was six months ago. The glamour of office has
now caught up with him, and the family is spending mil-
lions to accompany him abroad and bask in his reflected
glory.

What prompted the Prime Minister to cancel his announced
half-day visit to Calcutta is not yet known. The Prime
Minister's office must have run out of credible excuses
for his being out of station almost permanently. Other-
wise Mother Teresa's illness from which she is steadily
recovering would not have been seized upon by the PMO as
grounds for his remaining away from the capital on a
working day, when both Houses of Parliament are in ses-
sion. The Prime Minister's concern and his good wishes
for the Mother could have been conveyed through vice
president K.R. Narayanan or governor Raghunath Reddy both
of whom called on Mother Teresa the day before. The rest
of the work could have been done by the Prime Minister's
faithful aide, C.M. Ibrahim, who would have seen to it
that the news was carried by Doordarshan and AIR in all
their bulletins. Even otherwise, not a single news bulle-
tin is broadcast by either, which does not contain an
announcement of some sort, by the Prime Minister. In
their order of priorities, the Prime Minister is the
first among equals, next comes C.M. Ibrahim.

The Prime Minister's mysterious cancellations of the
Calcutta trip stood him in good stead on Thursday, for
his habitual absence from the sessions of the House came
in for sharp criticism in the Lok Sabha. A section of the
Lok Sabha may not have been able to forgive and forget
the fact that Deve Gowda is the first Prime Minister of
the country who is not a member of the Lok Sabha. When he
sought election to the Rajya Sabha it had been stated
that he would be too busy with electioneering for the
United Front candidate,in Uttar Pradesh to do his own
electioneering had he sought entry into Parliament
through the Lok Sabha. It had been said at that time
that he was getting elected to the Rajya Sabha just to
beat the six-month dateline, and he would stand for the
Lok Sabha once he had got the UP Assembly election off
his chest. That election has been over for quite some
time and another election now seems to be knocking at the
door. If the Prime Minister wanted to emulate the exam-
ples of his predecessors-in-office and get elected to the
Lok Sabha, although the Constitution may not require it,
he had ample time for it.

He may have forgotten his promise, but some members of
the Lok Sabha have not. They imagine that Deve Gowda's
being a member of the Rajya Sabha has devalued the Lok
Sabha and struck at the primacy of the lower House

On top of it, the Prime Minister's habitual absence from
the sittings of the Lok Sabha has given an impression
that he does not attach to Parliament the importance that
it deserves. It is true that there has been a steady

decline of standards and Parliament is no longer the
sober institution that it once was. The declining stan-
dards of debate and the market-place atmosphere imported
in the august House is accompanied by a general lack of
interest in what is happening in the House. Even Prime
Ministers have been assailed by this indifference. Rajiv
Gandhi was not half as keen to attend the sittings of
Parliament as his grandfather or mother were. He might
have had a reason, though. In the closing years of his
five-year term the Opposition parties' one-point program-
me in Parliament was to denigrate him. The young man
that he was, Rajiv Gandhi sought to escape this litany of
abuses by staying away from Parliament. Nehru had to go
through the same experience after the Sino-Indian border
war, while Indira Gandhi faced a similar situation when
Morarji Desai and Jayaprakash Narayan joined hands to
pull down elected governments charging them with unre-
lieved corruption. They did not run away from Parliament
like Rajiv Gandhi did after them. But youth and experi-
ence cannot be expected to behave in the same fashion.

The much-maligned P.V. Narasimha Rao, brought up in the
old tradition, had tried to correct the mischief, but
after the electoral defeat of the Congress he became the
symbol of all that should not be done by a Prime Min-
ister. The present Prime Minister has no reason to stay
away from Parliament. He could have very well maintained
the tradition sought to be revived by Narasimha Rao. His
Prime Ministership depends on the support of the Congress
promised him by Narasimha Rao. If that support remains
unblemished despite the Narasimha Rao touch, there can be
no valid reason of his losing caste with the politically
pure if he follows Narsimha Rao in the matter of atten-
dance in Parliament. He has only to ensure that he does
not get entangled, even in the remotest way with any of
the unproven charges against the former Prime Minister.

What keeps Deve Gowda away from Parliament, why he avails
of the flimsiest pretext to avoid attending Parliament -
his plan to be in Calcutta for the hours Parliament would
have been in session on Thursday was one such pretext -
remains a mystery. Whether he had foreknowledge of the
row that may be created by his absence in the House, he
took a wise decision' in canceling at the last moment his
trip to pay respects to Mother Teresa. Had he not done
that he would have been ignoring state work of which the
Mother never approves.' The cancellation enabled him to
be present in the Lok Sabha where he was accused of
deliberately absenting himself from the sittings of
Parliament. The Prime Minister denied the charge, claim-
ing that he had the highest regard for Parliament.
Whether that regard will be reflected in future in his
staying put in New Delhi when Parliament is in session
and attending daily the sittings of parliament, remains
to be seen.

It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister had planned
to visit Calcutta without utilising the opportunity to
have a frank discussion with Jyoti Basu on matters not
strictly governmental. A meeting between the two has
already been fixed up in New Delhi and Mr Basu will
report to him the talks he had with the Bangladesh Prime
Minister in Dhaka. Even a short-term agreement on Ganga
waters will require the consent of West Bengal. Gone are
the days when the government at the Centre could take a
decision over Farakka without consulting the West Bengal

government. In these days of neo-federalism, the voices
of the states cannot be ignored. For the government at
the Centre is a sum total of the regional parties that
rule the states.

Deve Gowda's purpose could have been to discuss with Basu
a matter outside the official agenda. A crisis of con-
fidence is fast building in the UF, and it may overwhelm
the government any time in the few weeks remaining for
the presentation of the new financial year's budget. The
Prime Minister is reported to have cautioned his partymen
at the recent Suraj Kund meet that the government may
collapse any day and they should get ready for fresh
elections. At the root of this conflict is, the program-
me of economic reforms handed down to the UF government
by the previous Congress regime. If the government
deviates from this programme, the Congress will withdraw
its support from the government to bring it down. The
party is busy setting its house in order so that it may
face the election with a changed visage.

A severe storm is currently brewing over the proposed
entry of foreign insurance companies in the wholly na-
tionalised insurance sector. Finance minister Mr Chidam-
baram is keen on this step while the Leftist elements in
the UF are dead set against it. Mr Deve Gowda may not
have ideological inhibitions either way, but he knows
that there is no other means to attract foreign invest-
ments and retain the goodwill of the Bretton Woods twins.
This crisis of the UF could be a fit subject for private
discussion between the two, for Basu is a proven grand-
master in the art of ideological compromises.


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